I got some very sad news last night.
Every Wednesday evening, I visit my mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. She has been sentenced to life without parole at the Northridge Senior’s home in Oakville Ontario.
For the past few years, after feeding my mother, I play the piano for one hour from six to seven p.m. to entertain the sitting room only crowd of the facility. It is usually the best hour of my week, as this vintage crowd sings along to songs from the 30’s 40’s and 50’s. Occasionally I am given permission to play a song that was actually written while I was alive, but the paper work to get that approval is so cumbersome, I tend to stick to the Gershwin, Porter, and Mercer repertoire.
I have gotten to know many of these loyal “fans”, most of them in wheel chairs, who participate in the weekly one-hour escape. An interesting thing about the patients in this room who suffer from that insidious disease my mother shares. These senior citizens may not know the name of their spouse or their children anymore, as their brains erode into a mysterious vacuum we still don’t understand, but dammit they still know every lyric to every song from a past where seeing big bands and dancing cheek to cheek was an important weekend ritual.
Every Wednesday a distinguished gentleman, I later discovered was named Bill, would role his wheel chair into the main hall, carefully avoiding disengaging his catheter, as he positioned himself in the Front Row. Bill always arrived early to avoid my eighty- year old female groupies, who fought for the coveted front row seats.
Bill was a humble man, who when asked, would begrudgingly share a little about his life. I would ask him often, for more information, as he was such an interesting guy with great stories to tell. He shyly succumbed to my berating requests to talk a little more about his eighty seven years.
Bill was a veteran of WWII. He parachuted behind enemy lines, so that we could all enjoy our freedom to protest future wars. He talked about how he and his buddies couldn’t wait to get into the action, as they tolerated their mandatory six weeks of training. His training took place in England in a barracks that housed over 500 soldiers who like Bill, were just itching to get into a war. One Wednesday night, years ago, he requested a song by Bunny Berigan called “I Can’t Get Started”. Fortunately my father had forced me to learn many big band songs as a punishment for not weeding the lawn to the house standards.
As I played that song he sang along to every word. I shared with him that this song was not a standard song from the old days. He then explained his devotion to that song.
He talked about the weeks in those barracks. The lodge had a phonograph and only one record to play. “I Can’t Get Started” was played continually for the duration of the training. All 500 trainees gathered around the phonograph to hear the only music available. They just sat and stared at that phonograph like it was an Xbox to listen to the same record over and over again. Bill must have heard his request thousands of times before. He loved that song as a tribute to his colleagues, because he knew it was the last song many of his close friends ever heard.
Bill started coming much earlier to the sessions, and we chatted often.
He told me that his father was a haberdasher with a successful men’s clothing store on the Danforth. When he returned from WWI, he had been gassed and shot. That little inconvenience shortened his dad’s life considerably and Bill and his six siblings were fatherless when he was seven. Mom tried to run the business, but her lack of understanding of 90 days payable, and other retail terms forced the once thriving store into bankruptcy.
The family went from living in comfortable settings to renting small apartments that they were regularly evicted from because of their inability to afford the rent. Eventually the children were sent to different relatives because this thing called the Depression was making life too difficult for the single mom. He talked about a routine they had established where all packed their clothes at the end of each month, and vacated their residence just before the authorities could serve them with a piece of paper admonishing their financial irresponsibility.
His mother was his hero. He told me of a time during the winter in the thirties where the seven children were a tad chilly, because none of them could afford winter coats. One early morning Mother woke up Bill and his older brother and dragged the two young children on a streetcar to Spadina Avenue. She got off at a stop and walked into a clothing manufacture. Bill recalled, that he thinks that this establishment he visited almost eighty years ago was called Schiffler Hilman. Mother marched into the manager’s office and asked the man with a measuring tape dangling around his shoulders, for two winter coats for her two shivering children. The gentleman asked if she had money to pay for these coats? Mother responded with a simple “No!” This kind proprietor then measured the two children and said the coats would be ready in two days. He then asked Bill’s mother to measure the other children and he would have coats ready for all in a week. This may not be a business model that would thrive in the twenty first century, but it seemed to work in the 1930s.
