Last night we had a conversation with my mom on the Portal.
We talked for about half an hour, about vaccines and doctor bills and people who act like things are back to normal. You know, the typical pandemic banter. It was only after we seemed to have exhausted the usuals that my mom pulled out the sheet and said she was ready.
Ready? For what?
Ohhhh. It turns out Sarah had sent my mom a list of questions that she was going to use for an interview with her grandma. You see, my mom had gone to a camp for two summers when she was a teenager. It was run by some teachers from the school she attended in New York. Many years later, I had gone to the same camp for five summers. And many years after that, Sarah had gone to the same camp and then worked there as a counselor.
The camp has just turned 100, and some of the recent staffers wanted to do some historic interviews with old timers. Mom was ready. Sarah was not. She had hoped to set up a split screen Zoom production that she could record…but her grandma was ready now.
Mom: Well, one thing you asked was whether there were any contributions that I was proud of. There was one in particular. My friend and I wrote a song my first year. It was a take-off of a Gilbert and Sullivan song from Pinafore. We called it “It was a dark cold night at Whippoorwill.”
Sarah: Yes! I know that song.
Mom: Right. Well, when I went back to camp for one of those reunions, I mentioned that song that we wrote, and I was told that they still sing that song at camp. That’s really something that surprised me.
Sarah: Yes! We do sing it. In fact, when I found out that you wrote that, I told EVERYONE that my grandmother wrote that song. After that, every time we sang the song the entire camp turned and stared at me.
Mom: Well, I’m sure you could sing it better than I did.
Me: I’d pay big money to see you two sing a duet.
Mom: Well, I can’t carry a tune, but I could play it on my little keyboard.
Mom shuffles around the dining room table and stands over the piano. She already has the music out. In our conversation last week, she had told us that she was going to give the keyboard away. She really couldn’t play for fun anymore. Her fingers didn’t move easily and she was so out of practice that nothing sounded right. It felt more like work.
Now, standing at the keyboard, one hand supporting her weight, she tried to pick out the tune.
In my dream, she would start slowly and then gradually get the feel for the tune. She’d get on a roll, like I remember when I was little, and then Sarah, who has sung in choirs all her life and all the way through college, would join in. Soon the whole room would spin, the 300 miles and 75 years would disappear, and we’d suddenly find ourselves in the camp’s old red barn. The crowd would cheer as the lights came up. The stage would be set just like it had been in 1945.
The upright piano rolls across and stop at center stage. Mom, now a 15-year old camper, trots in from the left and seats herself at the keyboard. Sarah, also somehow 15, strolls in from the right. The crowd roars, as if, like me, they know both of them. Mom taps the first note, which the crowd immediately recognizes. Sarah, resting an elbow on the back of the piano looks toward Mom and smiles. Their eyes meet as they count the beats. Then, Sarah’s voice, clear and sweet, cuts through the noise, and a hush blankets the crowd. Now Mom joins in. It turns out she can carry a tune. As they come to the end of the first verse, Sarah waves for the camp to join in. Soon the entire barn is belting out “It Was A Dark Cold Night at Whippoorwill.” The roof gradually melts away, and all we see above us is the dark star-filled Adirondack sky.
But that’s not exactly what happened.
Mom: Sorry, that’s not right. Plink…plinky-plink. Plink, plink. It’s a strange tune and rhythm. Plink. I can’t really get this. Plunk. Sorry.
And Sarah, who has never relished solos, declined the invitation. I wondered, maybe if I hadn’t been there…
Sarah: Grandma, I wasn’t quite ready for this tonight. Can we set this up for next weekend?
Mom: Oh, sure.