It came to me in the shower this morning. Itís not unusual for some piece of music to pop into my head immediately upon my awakening. But itís usually something Iíve heard in the past day or two. This was bizarre.
Naturally, I thought of our old dining room, when I was somewhere between four and eleven. A big coal-burning space heater in one corner, an ice box in the opposite corner, Momís sewing machine next to the front windows, a buffet along one wall, and our big table-model radio next to the kind of archway to the living room. In the middle of the room, of course, was the dining table. It had a drop leaf in the middle so we could make it bigger when company came to eat with us. Mom was famous for her tapioca pudding.
We often sat at the table to listen to the radio, the five of us (or four, when Dad was away on his intercity bus driving job). Sometimes Iíd read or draw pictures or do my homework. Occasionally weíd play 500 Rummy, or Hearts, while our favorite programs were on the radio. There was the Red Network and the Blue Network of the National Broadcasting Company, and the new one, the Columbia Broadcasting System. Every evening, there were music programs like the Telephone Hour, and dramas like I Love a Mystery or The Thin Man, and comedians like Jack Benny and Fred Allen. Those two had a rivalry going on for years, each of them making cracks about the other.
Two of our favorite programs were The Grand Ole Opry and Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Itís odd, when I think of it. Our family was from Cincinnati, which is right across the river from Kentucky, and we had some mild prejudices against Hillbillies. This was before World War Two, when thousands of people from the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee and farther south streamed north to work in the defense plants. People from across the river were just different. We made fun of the way they talked, but it wasnít all that different from the folks in rural parts of Ohio. So it seems odd, now, that we enjoyed their music, especially those programs.
Itís not that we were all that high-falutiní ourselves. Both of my parents made us out to be "just plain folks," although I think my dad was putting it on. His family seemed kinda stuffy sometimes. They never drank, while Momís relatives, who mostly lived in Dayton, always drank beer and laughed a lot. We kids ran barefoot all summer, and I guess I got pretty dirty. Once a neighbor of ours made a remark to me, something about Hillbillies, and I took it that he didnít want me playing with his kids. And when my mom transferred us kids to a different school, which was a lot closer but on the other side of Pleasant Run where the houses were newer, one of my teachers said I didnít belong there. But they didnít make us go back.
After a hard rain, the gutters on our street would fill up, and weíd race little boats along the curb to the sewer. Once, just after the city had tarred the street, we got all caked with tar, and my grandmother, who was visiting us, cleaned us with Crisco and sand. It didnít feel very good, which may have been the idea, or partly at least.
We rented our house from a plumber, and the old man who lived next door just across the alley didnít like us, either. Once he had the city come and mow our grass in the strip between the sidewalk and street, because we never did. Our house was only a few feet from the sidewalk, and that space was filled with big bushes that kept people from looking in our windows as they walked by.
I didnít think much about being poor, although I guess we were. Still, for a while we had a genuine tiger skin rug in our living room, that my granddad had brought back from India. The head was still on it, and it scared people when they came in the front door. And we didnít just listen to country music, as I said. We had a big Edison phonograph, with really thick records because the grooves went in and out instead of side to side like most records, and music by Schumann and Grieg. My mom said the Grieg was her favorite song. I think it was Solveigís song from Peer Gynt. Mom said it reminded her of her mother, who had died recently. That piece always reminds me of that house, too. I donít know how it was for my folks, having to worry about money all the time, but it was a good time for me. We stayed there almost eight yearsóthe longest we ever lived in one place.
We left there in 1939, sixty three years ago. What could have put that song in my head this morning, after all those years? Iím not surprised that I memorized the wordsóI sure heard them enough. I remember a lot of radio music from those days: Valse Trieste, by Sibelius, that was the theme for the radio play I Love a Mystery, and of course Rossiniís Overture to William Tell, which was the opening theme to The Lone Ranger. They played bits of Franz Lisztís Les Preludes during that program, too. I didnít know that at the time, but stumbled on it years later, listening to what I thought was unfamiliar music.
The neurophysiologists say that memories that we donít reinforce will slowly fade from our brains. The way to keep memories is to remember them every so often. I can verify that to some extent, because I have just certain memories of my very early childhood, and they come up for me once in a while. Like my third birthday party. But most of those days are gone.
I donít have any particular use for the words to the Grand Ole Opryís theme song. Iíd rather remember the name of the new fellow I met at the club last week. If itís music, Iíd rather remember the words to Paul Simonís Graceland or The Boy in the Bubble, which have meaning in my life now. Old love songs by Jerome Kern and Larry Hart are always fun to sing when Iím doing dishes or something. But I didnít learn them back on Laurel Avenue, before the cement in my head was fully set, like I did:
From out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse,
Donald Skiff, November 22, 2002