After each song I played, Bill would helpfully point out the occasional lyric I might have warbled incorrectly. In one verse of “ I Can’t Get Started” I always sang “Paramount has asked me to Star”. Months after playing that song weekly, or perhaps weakly, Bill quietly pointed out that the original lyric was not “Paramount’ but “Metro Goldwyn” I looked that mistake up on the Internet and Bill was right. I adjusted my lyric to perform a more accurate version of his song moving forward.
A couple of weeks ago, Bill was there at his early pre-performance time, and we talked about stuff like we always did. That night we somehow got onto the topic of summer jobs. I passionately complained about the many hardships I survived during the backbreaking grass-cutting job I had when I was fifteen. Bill smiled and supported the inhumane labour I endured as a wee child. After pausing he recounted his job in the Timmins mines he had when he was twelve to help support his splintered family. He smiled as he described his one and only responsibility. He said his role was to go down deep in the mines. As the trolley slowly ascended on the tracks to deliver whatever had been mined, his job was to walk behind that trolley and pick up whatever spilled off the cart, and carry it up to civilization. Like Maxwell House, Bill was good to the last drop. Bill learned the mines so well that when visitor came up to Timmins, it wasn’t the executives, but it was Bill who became responsible for highlight tours of the mines to impress the outsiders.
Last summer, Bill and his wife Norma celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in the home. I played whatever the two requested that night. Norma came to my performances often, but not as often as her husband Bill. The nights when she wasn’t there, I would ask how she was and the reason for her absence. With a twinkle in his eye, he would always explain her absence by stating “She’s left me again for another man.”
This old age home experiences many lockdowns as flus and colds travel through the lodge. When lockdown occurs all residents are strongly urged to stay in their rooms and not interact with others to diminish the exposure to whatever disease was currently catching the attention of the health board of the building. Bill rebelliously ignored every one of those regular warnings and never missed a Wednesday performance.
I probably gave Bill a little joy over the past few years. He gave me so much more. The measure of his gift to me is I just won’t look forward to Wednesday at 6:00 p.m. as much anymore. I still plan to play “I Can’t Get Started” every Wednesday though there is not a man named Bill there to sing along to my corrected lyric. It will be hard to start playing that song without Bill there to join in, because as the song lyric reminds me,
“But now I’m broken hearted, I can’t get started with you.”
The corresponding Blong
Curtis and I, and my mom, remember Bill as well, never missed a Wednesday night! You gave Bill a lot of pleasure Dennis, that was obvious. You should feel very good about your positive contribution to his later years.
Thanks Julie, it was a tough night. Please pass on this sad news to Curtis, as he will remember Bill with a smile. Bill was a huge Curtis fan.
I have enjoyed many a night watching your impromptu piano playing turn a room full of strangers into a happy bunch of friends singing along to Billy Joel and Elton John. I am glad that Bill was able to enjoy your playing and share his memories with you. What a beautiful story.
Thanks so much for reading and the comment Darrell.
It really is about the little things in life. Thank you for sharing, Dennis.
Eni thanks for the comment and you are very wise for a young lady.
It’s never easy to lose a good friend, Dennis. I plan on following your blog. Thanks Monia, for posting on Facebook.
Thanks for reading Alison, I will thank Monia for posting.
So bitter sweet. A poignant reminder that our humanity is not diminished by our increasing age. Dennis, your music is a talent that you share generously. Your real gift however is your vulnerability. Your willingness to be moved by the sweetly sad life stories of others. BRAVO
Tom thank you for very kind words. I am humbled by your assessment.
Dennis, how nice for you and all your senior fans to share this time together. My thoughts would be that Bill is still there at 6 pm. enjoying every note!