Here’s a piece originally written for my Girls In The Basement column for Novelist’s Ink.
SINGING THE BLUES
One of the greatest blues songs of all time has to be the version of Summertime as sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. It starts out floating like chiffon on a soft wind, the orchestra, the band, the simple dance of it.
Then comes Ella. “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy,” she sings, and you know it wasn’t. Not for her. Not for anyone who sang that song, at that time and place.
But there’s that horn—that unbelievably perfect trumpet—and you can almost see a wide, slow, muddy river through a break in thick trees. The fish are jumping. The cotton is high. There’s a sheen of light over the land. It’s summertime. What does the rest matter?
That’s the whole point of blues, singing when the living isn’t easy. It’s been a season of loss for so many of us, personally, and on a much larger scale, for our nation and our planet.
Like it or not, our old world shattered with 9/11 and a lot of what has come after has been pretty grim. I was raised in a military town during Vietnam, and my sense of honor asks me to watch the PBS list of dead soldiers every night, but I’m not as brave as I’d like. Some days, some soldiers go unacknowledged by me. I’m sure they are acknowledged elsewhere, but it seems the least I can do for them in return for their dying. Look at their faces, their names, their home towns. Honor them.
Summertime, and the living is easy….
In my community, it’s been no easier. On an email list to which I’ve subscribed for a decade, there’s a season of personal trials. Death has trod through us, scooping up one and another and another. Trouble has been banging a gong, shattering the serenity.
And personally, I’m quite melancholy myself this sunny almost-summer morning. I can’t settle in to write the book so I’m here, writing about life and writing. It’s been another little dark stretch. Someone I’ve known for a long, long time died rather suddenly a few weeks ago. It was an anniversary of my aunt’s death. A few days later, it was my mother-in-law’s birthday, the first one without her, and I missed her all day. Someone I’ve known a long time has spots on his lungs.
Even smaller lesser things: my eldest son broke up with his girlfriend and I’ve been on the phone and on email with both of them, dealing with broken hearts. Ow. It’s so much harder to be a mother when they have broken hearts. What can you possibly say? It hurts like the dickens and there isn’t anything I can tell you that will make it feel better. As the mother of only sons, I’m always falling in love with the girlfriends, but this one was really close to my heart. I’ll miss her wretchedly.
My best friend of the past twenty five years, who now only lives 100 miles away, is moving to Atlanta. Thousands of miles away. I know I can visit her. I know it’s a good move for her and she’ll be happier living around her family.
Even lesser sad things: my other son wrecked his car. It’s going to be a total loss, though he can’t seem to get his mind around that idea yet. It’s sad that this great bargain is a loss now.
I need to wallow. That’s the truth. Wallow and whine and complain and moan and cry.
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy….
There is restlessness in me, too. That stirring of far-away-ness, the hunger for something….else. I’m living between two cities and can’t make up my mind which one I want, or if I want another one entirely. Maybe I’d like to go to Mexico City and study Spanish, because I said I was going to from the time I was twenty, and what’s stopping me (except I’d miss my dog desperately)?
The work seems hard these days. Not all of it—but the work that’s testing me is really testing me. I’m not as successful as I’d like in getting things on the page. Sometimes, I’m falling flat on my face and feel like Jane Fonda in the movie about Lillian Hellman, when she’s typing away on a table by a window, and gets so frustrated with the work that she stands up and shoves the entire typewriter out the window. (Wouldn’t it be so satisfying to do that sometimes?)
My grandmother is 85 and has been in and out of the hospital. She’s frail now, and never was before. I was visiting her at a therapeutic center (nursing home) where she had to go to get her strength back recently. My mother, her brother, and I were talking to the therapists and social workers, trying to navigate the maze of medical benefits, Medicare, insurance, and balance it with the care she desperately needs. It was a tiring day, and my grandmother was somewhat querulous, as I suppose she had a right to be. It wore her out. My mother was settling her with her magazines and pudding and bottle. My uncle and I were standing in the doorway, staying out of the way.
The hallway stretched in institutional blandness in either direction, and from a room not far away came the sound of a woman moaning. The door to the room across the way was open and I saw the bed, the light, the little television, the accoutrements of illness. I fell adrift in my thoughts, wishing there was a way to pinpoint the Last Good Day of Life Before the Great Decline so this would never have to be my future.
