To exit Dad’s nursing home, visitors pass alongside the dining room. Between mealtimes, in the kitchen, whoever’s back there blares classic rock — a benefit of working where your customers are hard of hearing.
At some point, my sister or I noticed that the familiar rockers, songs we’d heard a thousand times apiece, take on depressing new meanings after a visit to our failing Dad and his demented, withered, wheelchair-bound hallway neighbors.
We’d text each other.
“Today was Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”
“As I was leaving this afternoon they were playing All in All It’s Just Another Brick in the Wall”
“Featured selection just now: Hurts So Good”
“On my way in the other day they played PYT (Pretty Young Thing), on the way out it was I Had the Time of My Life”
Of course, none of those songs mean a thing to Dad.
Even if he could hear them.
He and Mom both fall in that post-big-band/pre-rock-n-roll generation, when jukeboxes and now-collectible-radios played Vaughn Monroe, Rosemary Clooney, Patti Page, Perry Como.
Mom stayed open to popular music. She maintained at least an awareness of “big” current radio songs ’til fairly recently and developed an affection for the Eagles. In the mid-2000s, if she were telling a story about somebody whining or being unreasonable about something, she’d be likely to end with, “As the Eagles would say, ‘Get Over It.’”
Dad never did get over it — he resented music evolving past its mid-century levels of taste and decorum, although up through the early nineties, now and then, he’d go through a country phase. He’d ended up owning two farms, though he worked most of his life in downtown Indianapolis, and I think he enjoyed the ridiculous extremity of some of the concepts — like, You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille/Four hungry children and a crop in the field. But it was a patronizing affection, and he generally considered country stations “hillbilly music.”
Actually, as it happens, Mom’s Eagles’ tight harmonies and slick production are acknowledged as building blocks of the modern Nashville sound. “The Eagles had more to do with [today’s country music] than Hank, George Jones, and Merle,” Vince Gill told Rolling Stone in 2016 when Glenn Frey died.
Basically, “Take It Easy” is the ur-“Live Like You Were Dying,” sonically if not thematically.
Dad would have agreed with neither song’s thematic proposition. He didn’t have the slightest interest in sky-diving or rocky-mountain-climbing. Risky. You could hurt yourself. Also, sounded expensive. And who would count his cows when he was galivanting around?
Yet he definitely did not think one’s aim should be merely to take it easy—though, in fact, he did take it easy, frequently. It’s just that his approach to easy it-taking was passive: one-more-cup-of-coffee procrastination, or simple exhaustion-after-a-hot-day’s-burst-of-activity.
Not active pursuit of mellowness.
He’d rarely or never been mellow (to answer Olivia Newton-John’s mid-seventies crossover query).
He had a funny relationship with music.
Frequently, starting in the seventies, he mocked “modern music” by imitating a sardonic friend of his from work — this friend had a little routine he’d do, and Dad would re-create it for us by pretending to be a rock singer yelling off-key in a nasal, unpleasant voice: “My folks don’t understand me — [miming guitar] plink plank plunk — They won’t let me do my thing — plink plink plank plunk…” The plink-planks were spoken aloud in the same voice as the singing. He was still doing that little shtick up until recently.
It’s pretty well established that each generation manages to irritate previous generations with their music.
Even though I think of myself as omnivorous, musically, I find the sexual explicitness of most hip-hop jarring when my teens punch it up on their phones through the Sonos speaker in the living room while they’re doing homework. “Can you really do homework while you’re listening to th—” I almost finish saying before realizing I’m a Sunday Funnies Cartoon-Dad.
Then I go in the kitchen and my wife’s listening to it, too.
Maybe it’s just us men-folk who can’t keep up.
Dad’s great-uncle was a Chautauqua bandleader in the teens and twenties, on “the Redpath circuit.” We’ve been told many times how this fellow would stomp across the room and angrily switch off any radio playing big band swing, saying, “That isn’t music.” He had a cornet with a ruby mouthpiece and a theme song, which thrilled my Dad to hear an old-lady-relative of my Mom’s sing in the sixties — Mom’s old aunt said Dad’s uncle would tour through her small town in Missouri, on alternate years with John Phillips Sousa, and she seemed to swoon at the memory. “‘Oh yes, Will Maupin’s White Hussars,’” Dad imitated her saying in a coy old lady voice.
Was Mom’s aunt a Chautauqua teeny-bopper?
Mostly Dad remembered his great-uncle as an old man, after the Depression put an end to Chautauqua, when the erstwhile star Will Maupin was renting a room in Spencer, Indiana, and teaching music lessons — if you tapped your foot while playing your piece, Will would place his foot on yours to stop it. Moving with the music was unprofessional, unlearned, crude to a refined bandleader accustomed to the elevated standards of the educational entertainment principles of the Lyceum circuit, from which Chautauqua grew.
