Pearls of wisdom show up in unexpected places at unexpected times.
My mother and I went to a local personal care facility to say good-bye to my favorite aunt, Patria, before she moved to Florida.
She wasn’t in her room so we wandered to a community room where we heard a man strumming on a guitar, singing. Around him, on upholstered wing chairs and chintz sofas, was a collection of oldsters, most seated statues with slack jaws and vacant eyes. A few, including Aunt Pat, sat with tapping toes, bouncing shoulders, and lips moving with every word.
The singer, whose name I’ve forgotten, had several notebooks filled with lyrics and the year the songs made the top of the popular music charts. When he launched into, “I found my thrill on blueberry hill…” Aunt Pat turned to me and mouthed the words, “Saylors Lake,” with a sly smile.
My father grew up in Pen Argyl, a small town in Pennsylvania’s slate belt. His mother Nives was Patria’s best friend and Patria married Nives’s brother Raymond. I searched the Internet for details about the “Blueberry Hill” song and read that Fats Domino made it a rock and roll hit in 1956. But that date didn’t make sense with what I knew of Aunt Pat’s and Uncle Ray’s timeline—they were living in State College by then.
Then I found an article about swing music dance halls. On summer nights in the 1940s, it read, up to 3,000 people would jam the pavilion at Saylors Lake to listen to The Glenn Miller Orchestra and other Big Bands. (Quick geography lesson, Saylorsburg and Saylors Lake are just on the other side of Wind Gap, which butts up to, you guessed it, Pen Argyl.) The article confided that those who didn’t have tickets would park their cars nearby and listen to the music, or listen to the music and park, if you get my gist. The GMO’s version of “Blueberry Hill” was No. 1 in 1940. Now Aunt Pat’s whisper made sense.
Some weeks later, I had lunch with my mother and her college roommate who I’ll refer to as Trig, her college nickname. Trig was reminiscing about meeting my mother in 1947 and told me that my mother was so popular at Penn State that she was in the May Queen court. The conversation drifted to songs of youth. Trig sang a little ditty about farts. My mother answered back with “Around the corner and under a tree, the sergeant major said to me, ‘Who would marry you? I would like to know for every time I look at your face, it makes me want to go’ around the corner…” Trig echoed with a third song and my mom returned the favor with, “Who’s gonna marry Tom Mix?”
We discussed that it was odd they didn’t recognize each other’s songs. Maybe not so odd. Trig grew up in Roseto (on the other side of Pen Argyl) in the eastern part of the state, while my mother grew up in Braddock, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, in the western part of the state. The geography of slang and song, like soda and pop.
These two occasions simmered in my subconscious and were joined with a description I read somewhere that “music creates a soundtrack of our lives.” With that, I’ll leave you with one more mom-song story.
My sister Lisa took my mother to see the dementia doctor. The appointment went as appointments go, until my mother broke into song.
“I’ll be there to get you in a taxi, honey, better be ready ‘bout half past eight. Now baby, don’t be late, I wanna be there when the band starts playing…”
The doctor joined in.
Later he admitted to my sister he didn’t know all the words to the “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” the way my mother did. That part of her memory, he said, is just fine. Laurie Lynch