“Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” – Doris Day, 1956.
It was one of those conversations for which I don’t remember the context, originating most likely in a typical child’s naive question about the way of the world. The location was my grandfather’s cottage on Lake Muskoka, the hard sun of late afternoon stippling the crests of the waves rolling past the dock. I was wet and cold and sitting on a bench set back from the shoreline, a towel draped over my shoulders. My grandmother sat next to me, and as a response to whatever it was I had asked, she offered the words of this song, welcoming the unknown future and suggesting that I should do the same. Much like her son – my father – Nana could be counted upon to fall into song given the slightest opportunity, and her advice was usually musical in its delivery. Got a problem? There’s a Gershwin number for that.
Everyone has memories of the scary grandmother’s house, the creaky place an hour’s drive away on a Sunday you would have preferred spending with your toys and television, whose front door was a horrifying portal into the rock-hard furniture and industrial strength ribbon candy of the 1940’s. Nana’s home, a more modern (for the time, anyway, with its decor more comfortably lodged in the 70’s and 80’s) apartment, was Carnegie Hall, a venue for the most revered performers of the golden age of American music, whether through the radio or the record player. Though her son’s tastes were rooted in rock & roll, Nana remained loyal to the music she’d grown up with, to timeless singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra. And there wasn’t a number of theirs whose words she didn’t know and couldn’t sing along with, matching them note for note, phrase for phrase. I recall my mother once complaining that she could never hear any music while Nana was in the room because Nana would always sing to it. While I might have groaned a few times and wondered why we couldn’t put on Duran Duran or any, you know, popular songs, whether I wanted it to or not Cole Porter was getting under my subconscious, Rodgers & Hart were bewitching and bothering my thought patterns and Harold Arlen had my soul on a string.
Thanks to Nana my family had somewhere to stay when we visited Disney World for the first time, the yellow-hued converted mobile home on Mallard Drive I mentioned a few posts ago. Her relationship with the man who would become my step-grandfather let us play in the waters of Ontario’s famous cottage country for a few weeks every summer. And wherever she was, this music would be playing. As grandparents go, Nana was quite “hip,” remaining current with events, technology and popular culture, but always scoring her life with the songs of a bygone era, as if keeping a foot anchored in traditions she knew were important to pass on, carrying the flame of Irving Berlin and Sammy Cahn into an era that had replaced nuance with brashness, complexity with synthesizers. Her old Hammond organ found its way to our house, and she was delighted when I figured out a way to depress the right tabs and program the correct beat in order to offer a passable rendition of “Begin the Beguine,” which she’d sing along to no matter how badly I messed up the rhythm. As I grew older, the tabs on the Hammond broke one by one and I found myself drawn to the drums instead, she still loved coming to hear me play, bundling up for frigid Santa Claus parades and enduring countless dreary high school band concerts. I think more than any other relative she appreciated my burgeoning musicality; so she should, given that she had a lot to do with helping to develop it, perhaps hoping somewhere in the back of her mind that I might go professional one day (alas). She certainly would have loved knowing that Tony Bennett liked and shared my review of his show late last year, given that the first time I heard “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was at the cottage on a warm summer night, with her providing live backing vocals.
It was telling that after she passed away suddenly in 1993 I stopped hearing that music for a long time. A couple of decades in there I have no memory of any of its kind. The door to that era was closed, and with it, a piece of me felt missing. I’d become addicted to those songs without even realizing it, craving the comfort that would return to mind and heart upon hearing the first couple of bars. When I first began dating the woman who would become my wife, and discovered that her favorite singer was Ella Fitzgerald, the door opened again. I realized only then how much I’d missed it, how much that “Nana music” had helped me understand the lasting value in the craft of a perfect couplet, a crisply executed bar of swing, and the passion that could be expressed with a singular voice and a stellar horn section. The title of this series has been “With a Song in My Heart,” and never was that sentiment truer of anyone than my grandmother, whose heart held a music collection to rival the Library of Congress. My wife and I have often joked that we wish life would more often erupt into spontaneous musical numbers; though she never said as much I suspect Nana held the same hope. Even in her sixties, she’d be the first one to grab a microphone and dance. Though she’s been gone now for over twenty years, one supposes it’s never too late to try to realize that dream. After all, whatever will be, will be.