Saturday, June 17, 2017

Johnny Mathis, my parents, and me

  It has been said that time heals all wounds. I don't agree. The wounds remain. Time - the mind, protecting its sanity - covers them with some scar tissue and the pain lessens, but it is never gone. 
- Rose Kennedy

Marge, Bill and Bob. Without them, I would not be me.
Today, June 17, 2017, my mother would have turned 85 years old. We lost her way too soon, at age 56 in 1988. It was a loss that no child is ever prepared for even as an adult, and for us, it was a devastating blow. Only 4 months later we also the man who was father to my sisters, and stepfather to me as  my own father, Bill, died at age 23, when I was just 3 weeks old. Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays always are a time to pause and think about the ones who are no longer with us, and this weekend, in combining both my mother's birthday and Father's day, brought thoughts of all of them to me.

Tonight, quite by chance, I turned on the local PBS channel and found they were showing a concert featuring Johnny Mathis, who is celebrating 60+ years of performance. A nanosecond of the musical arrangement and I recognized the song and the artist. This was not just nostalgia from my babyhood — I am, myself, celebrating 60+ years of life — it was the soundtrack of my young life. His was the music my young mother listened to in widowed loneliness and then the music that created the bond between her and the new love that entered her life.

They were inseparable — Marge and Bob. My mother, a scant 4’10, my stepfather at 5’ 11” — they were easy to spot in a crowd. For me, their wedding was the greatest celebration I had ever been to, and while they were honeymooning, I proudly announced to everyone on the subway that “now I have a Daddy.” My mortified Aunt Stella (It was 1958 after all) found herself explaining to complete strangers about my father’s death when I was so young, and my mother’s remarriage.

Soon I was joined by two little sisters. We moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey, and in each home the huge “Hi-Fi” came with us, as well as the complete collection of Johnny Mathis albums. Christmas was not complete without his renditions. For sure there were other favorites, but Johnny was king.

As I grew, there were the Monkees, Simon & Garfunkel, Chicago, Boston and then all the disco hit makers like Donna Summer and KC & The Sunshine Band. Pop from the 60s and 70s provided the soundtrack for my teen and young adult years.

Yet, nothing would stop me in my tracks like hearing the strains of a Johnny Mathis song played in a restaurant or a store, or at a wedding. No one could beat me at “Name that Tune” when the first second of a Mathis song played. It was not just music I knew, it was music indelibly inscribed in the part of my brain where only the most precious things are stored.

It took a long time after 1988 to be able to hear Johnny sing without bursting into tears.  I also spent a lot of time crying to “The Living Years” by Mike and the Mechanics.  The pain was raw, and deep, compounded by the inescapable feeling that I had now lost 3 parents, all too young, and all leaving me with unanswered questions and unfinished business.

It is sixty-two years since the man who gave me life left me, twenty-nine since the man who raised me and the woman who loved them both, left.  Today, on my mother’s birthday, and the day before Father’s Day, I feel a deep sense of connection to all of them, a feeling of warmth and love. The feeling of loss is still there, but in listening to their music – no, listening to OUR music, I feel that time has curved in a giant arc; bringing me closer to the time we shared. Such is the power of memory, such is the power of love, such is the power of music.

Thank you, Johnny Mathis for being the cosmic force that brings my parents back to me.

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