Before Chautauqua was done, Will’s nephew (Dad’s uncle) Lloyd Summers traveled with the band, as a singer. He had a beautiful tenor, we’re told. Occasionally he would be invited to sing Ave Maria in area Catholic churches, “and he’d stand in the back rubbing his Masonic ring the whole time,” Dad would say, as if Uncle Lloyd had really put one over on those Papists.
Ah, the Maupin men. Musical but intolerant, it seems.
Another family story from back then takes place at the home of Dad’s grandparents, Steve and Minnie (Maupin) Summers. At dinnertime, Minnie’s brother Will, that fading-Chautauqua-celebrity/ music-lesson-giver/ probably-mostly-a-pauper, was seated with everyone in the dining room. As the fun little story goes, Steve arrived and growled to no one in particular, “Just once, I’d like to sit down at my dinner table without a Maupin’s legs under it.”
Ah, Grandpa Summers. Tough but rude, it seems.
Good ol’ days.
When America was great! And sort of mean.
Because of Uncle Will’s celebrity, sometime in the fifties the town judge of Spencer gave Dad a whole bunch of presumably valuable 78-rpm Victrola records from the early 20th century. Back in the teens, the judge would order titles from Indianapolis and take the train up to get them. A record collector! I get that. Oh, man, look at the basement full of vinyl I’ve saved since high school. I’d have taken the train, too, to fetch a recording that would balance my well-curated shelf.
I get you, elderly town judge. I get you.
“Your people are musical,” said the judge, as he awarded Dad boxes of binder-like, alphabetized, multiple-paged “albums,” each sleeve holding a heavy black disc containing the squarest music in the world.
And yeah, Dad played clarinet in the high school band. So, sure. He was musical. That counted. But Uncle Will was really who the judge was thinking of.
Those 78s are kind of Will’s legacy.
For the rest of his life Dad hung onto the albums, buying a clunky old Victrola in the seventies to play them on.
Mom hated that darkly varnished, anachronistic room-hog. “The hulking thing never looked good in any room we put it in,” she says. “It was too huge. Ugh.”
When Dad was feeling nostalgic, or if we had visitors, he’d sort through the judge’s booty and find Enrico Caruso singing opera on a red-label RCA Victor record, or John McCormack the Irish tenor singing, “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” or “Indian Love Call” by Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. Truth: I’m typing all of this without Googling the names, not even the spelling of the names. It’s all drilled into me.
Dad really lit up, sifting the 78s.
He was so proud of them. He wanted us to be impressed, too. Also, he enjoyed being kind of kooky.
I was not immune. At an auction one time, I found a thick old 78 with “How You Gonna Keep ’Em Down On The Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” Early country music! Kind of. A novelty foxtrot about cosmopolitan-ized war vets abandoning country life, anyway, complete with mooing and clucking sound effects. I introduced it into an empty sleeve in the Victrola albums, but I think Dad was uncomfortable with that.
Wasn’t up to the judge’s standards of taste and decorum.
Probably wasn’t music, in Uncle Will’s ghost’s opinion.
It was a big deal to play one of the records. Dad fussed, and always removed whichever one we’d chosen from our hands. He’d show us how to wind the Victrola, cautious not to overwind and bust the spring like so many Victrolas — he was visibly horrified by the idea of a nation’s worth of talking machines carelessly overwound by ignorantly enthusiastic kids. [shudder] He’d make sure we knew which 78s were appropriate to play on the felted turntable, the ones that could withstand the thick, heavy needles of the Victrola as opposed to the smaller, more refined 78s of the thirties onward, which required a more nuanced, plugged-into-the-wall sort of playback device. He explained all of this every time.
So much of Dad’s identity was wrapped up in that Victrola.
When we had the estate auction of Mom and Dad’s stuff, it was hard for me to part with that unwieldy hulk — I think the ol’ music machine is still wrapped up in my letting-go process.
So I drove it to Michigan to live with our friends Mike and Annmarie.
Mike’s a trombonist who loves Sousa and the occasional piece of eccentric décor; he was charmed by Dad (as most people were) and had a free corner of his living room. I’m prepared for Annmarie to urge Mike to return the room-crowding Victrola at any time, but for now it’s in good hands.
Am I storing a proxy for my Dad in Ann Arbor? Am I struggling to release the Victrola for complicated father-son reasons that have to do with a collision of musical and family history, possibly more?
Is that too obvious? Too pat?
“Darrrrrrling, I am growing old/Silverrrrr threads among the gold,” Dad would sing in the same voice he used to imitate Aunt China, riding in his old red stepside pickup as we drove to the Owen County cabin he and Mom bought near his boyhood home in Spencer. He was approximating the Irish tenor from the Victrola records, to pass the time until we’d be stung by wasps opening the farm gate where they often nested.
Mayyyybe I’m holding onto the old record player as I work through my feelings.
Time to move on, huh.
Save a memory, shed the rest. Accept change, let the hulking thing go.
As the Eagles would say, “Get Over It.”