My uncle made a sound and I looked at him. He’s in his early fifties, still a handsome scoundrel who left behind a wild life to settle in with his children and wife, but he still has a chopped Harley, red, that’s his pride and joy.
He wiggled his nose, touched the corner of his eye and said, “The boys want my bike, so I guess I’ll just have to buy me a cheap Yamaha.”
I’m not brave enough to crash a bike into a wall, but my sister and I have a deal to stock pile drugs we can help each other take at the appropriate time.
Summertime…and the living is easy….
An hour or two earlier, my mother and I had to go across the street to the grocery store for a few supplies for Grandma. The clerk at the grocery store across the street from the nursing home was as kind as morning, chatting about the blouse my mother wore, and her earrings. I noticed that my mother looked strained, and the clerk had probably looked at the store of odd items that we were buying, and correctly surmised we were visiting someone in the nurs—oops, therapeutic center—and maybe it’s a grim task. She was so kind she made my heart ache, and there was something about her that made me think she’s always like that. Spreading joy to customers, day in, day out. I wonder how many people she sees in a day. Forty? Sixty? A hundred?
Who knows. It makes me dizzy to think of her little ripples of joy spreading through the summer afternoons, to a house in a little dark neighborhood, and a car that goes to a factory, or a call center, or the Walmart.
I suspect she has the secret, that grocery store clerk. It’s not the best of jobs, is it?— though in that blue collar city neighborhood, it probably beats a lot of others. She’s earning a good hourly wage, no doubt has health insurance and some other benefits, and although she has to be on her feet, it’s not physically demanding in ways that break a body when it gets to be a bit older.
But you don’t say at seven, “I want to be a grocery store clerk when I grow up.”
And yet, there she is, her sturdy self planted by the register, smiling and cheering up everyone who comes through her line. A single point of light setting other points alight all day long every day. How many times has that smile had a rippling effect on someone who might have taken the wrong turn later on that day? Taken a drink or picked a fight or run a red light in fury?
Summertime, and the living is easy….
In the basement of my creative self, where the younger girls are whining about how unfair it all is, and the rebel is out trying to pretend nothing hurts by whistling at boys, Roberta, the elder with her straight legs and deep bosom puts on a hat and looks at herself in the mirror. She applies plum lipstick, blots it with a tissue.
She says to me, “Child, how do you think you ever get to be wise? By living easy?”
“Take notes,” she says.
Oh, it hurts to think of those soldiers, their mothers. It’s killing me to think of them because I have two sons and all their friends, and most of those kids are that age and it’s terrible. Terrible. It’s always terrible. I hate it. It makes me cry.
And yet, there it is: war and soldiers and loss are always with us. The opposite of love is hate, or maybe fanaticism. The opposite of life is death. Eternal themes.
I have reached an age where I can’t duck the loss of the elderly ones I’ve loved. But loving means losing sometimes. How can you choose not to love them anyway?
Little things go wrong. A good car gets smashed, and the driver might learn to drive more carefully. A child’s heart is broken and s/he is tattooed, as we all were, by the piercing pain of first love.
Summertime….and there is dawn, when the light is soft and the air hasn’t yet heated up. The roses are heavy with buds, and the grass is long enough to hide a cat, and
life oozes into the world with a scent and headiness that’s almost unbearable. This is a world where people die, and bombs fall, and doctors are trying to save lives that slip away.
But it’s also a world where Ella can sing that song, and Louis can play that horn, and the sound is so perfect and clean and exquisite that your heart can break with the beauty of it.
Summertime…and there is a delphinium blooming higher than my head. Summertime…and there are my sons, lying in bed too late in the quiet mornings, and my dog snoring on the couch because he thinks I can’t see he jumped up there. Summertime…and there is my grandmother giggling over some joke she remembered my grandfather told her.
Singing the blues has always about making something beautiful out of sorrow or trial. The thing I sometimes forget is that without the trials, the blues would not exist at all. If not for the oppression, if not for the hungers, if not for the unfairness and the losses, there would be no Ella singing that song.
Summertime…..and the livin’ is easy….
It isn’t, and we all know it. It’s big and messy and full of tragedy. It’s hard to understand it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fabulous, just as it is.
Blues and all.