January 27, 2013
“How many songs do you have on that thing?” Alice asked about my iPad.
“Millions,” I said.
“How far back do they go?”
“How far back do you want to go?”
We were in the large, airy foyer of The Place. She’d picked out a couple of books from the supply brought in by library volunteers and stowed them away inside the seat of her walker. That mission accomplished, we sat close together on the sofa looking at youtube videos. We’d brought along the PockeTalker so she could hear.
It was my father’s birthday and also the anniversary of some very sad things in our family, and so I had packed up my iPad and my dog, stopped at Starbucks for some lemon cake and hot chocolate and headed to The Place to distract Alice. Brio alone probably could have done the trick, naturally happy soul that she is.
But it was a day weighted by layers of heaviness, and I felt I needed backup.
“You say I’m wrong about dancing,” Alice said, forgetting for a moment about songs. “That it didn’t start with the waltz like I say it did. Show me some old dancing on there, if you’re so smart.”
Every week she watches Dancing with the Stars, a program she loves to scorn. Her attitude is much the same as I described it in The View From Alice’s Chair. In this case, she calls me to insist those “nearly naked” people are doing it all wrong.
“That is not dancing,” she always says. “Your father and I danced. Lots of times people came right up to us and told us what beautiful dancers we were.”
In defense of the nearly naked dancers I can’t even see because it’s on yet another channel my TV set doesn’t receive thanks to the digital switchover, I’ve insisted there was dance before she and Roger met, and there is even more dance to come. Not to mention dance and the history of dance in other countries.
She grudgingly accepts the part about other countries and more dance to come, but that’s as far as she’ll go. Real dances are the waltz, the fox trot, the turkey trot, one-step, etc.
I searched around and, to my amazement (though not hers), found a youtube video of some Norwegians dancing the Minuet. Of course, they were modern-day Norwegians playing dress up, but I felt that, had we been in a courtroom, I would have won my case. And I’d used her own Old Country folk to prove my point.
“That’s square-dancing,” Alice scoffed, ignoring the costumes completely. “That’s not so great. We did that in high school.”
I gave up and we watched a couple waltzing. The woman wore a flowy number reminiscent of Alice’s graduation dress.
Mr. Fickle shuffled into the foyer wearing pants that were too short, an old winter jacket and his customary baseball cap. As a friend of mine once said when describing the evolving attire of his elderly father, “Once an older guy puts on one of those baseball caps, it never comes off.” My father’s was red. Mr. Fickle’s, which he has worn for the past three years, is blue. (I once wrote a blog post about it called As the Cap Turns.)
To Brio’s delight, Mr. Fickle sat down in a chair behind us. “I’m on my walk,” he said, nodding at Brio. She wagged a few more times at the word walk but when her new friend closed his eyes, she settled again at my feet.
“You have a nice rest, Howard,” Alice said and reached down to pet Brio and congratulate her on her good behavior. Alice and Mr. Fickle rarely flirt these days, but I wanted to congratulate her on remembering to call her old crush by his real name.
“Poor man,” she said in a voice loud enough to be heard from all the way over in the dining room, let alone from a chair right behind her. “He’s aged.”
Luckily, Mr. Fickle appeared to have dropped quite suddenly into a sound sleep.
We watched a very short video of a 102 year old woman dancing the electric slide.
“She’s five years older than I am,” Alice said.
“And yet,” I pointed out, “she has moved on from the waltz.”
She decided to return to songs. “Henry bought LaRue a phonograph when they were dating,” she said, referring to her sister LaRue and the man she eventually married. “And he gave her some Gene Austin records. Is Gene Austin on your Pad thing?”
We found several. “Look, there’s Ain’t She Sweet and Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue, and My Blue Heaven…” She pointed at the videos and giggled at the way they popped open when she tapped the screen.
She tried hard, but even with the mic of the PockeTalker pressed against the speaker on the iPad she could barely hear one of the k.d. lang songs she likes.
She looked over at the front door and shook her head.”Just think. She was here!”
“To see you.”
Her eyes got very wide. “Yes!”
Then she got a little confused and thought it was my sister’s birthday and wanted to try to listen to some songs Marla had liked. In fact, Marla’s birthday had come around earlier in the week. This was the anniversary of her death, which was one of the reasons I had come over.
Every January Alice and I can never quite prepare ourselves for all the emotional upheavals: Marla’s birthday, Bruce’s birthday, my father’s birthday. My father’s birthday is also the anniversary of Marla’s death and the anniversary of Alice’s sister Marie’s death, and it happened to be as well the very day that my father had gone into the hospital for the last time. January 30th will be the anniversary of Alice’s sister Pearl’s death. Earlier in the month, on the 2nd of January, came the anniversary of my brother Bruce’s death.
In Januarys past, Alice had tracked the separate events, but I was almost glad to see she was no longer trying so hard to keep all the sorrows straight.
“Let’s listen to Al Martino for Marla’s birthday,” she said. “Her favorite song.”
And so we listened.
“One night,” Alice said when the song was over, “your father and I were reading in the living room and we looked over at Marla. She was sitting in front of the television set entranced while she listened to this. She loved a lot of singers, but maybe he was her favorite.”
I could almost feel her sinking back into the past, so I searched for a video of a kitten in a box and quickly chose one out of thousands. She laughed all the way through the full four minutes of two black kittens trading places time and again – one in the box, the other out; the first one out, the other in, etc.
Then I introduced her to the fabulous Maru and she fell in love.
Mr. Fickle stood up, put on a pair of gloves, and walked out the front door. Alice looked at me. “What would we compare it to? k.d. lang coming here, walking right through that door?”
“What do you mean?”
“It was so huge, wasn’t it? So big. She came here! It’s like if Dolly Parton came.”
“Or Tammy Wynette,” I said. “Or Kitty Wells. Or June Carter. Or, well, most of all it was like k.d. lang coming.”
“Marla would have loved k.d. lang,” Alice said.
She looked around at the fireplace, the books. Marla was no longer alive when k.d. came onto the scene.
I convinced her to pick out one more book from The Place’s library shelves. Then we walked back to her apartment where she spotted her slice of lemon cake on the table. She was delighted. “Oh goodie! I’ll eat that later, after dinner.”
On even the worst of days, she can make the smallest moment shine. She may think she’s lucky to have met k.d. lang, but I think k.d. lang was quite fortunate to get to meet someone as strong and resilient as Alice. I knew when I left, though, she’d be all alone with thoughts and memories.
But she wanted to be alone. It was time for her rest up a bit and then get ready to go to the dining room.
On the way out the side door, I ran into Mr. Fickle again. He was still on his stroll around the building and the grounds. He nodded and smiled and we shivered together with the chill of the late afternoon.
I got into the car and sat for a while before driving away.
Alice is strong but still, despite all the music we’d listened to together – k.d. lang and Al Martino and Gene Austin and others – the song that circles around in my mind as I think about my mother through the month of January is this one: