My father had many 78s he no longer listened to. But I would listen, listen for long hours in our concrete Calgary basement, in our rumpus room in its various incarnations. "In The Cool Cool Cool Of The Evening." "Abba-Dabba Honeymoon." Then there was the one that went, "The music goes round and round, woe-oe-oe-oe, woe-oe, and it comes out here." Another where this man was talking, I figured it was funny to grown-ups because the grown-ups on the record were laughing, but now that I'm a grown-up and I play it over in my mind, I still don't get it. "It isn't raining inside tonight." So?
And I think it never occurred to me then, but it occurs to me now as I begin to see my father as a person with an existence
not dependent on my own, it occurs to me that he must have bought these at some time, some particular time, on some particular afternoon in Camrose, Alberta. Must have gone into a record store, or the record department at McLeod's more likely I suppose, gone in with a tune or two in his head that he'd heard on the radio in the taxi that he drove around Camrose Alberta, gone in with the tune in his head and taken money out of his wallet, money he'd been paid by the people who rode around in his cab, turned those bills into records he could take home and play whenever he liked.
"Across The Valley From The Alamo." "From Here To Eternity." Others I can't think of now, but when they come back to me, I'll remember every note and inflection.
* * * *
Why do I think he bought these when he was courting my mom? Or maybe before they met? But surely not after they were married, or not more than a year after they were married. Is it because I've seen my friends marry and stop buying music, stop making music, and perhaps my father was like my friends? Is there something about marrying that can take the song out of a boy?
* * * *
Or did he stop buying because, as I imagine, there wasn't spare money anymore for unnecessaries, once he moved away from Camrose and therefore away from his parents' home, rent to pay and bills and before long a baby, me.
One date I have in hand, fulcrum for those years: the date of my birth. As the birth of Christ is to all history, so the birth of me is to my history. January 11, 1957. Before that, not exactly prehistory, but certainly another era, strange and distant to me because I wasn't part of it. Strange and distant as the Old Testament.
But the time is come when I see Don and Agnes split off from me: they live and move and have their being independent of me. And so, as I grow up and grow fascinated with them, I grow curious about this time in particular, this Old Testament time, this almost prehistory that I listened to on scratchy 78s in concrete basements in Calgary in my childhood. With those discs I put my ear up to the wall of my birth and listen, and hear voices talking, but I can't quite make out the words.
* * * *
In some way, this is all part of why I bought my daughter Kate a garage sale record player, a suitcase model with fold-out speakers and all the blessed mechanics that drop records one at a time from the bottom of a stack, that move the arm back and forth to play one record after another. My delight in teaching her the arcane secrets, how to stack and start and stop and reject, how to select 78 or 45 or 33 1/3 or 16 - now there was an arcane speed - mysteries of no value except the aesthetic in these modern times.
Mysteries of no value except the practical to a four year old. For now she is her own. Now she can decide when she wants to entrance herself, she can decide which vinyl spells to cast and in what order. At four years of age, she and that
fascination machine can weave together spells of sound in the deep places of her forming heart.
This is her heritage. With this I endow her.
* * * *
I have a theory. The breezy, optimistic radio tunes are from the Camrose taxi era, the sophisticated feel of a small town boy doing a big city job and having his own money to spend just exactly as he liked, spring, falling in love, finding out he is his own man.
The movie soundtracks are from the Calgary basement suite era, a small town couple on their own, together, in a big city, bringing home souvenirs from romantic adventures together in lush movie palaces, The Grand, The Odeon, souvenirs from the South Pacific and the Wild West where Annie got her gun.
But then even the movie soundtracks fade away, except the one they buy for the kids, "Mary Poppins." And then it's only what the kids buy for them, "Strangers In The Night" and "Morningtown Ride" and "Little Arrows." And then it's only what the kids buy for themselves, "I Love You" by the People and "Alice Long (You Are Still My Favourite Girlfriend)" by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, then the Monkees then the Beatles then Cat Stevens and Jethro Tull and then they're gone to college, the kids and their music.
* * * *
But this isn't just about listening to music. It's about making music.
