Young at Heart

July 1985. I’m behind the counter of Farmhouse, Inc., an East Hampton design shop my husband opened with the man who would have been his partner had he not died. It’s Saturday night. We play Frank Sinatra music, always a draw.

It had all the markings of a good plan. Keith, my husband’s assistant in his NYC interior design business, wanted to open a design shop in East Hampton. He spent half his week in the city and the other half in Sag Harbor where he lived with his life partner, Peter, who had a thriving hair salon. The Hamptons had plenty of antiques shops but nothing focused on contemporary design. Lew liked the idea.

They found a space for rent, gave it a name: Farmhouse, Inc., a gallery of craft/tech. That was February 1985. Another person might rethink signing a lease with someone just diagnosed with HIV. But that other person would not have the spirit of the man I married. By springtime Keith had full-blown AIDS but was holding steady. We had a Memorial Day opening bash filled with friends (including local luminaries), and all the promise of a creative new venture.

 

If pictures truly are worth a thousand words, how’s this one for silliness and feeling young at heart? Please ignore the socks I’m wearing. It was a time. It was a look. Do not ignore the smile on the face of my dear friend, Regina, and me.

By early July Keith was gone.

Can’t say I would ever really fill Keith’s shoes, with all that he would have brought to the partnership but we gave it our best shot. The following July would find me very pregnant and overjoyed by my mother’s visit. Sara would be born a month later.

Why is this on my mind now?

Well first there’s the Frank Sinatra connection. Almost any song on the cassette we regularly played as customers browsed takes me back, but “Young at Heart” puts me there in a flash, the wistfulness of it, hand in hand with a melancholy undertone.

Then there’s the novel I would write, sparked by the need to make sense of a very troubling time. These were the early days of AIDS. Nobody knew what was really happening. Days felt shadowed with clouds.

More and more a sense of innocence lost took hold. All those years of sex/drugs/rock ‘n’ roll free love and now we have sex equated with death. What would the impact of that be on anyone coming of age in the ‘80s? I pictured a girl, a beloved uncle, the mysteries surrounding him. I pictured her born in the summer of ’69, coming of age in the ‘80s, a time when the mysteries give way to tragedy. How does a young person, in all her innocence, make sense of it all? How does she confront the ugliness of that thing we call homophobia?

How does she handle grief?

And, what if her own sexual awakening occurs while her uncle is dying?

There you have it, the seeds of Just like February, which will at last be published next April by Spark Press.

In the words of the young narrator’s quirky grandmother: “If you live long enough, you see everything.”

Speaking of which, here I am, another July years later, the kitchen renovation I recently wrote about brought to completion but forever holding all that’s contained in those moments defined by before and after.

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How we hear music

Today I listened, for the first time in too many years to count, to an album that can only be associated with my mother. She was in that nether world between living and dying. At the wheel of my little red (station) wagon, I’d pop that thing called a cassette into the tape player. The year was 1993, and this particular cassette (which I still have even if I have no device on which to listen to it) got me through the drive to and from the hospital.

Enter Apple Music. In a flash, an easy search, and the album was mine for the streaming. Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter. Special Guess Helen Merrill.

The beauty of an album is its cohesiveness—the segue from song to song. In the days before CD technology took over, fast forwarding to the song you most wanted to hear took a certain finesse, not always worth the effort. Call it comfort. Call it an excuse to let the tears flow after time spent touching, smiling (even making jokes), then planting a kiss on the cheek or forehead of my mother to remind her I had visited. But that trio of songs on Side A—You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to/My Funny Valentine/Here’s That Rainy Day—was all I needed.

Today it’s snowing, even if the mildness of our Northeast winter this year had us thinking/hoping we’d go right into spring after so much snow from just one blizzard disappeared unusually quickly. (Then again, it is February, the shortest month, the leap-year month, the one most riddled with metaphor, on the cusp of spring as it is.) snow feb 2016The gift of looking outside through a picture window as my thoughts lure me inside is not something I take for granted. The snowfall is winding down, more like dust particles or what meteorologists call snow showers. One of things I always relish is the enveloping silence snow holds. And the way it clings to the bark of a tree.   Until it’s gone.

She was a big fan of Billy Eckstine, which always suggested something to me re: her appreciation for voice. Sure, she had a thing for Sinatra, too, but Ol’ Blue Eyes encompasses something even bigger than his voice. An inscription at the beginning of David Lehman’s love song of sorts, Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World, says it all:

May you live to be a hundred,
And may the last voice you hear be mine. – FS

 I listen to his voice a lot, with an appreciation that has only grown over the years. If that Come_Dance_With_MeLP with a winking Sinatra (Come Dance With Me!) or the one with a harlequin Sinatrapainting on the cover, one tear dropping from Sinatra’s eye (Only the Lonely) didn’t captivate me as a young girl, there was always a movie (A Hole in the Head) giving me “High Hopes.”  Years later would come late nights in the East Hampton design shop that had me pinch-hitting for the friend/ partner my husband lost to AIDS, the open door and Sinatra on a summer night an invitation as good as it would get to get past window shopping.

But this isn’t about Sinatra per se, even if listening to him can still bring on the tears and the memories. It’s about chords that reach deep, simply by virtue of the music they make.

To my surprise, I did not get weepy at that trio of Billy Eckstine songs. It’s easy enough to chalk it up to time passed, and with it, the smoothing down of those jagged edges of memory. But maybe there’s something else at play as well. Yip Harburg, legendary lyricist who gave us “April in Paris” (not to mention all the songs in The Wizard of Oz) is credited with this quote in Lehman’s book:

Words make you think thoughts. Music makes you feel a feeling. But a song can make you feel a thought.

So here’s a thought: maybe music is my madeleine. And even if a song can fill me with a longing for something long gone, listening to it years later is as much a reflection on all that’s changed in my life as it is a reminder that, whatever visitations I get, there’s no real going home to a home no longer there.

Coda: Lo and behold, it turns out that music occupies a room of its own in our brains.  My neurological music room is a full one, for sure, and a mixed bag that surprises even me with the moments of serendipity it conjures.

 

 

 

Only the Lonely

Saturday night, 6 p.m. on the nose. Emma turns on the radio, her favorite show, her favorite station, always a Frank Sinatra number at the top of the playlist. She relishes the element of surprise, the musical finesse it takes to segue from torch songs to golden oldies that render her a teenager sunning on the beach. Nobody used sunblock back then. Sunburn let you know summer had arrived. Noxzema got you through the pain.

She sings along as she preps her dinner. Salmon (Wild Alaskan) to be broiled, broccoli (organic) simply steamed. Sips a little red wine to warm her heart. . . .

If the opening paragraphs are enough to entice you, here’s a link to the rest of this tongue-in-cheek story, featured on Akashic Books’ website.

Roy OrbisonRead it, enjoy (I hope), then come back and listen to the playlist it inspired  (or maybe, in that unconscious way a writer’s mind works, the playlist inspired the story), along with a video treat from a favorite CD, The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1.

 

 

TravelingWilburys