Well, it’s still spring, though the bluebonnets are gone now.
Despite that, as I drove up to San Augustine on Friday I kept hearing Nanci Griffith’s “Gulf Coast Highway” in my head, especially the lines “And when he dies he says he’ll catch some blackbird’s wing/Then he will fly away to Heaven come some sweet bluebonnet spring.” That beautifully simple song of hers has been one of my favorites for a long time.
Music was in my mind a lot this week. One of the things Kay and I had to do was select music — for the memorial photo DVD that the funeral home created and for the funeral service itself. There were actually a few clear choices — hymns we grew up hearing Dad and Mother sing together around the house, harmonizing. Songs we sang when we went to church with Dad, the shape-notes of the Church of Christ hymnal.
We grew up hearing Mother and Dad sing a lot — they sang to us, with us, sacred music, popular music, country music. She had a lovely alto voice and he had a beautiful baritone. Many nights he sang me to sleep — with Jimmy Rodgers songs, songs like Gene Autry’s “Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” “Red River Valley” . . . more songs than I can list. We sang in the car when we traveled to Beaumont to my maternal grandmother’s house or to San Augustine to the farm. That’s what most people don’t know, that we sang together so much.
Music was an important part of our lives together and thus of planning Dad’s service. Selecting music wasn’t hard. On the DVD: “Precious Memories,” “I’ll Fly Away.” During the service: “I’ll Fly Away,” “Shall We Gather At the River,” “Trust and Obey,” “Blessed Assurance,” “In the Garden.” Each of those songs had some connection with Dad. He enjoyed listening to Alan Jackson’s “Precious Memories” album. The others are songs I have many memories of — of listening to Dad sing them in church, of his baritone in harmony, especially if he was singing with Mother, which he often did. “Shall We Gather at the River” was important to him; it was sung at his mother’s funeral. But while “In the Garden” was playing, my cousin Carolyn leaned over and whispered to me that she remembered that song. At our great-grandmother’s house in Beaumont, she remembered our grandmother playing the piano while Mother and Dad sang “In The Garden.”‘ And at the end of it, my mother immediately segued into “Tampico Bay” — that was Mother. Playful, humorous — and Dad loved that about her.
Music was just something we always shared.
All of us kids loved music. I’m the only one who took piano lessons — for 6 years. I still play at times. I have the piano that Mother and Dad bought when I was in fourth grade. My Aunt Jean, who taught piano, actually picked it out. I remember my mother’s mother sitting down and playing it every time she and Poppa came to visit us, though she didn’t read music. Mother had lots of albums, everything from pop music of the 1950s to sacred music. Dad had albums we bought him– Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson. He had lots of country music.
If you look at my house, you’ll find what I refer to as the “wall of vinyl.” My first music purchase was “Elvis’s Golden Hits.” The second: “Rick Is 21” — Ricky Nelson. You’ll find the Beatles, the Stones, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Steppenwolf, Willie Nelson. You’ll also find classical music. Then there are the CDs.
My grandmother Ella, Mother’s mother, taught me to dance to Cajun music the way most kids learn here: she put me on her feet and that’s how I learned. She’d put music on and dance around the house as she cleaned house. She loved to dance — indeed, when I lived in Beaumont in 1975, I was out one night with friends at a local honky-tonk in the boonies of the Golden Triangle area. Club 88. I was out on the dance floor and when I got back to our table, one of them asked who the old lady I’d bumped into and hugged was. “Be careful how you talk about my grandmother,” I answered. “No, seriously. Who was it?” he popped back. “My grandmother. Really.” And over she came, meeting everyone. She was 67 at the time, widowed, and out with friends. We still have her records too, from 78s to 45s, and her stereo cabinet.
Even a couple of days ago, a friend sent me a message of condolence, telling me he’d thought of a Lucinda Williams song, “Lake Charles” (appropriately enough) —
“Did an angel whisper in your ear
And hold you close and take away your fear
In those long last moments.”
Oddly enough, I replied, that very song had been rolling around in my head too. I found it very sweet that he thought of it, and very comforting.
That’s what music is for me, many times, as it is for many people, I think: comforting. I use music to calm me, to express my frustration or anger, to energize me for driving, to contemplate. I used it to grade for decades. Like literature, it serves a multitude of purposes in my life. I cannot imagine life without it.
I’ve been in Lake Charles for a couple of days now, with my pets and my house, sleeping in my bed and feeling both at home and at odds. Readjusting will take time, I know, and I’ll be back and forth to Egan. I’ll stay there at times too. There’s still business to take care of, a house to pack up and things to put into storage.
But tomorrow I’ll be on the road to San Augustine, to the farm, to pick up the plants we could’t fit into the car on Sunday. Then I’ll head to Kay’s to spend the night, because on Friday I’ll be there to watch her get her master’s degree. Dad knew she was getting it and was very proud of her. I want to applaud her and celebrate with her. So I’ll be packing some CDs and the iPod.
But today I’m here in my house, sitting at the dining room table that was Mother’s. Today, a bit over a week after Dad died, I am playing Nanci Griffith and Lucinda Williams songs, gently soothing me into my newest life, a journey without Dad’s physical presence, but not really without Dad.