My little brother Curtis made his own music. Loved to play guitar and sing, lived to play guitar and sing. Brad made music too, I know, for a time had dreams of playing concerts, wrote at least one song on the piano. There was a time when I played whole days away at the piano.
All his sons made music. But Donny never did.
* * * *
And it's not just that his sons made music after him but he never did. It's also that his brothers made music before him and around him, but he never did.
Al made music, Keith made music, I think they even made money making music. In fact it's the main thing I remember about them, the music making.
Same with his big sisters: always there was that old piano in Mil's rec room, and always me being asked to play. I'd play the few tunes I could out of the Readers Digest book and Grandma would sit off in a comfortable chair while Mil and Doris and my cousin Jimmy and my dad and his aunt Bea if she was there would get in close where they could see the music and sing along. As if they needed to see the music to sing along. Maybe all they needed was to get in close.
And we would have to keep passing by the tunes I didn't know, maybe I would try and fumble through one here, one there, until eventually I could coax Mil or Bea to take my place at the keys.
Then we'd have real music. Music you could sing to, music you could dance to, octave bass and big chords, the melody banged out on top, it wasn't fancy and it wasn't art but it sure as heck was music.
* * * *
But I don't remember my father making a lot of it. Singing along, yes, but playing, no. And I don't remember his little brother making music either. And yet my sense of Grant is all about music.
Grant and I grew close, attracted as I was to his warmth and friendliness, the warmth and friendliness that he shares with my dad. But as much as Grant and I built our friendship around music, talking about jazz and jazz musicians and about what it was like to listen to jazz, late at night on the radio from faraway places or in little clubs in Europe, still I don't remember him being a music maker. Another thing he shares with my Dad.
The love of it runs through them all, Al and Keith and Mil most of all, but why did the making of it stop with my father?
Is there some pattern there, some progression, or is it more random than that?
* * * *
Because he had the music in him, my dad. Has. He whistles a lot, sings along when there's a song on the radio. Fell in love with bluegrass music, in fact with a particular bluegrass act, a family from Tennessee or somewhere who play together and travel together and have a bluegrass festival every year at their home in Tennessee or wherever that is that Dad dreams of going to, a vision of heaven where you stroll around days on end and listen to people just making music everywhere, just sitting right there outside their Winnebagos or wherever, fiddles and banjoes and guitars just a-goin' just wherever they feel like it.
But see, in his dream, or at least the part of it he speaks out loud, he's a listener, an appreciator, loving the music in the air all around him. But not a participant, not one of the makers. I don't see him seeing himself bowing that fiddle, practising those bluegrass licks on a banjo, those lightning scales on a guitar. No, he wanders among, meets the people who do. But the part of the dream that has the fiddle in his hands instead of just in his ears is buried deeper than I've ever heard spoken or hinted.
* * * *
I do remember him sitting at the piano Mom worked an extra job so we could have, him sitting there and picking out a melody on one or two occasions. I remember he showed me how to play "Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me" on the harmonica, must have been grade five or six. I remember a girlfriend I had, a singer, heard him singing in church, not a solo, don't get me wrong, not in the choir or anything like that, but just singing one of the hymns along with everybody else, and she who had only ever done what she could to keep me from singing, she said after that my dad had a wonderful voice, a clear and natural tenor.
And why do my eyes start to sting and these words in front of me blur when this comes back to me?
* * * *
Dad was a listener. Grew up a listener to music, with a mom and aunts and older brothers who all played in bands, dance bands with out of tune pianos and saxaphones and accordions in Elks Halls and Moose Halls on the Alberta prairie. I take the wedding anniversaries and family reunions that were held in those halls in my own childhood and project back twenty, thirty, forty years to the times when it was my Dad who was surrounded by the buzz of relatives and syrup-sweet harmonies and dancing.
I have a memory so early it seems more that it is my father's memory, his memory of something that happened to me or my memory of something that happened to him. I remember lying on a pile of coats, in among sleeping cousins and coats, all of us heaped together on the floor in a small room, a cloak room, a door shut between me and the music, voices, very late into the night, and I can't quite make out the words, drifting off to sleep to the music of the adults as they danced and played and ate and talked of grown up things in that other room, so near.