In my ‘kid-mind’ my grandpa was the most amazing musician in the world. Born during the depression era to immigrant Irish and Bohemian parents he grew up in a Chicago City slum. I remember the stories he used to tell me about how his mother would drag the bedframes out into the ally, douse them in kerosine, and light them on fire to keep the bedbugs in check. There wasn’t even enough money for underpants let alone music lessons. But somehow the nine-year-old boy who had to walk the train tracks by himself to collect fallen bits of coal so his family wouldn’t freeze to death taught himself to play the guitar by ear. I once asked him to teach me to play and he replied, “Dani, if I knew how I learned to play I’d be more than happy to teach you. “ In reality, he only actually knew three chords and would get horribly tongue tied when more than three strangers were present, but he had an impeccable sense of rhythm and timing. He could combine those three chords into just about any song on the planet.
It was tradition in my grandparents’ house that once the enormous Bohemian-Italian meal had been eaten and everyone had helped to clear the table my grandpa would offer a musical intermission to buy us time to make room in our stomachs for dessert. We’d ‘hang down our heads and cry’ with Tom Dooley and ‘dance back-to-back and belly to belly’ in the Zombie Jamboree. We’d laugh at the plight of the man named Charlie that would never ever get off that train running on the MTA. We’d cry when Mariah failed to blow the man’s love to him or when we knew we had missed the train and could ‘hear the whistle blowing a hundred miles’. Then he’d butter up my grandma, who was busy at the stove making the sauce for the steamed pudding, with their love song: You Belong to my Heart. His play list wouldn’t be complete without a few dozen times through: ‘It went bop when it stopped, pop when it went, and whirr when it stood still’ as well as our favorite: Grandma’s Feather Bed. In unison we would offer up our own made-up refrains. After he sang that it took a whole bolt of cloth for the tick we’d chime in with ‘tick, tick’ and when the bed was described as being as soft as a downy chick all eleven of us would giggle and add ‘chick, chick’. We would have so much fun hours would go by where we would completely forget about dessert till a flaming pudding was set down in front of us a chorus of ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’, horribly off key of course, would begin.
By trade my grandfather was an electrician, but he dreamed of being a country singer and song writer. Like so many others, he never made it. I like to think that was because he was secretly content with his eleven grand kid fan club and didn’t feel the need for a larger entourage.
When I turned thirteen some of the older family members started to pass away and I learned the harsh life lesson that no one lives forever, no matter how much you love them. I cried when I realized that the same would go for my own beloved grandfather. That someday his wonderful voice would fall silent like all those that had come before him. That year I asked him for only one birthday gift- an audio recording of him singing. I never got it. He said he tried to record it, but something went wrong during the process and ruined the tape. He said you could barely hear the singing over a thumping noise. I said I understood even though I was crushed and thanked him for trying anyway and that was that. At least I could still hear him sing live afterall.
Then Alzheimer’s crept in and stole every single part of who he was bit by agonizing bit. At first it was little things like forgetting to write a check in the check book. Then one day he forgot that he had been unloading the dishwasher and blamed my grandma for the dishes left everywhere. Some moments were even a bit humorous like the time he told me that the hose was on and I figured out later that the reason he couldn’t get any water out was because he hadn’t attached it to the spigot. Or when he couldn’t remember how many glasses of Scotch he had drunk with my uncle and got hammered but then couldn’t remember why he was hung over the next day.
But then it got much, much worse. He stopped enjoying wood working in the garage. He no longer went for walks with his dog and cats. He wouldn’t even wake up in the morning to eat breakfast. He started getting angry and frustrated. He would get violent with my grandmother. He would call me and my cousins by our parents’ names. Worst of all he began to forget the words to his beloved songs!
Not satisfied to rob him of his mind alone the Alzheimer’s began to gnaw away at his body till he could no longer work his fingers to hold the chords. His arms could no longer support the weight of his beautiful guitar. I always felt that his soul died three full years before his body when the music couldn’t come out anymore.
The inevitable end came and I thoroughly mourned the fact that I would never hear his voice again till a random day when my aunt contacted me. She had found a reel-to-reel tape that I had to hear. It was him singing!! There he was singing all my favorite songs. Yes, there was a horrible ticking/thumping sound over it, but I didn’t care. She had found it! The tape he had recorded for me for my thirteenth birthday but never given me.
I stood there, alone, in the living room of my first home listening to the sound of his voice, young and strong and gentle and clear. The sweet voice of an Irish story teller. Something wet hit my hand. It was a tear. Here was a woman of twenty-seven, bawling like a baby. Thinking to myself, ‘well grandpa, better late than never.’ As I look back on it though, maybe be the gift hadn’t been late afterall, maybe it had arrived right on time.