For Camp NaNoWriMo, I started out writing short stories around Robert Johnson songs. Well… that only lasted a handful of days because short stories tend to be the bane of my existence. I get a good idea, write the short story, and then all I want to do is expand on it.
I managed to finish four short stories and start on another four, but they have gone nowhere and Camp NaNo has now become a word document full of miscellaneous things I’ve been writing throughout April.
Now, if you haven’t read my “About Me page,” let’s just say I’m a little crazy when it comes to music. 90% of what I listen to is 1979 and before, stemming all the way back to the 1920s. …You know, in case you couldn’t tell from my mention of writing stories around Robert Johnson songs.
I had an idea a month ago to write a story around someone who finds themselves misplaced in time and can call back to where they are actually from through their music. Instead of making it a full-fledged thing, I wrote a short story called “Phonograph Blues” for Camp NaNo.
We had put her in a home just months before. It was necessary. With Grandpa gone and no one living close, it was our only option. Mom and Dad were both gone as well, leaving it up to us to take care of Grandma and her dementia. It may have been the saddest day of our lives, having to move her to someplace foreign. We could only remember the Grandma we knew growing up, the one who would sneak us pieces of candy under the table despite not finishing our vegetables, the one who would take us on long walks through the fields surrounding her house, the one who would let us stay up to an unreasonable hour.
Putting her in the home did not solve anything overnight. It did not solve anything at all. Rather, she seemed to deteriorate before our eyes even faster. While we knew it was a part of life, it did not make it any easier. Seeing her withering away in a nursing home broke our hearts. What made it even worse was when we had to pack up and sell the only house we had ever known her in.
Sorting through hers and Grandpa’s belongings felt like a betrayal. What was once sacred and untouchable now became part of a mounting trash pile. We did not keep much for ourselves, save for knick knacks we knew would always remind us of simpler times and a house smelling of fresh baked brownies or turkey dinners. We did not know the time in which our grandparents grew up, so their old belongings meant nothing to us.
“Hey Grandma B!” we greeted, lugging in the one thing we thought she might want at the nursing home: a record player and a cardboard box full of vinyl records of various sizes and thicknesses. We knew nothing of the contraption, but as soon as we set it on a table against the window, her eyes did not leave it. We glanced at each other. This was improvement. She usually sat quietly, not noticing anything or anyone.
We took a record from the box and placed it on the turntable. What to do? We looked at the contraption, lost for words. There were no plugs, no way to power the thing. How we even knew to put the record on the thing surprised us. She pointed to the machine. “Turn the crank on the side,” she said. We were at a loss for words. Months had gone past without her uttering a word, and now she was telling us how to run the machine.
We did as we were told and placed the needle on the outside of the vinyl. Within seconds, the song started up, horns and wind instruments blowing musically. Her feet tapped on the floor to the beat and she swayed to the beat. We did not know what to say, especially when she began to sing along with the record in a voice we could barely recall from our very young days when she used to rock us to sleep.
It took our breath away.
Every time we came to visit her, she would surprise us. Even after a year of it happening, it always took us for a loop. It happened in two ways: either she was already standing at the phonograph, singing along to a record, or as soon as she would see us, she would hobble across the room without using her walker to place a record on the machine and start singing along.
It was her way of communicating with us. Those songs took her back to the days of her youth. Those records calmed her and kept her somewhat sane. The nurses on staff told us wonder stories of how, when Grandma was having some sort of episode, they simply had to put on an album and she would stop. And sing along.
She used to sing us a song to get us to fall asleep when we were very little. The memory was fuzzy, the thoughts jumbled underneath years of other songs she had sang to us. Every time we came to visit at the nursing home, as she sang another song, we scavenged through the cardboard boxes (we had brought the rest when we realized how much they meant to her), looking for song titles that jumped out at us.
It had to be in her collection. We could see in our minds those dark evenings when we would wait in the rocking chair. We watched her in the dark placing the vinyl on the phonograph and barely even having to touch the needle to get it to start playing. Her hands always moved expertly, and her arms always came around us moments later, sweeping us against her and beginning to rock us. But we could not recall the song to save our lives.
After weeks of nonstop looking through old jazz records, we stumbled upon it. The title had finally registered with us, and everything clicked together. “Grandma B, we found it!” we exclaimed, holding the record up. Her eyes came to rest on us, sitting on the floor. She said nothing. As soon as we started playing the record, a smile came upon everyone’s faces. Why had the search been so hard? We knew from the first note. And we all sang along.
“My sugar is so refined/She’s one of them high class kind/She doesn’t wear a hat, she wears a chapeau/She goes to see a cinema, but never a show/My sugar is so refined/She’s got a real high class mind/She never buys a dress, it’s always a frock/She always winds her timepiece up, but never her clock.”
The look in her blue eyes we had all inherited showed us a younger soul within her. We saw the Grandma of old shining through, the music sending her reeling back in time, taking us with her. In that glorious moment, the troubles of the world faded away and we were once again being rocked to sleep in her arms, barely toddlers.
Fun side note: The song the kids rediscover, “My Sugar Is So Refined” by Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers, is one of my favorite songs of all time.