May 1, 2018
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Lisa Romeo's Starting with Goodbye is a thoughtful and moving memoir.
Story Circle Book Reviews wrote of the book:
"Our connections with those we love don’t always end with death. Any woman who has ever lost a father, any child who has ever lost a parent, anyone with a hole in her life that she keeps grieving should read this book. Romeo’s narrative and analysis illuminate some tough issues and her ideas will spark insights into your own relationships."
Perhaps it was inevitable, writing memoir that pivots on Dad (and includes Mom)—people born in the 1920’s, married in the 40’s, raising children until the late 70’s—that the soundtrack was yesteryear. A childhood spent scorning Dad’s “old fogey” music, which he loved to whistle along with; a young adulthood trying persuading him to give rock a chance. Also inevitable: my coming full circle, developing a profound affection for Dad’s favorites, for the tenderness of some bygone ballads, the hope and wistfulness I heard in others.
One frigid day in February 2007, four months after my father’s death, I spent hours fastened to a dining room chair, my computer tuned to YouTube, watching and listening to Frank Sinatra. I was not normally riveted to YouTube—using it then mostly to prove to my husband I was right about some contested lyrics to 1980’s rock tunes. That day I could not look away.
But why? Sure, I liked Sinatra. But I thought it was more likely triggered by having had lunch with my friend Chuck—or as the music world knows him, Charles L. Granata, author, producer, radio host, and highly respected Sinatra expert. I had told Chuck that my father once said one of Sinatra’s greatest assets was the way he moved his hands while performing.
Suddenly it came clear: I was procrastinating that day over completing a long essay about my father’s hands. Over the intervening years, which I spent writing a memoir about getting to know my father again after he passed, I would return again and again to his hands. The narrator I am in the book can scarcely bear to look at those hands—and she also cannot look away. To her, they are always moving in time to music.
“What a Wonderful World” – Louis Armstrong 1967 version
Everything about this recording reminds me of my father, who was sentimental about babies, deeply admired nature, and loved people watching. “The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky / Are also on the faces of people going by / I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do / They're really saying I love you.” Dad also often alluded to how life circled around—how his generation’s children would go on to take their rightful place: “I hear babies crying, I watch them grow. / They'll learn much more than I'll never know.”
Early in the book, when the family is still gathered at my mother’s house following Dad’s wake, I report that I’d heard this on the radio, calling it “Dad’s favorite song.” But Mom informs me I’m mistaken. There was so much dissonance that week, a tug of war among family members to see who remembered the most significant things about Dad. I didn’t argue with her. I do recall dancing to this song with my father near the end of my wedding. When I listen carefully, I can hear him softly singing into my ear, “What a wonderful world.”
Vienna - Billy Joel
My husband, two sons, and I love Billy Joel, and enjoyed going to his concerts together. Much of my experience of trying to get to know my father better after his death grew out of a sense of having been too in a hurry before—racing to prove something to him, to myself, to get away, to be different. This song reminds me how patiently my father waited, all those years, for me to slow down and talk to him. Also (and I know this has nothing to do with the probable intended meaning of the city in the song), we’d been to Vienna when I was a child, and I remember being a bit bored with the city’s slow place. Now, I’d love to go back. “Slow down, you crazy child / You're so ambitious for a juvenile...Slow down, you're doing fine / You can't be everything you want to be / Before your time / When will you realize / Vienna waits for you?”
Spanish Eyes – Al Martino
At several places in Starting with Goodbye, I write about how much we traveled when I was a kid. Although he was of Italian descent, my father also loved Spanish music, food, culture, art—yet for reasons I never understood, we never traveled to Spain, nor in retirement did he go there during several European trips. It was one of many things I wished I’d asked him about, which is an underlying theme of the book—everything left unsaid, unexplored between us. Dad and I often had similar thematic taste: we liked bittersweet stories, illustrations of life’s inherent sadness. I liked that my father finally liked a current (at the time) pop song, and I recall watching Martino perform on TV, looking dapper in a tuxedo, the way my handsome father looked when stepping out with Mom to a Vegas show—something that comes up in the book.
Always – Irving Berlin / Frank Sinatra
Perhaps it hasn’t endured as one of Sinatra’s most well-known recordings, but this is the one that stayed with me after that day on YouTube. That voice, that message, those hands. Doesn’t every girl, no matter the age, cherish the way her father promised to be there for her, always? If there’s any message in my memoir, it’s that he’s still there, with me, always. “Days may not be fair, always / That's when I'll be there, always / Not for just an hour, not for just a day / Not for just a year, but always.”
I Love You a Bushel and a Peck – Frank Loesser/Doris Day
To write my book, I had to think a lot about being a little girl and how, like all girls lucky enough to have a caring father, he was the first male I fell in love with, the first to shape my expectations about men, set my standards to (and, in some small ways, against). One thing that shone through memory was how playful my father could be, his natural inclination to lighten the mood for others, often by making up words to imaginary songs, or singing songs with silly words. This one kept popping up, spurred by a film and an actor – Stanley Tucci, as Julia Child’s husband, in Julie and Julia, an exceedingly tender and loving man, who also appreciated some silliness. The instrumentation and overall sonic effect call up the late 1940s, when I imagine my father a young man. “I love you a bushel and a peck / You bet your purdy neck I do / A doodle oodle oh / A doodle oodle oh doo.”
Send in the Clowns – Stephen Sondheim / Barbra Streisand
Long before I knew there was a Stephen Sondheim (who composed this for A Little Night Music), I knew and loved this song for two reasons: my father also seemed to love it, and it presented a word puzzle. I did not understand it, and I also didn’t ask Dad to explain (if he even could). I like that it was somewhat unknowable. It was in songs like this—lyrics that leave out something important—that nurtured my early love of prose, and of the spell a story casts when the listener/reader has to work a bit. It was the Barbra Streisand version I heard around the house, and that was unusual too, to hear Dad singing along with her.
In many ways, my parents were mismatched opposites: him longing to be at home on the couch reading, her always wanting to go out, see a show, but they each bent. “Don't you love farce? / My fault, I fear / I thought that you'd want what I want / Sorry, my dear!”
In my memoir, I trace my father’s disillusionment when—after a four-decade string of lucrative business ventures in NJ—he tried to launch new projects in Las Vegas, without success. Yet, he always was optimistic. The final lines bring that to mind: “Isn't it rich? / Isn't it queer? / Losing my timing this late in my career / But where are the clowns? / There ought to be clowns / Well, maybe next year.”
At Last – Glenn Miller / Etta James
This was my parents’ song—the Glenn Miller original version from the1942 film Orchestra Wives, performed as a duet by a swooning George Montgomery and Ann Rutherford. I learned it on the piano as a teenager, at which point Etta James had already made it legendary. I was lured by the soft swingy brass but confused because my parents were together since age 15, and the lyrics suggest a long, lonely search for love. I never asked why they chose the song. In my book, I write about how lost and lonely my mother was after losing her love of 64 years, and these words stirred such longing: “At last my love has come along / My lonely days are over / And life is like a song.”
Soundtrack from the BBC series Call the Midwife, seasons 1-5
Collectively, this music represents the world I picture my father inhabiting before I was born. Each episode of this hopeful, bittersweet story closes with a full-throated classic from the 1950’s that seems to spread across a sometimes harsh, sometimes wonderful world, cradling it in tenderness. There’s a smooth, silky, deeply sonorous quality to the music, and the lyrics that conjure a kind of communal caring that’s been long lost. A few that stand out are “Que Sera Sera” (something Dad often said by way of advice); “Embraceable You”; and one of my favorites of all time, “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
God Only Knows What I’d Be Without You – Beach Boys
The Beach Boys were really my older siblings’ generation, but I always knew this song in a peripheral way. It wasn’t until I heard it play over the final minutes of the film Love, Actually that I took it in. I didn’t see watch that film until around 2012, when I was writing Starting with Goodbye. That final montage—of loved ones from all places, cultures, and backgrounds coming together (or not) at an airport—is so beautifully affirming, yet melancholy. Dad loved watching people, and while he liked a happy ending, he acknowledged an intrinsic unfairness to life. I once found a letter he’d written to my mother early in their marriage, something like who knows what might have become of me without you. “God only knows what I'd be without you / If you should ever leave me / Though life would still go on, believe me / The world could show nothing to me.”
Time of My Life – Bill Medley / Jennifer Warnes
My attachment to this song is purely tied to the film Dirty Dancing. It plays during the final scenes, including one where Baby reconciles with her father, portrayed by consummate actor Jerry Orbach. There’s a section in Starting with Goodbye where I write about (grieve, really) how Orbach—in so many roles, but especially as Dr. Jake Houseman in this film—reminds me of my father, from mannerisms to morals, humility, love and respect for his daughter (whom he often expected too much from, like my own father). There’s a scene earlier in the film when father and daughter are sitting on a balcony, gazing out, and she has to tell him something painful, something he has to incorporate into his now-outgrown image of her as an innocent girl. The air palpably thrums with the need to tend the unbreakable but fragile cord connecting father and daughter, which forms the backbone of my book. I suppose the final line of lyrics does after all speak to me, or rather it’s me speaking to Dad: “And I owe it all to you.”
Lisa Romeo and Starting with Goodbye links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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