Music To My Ears

Distractions are needed when you have a dog that jumps into every mud puddle or pond she finds.

Listening to books as I strolled the hills and meadows of my hometown was one of the only things that kept me relatively sane during the pandemic.

In a perfect world, I’d have someone to keep me company, to entertain and distract me with stories about their spouses and children, or provide a sounding board as I prattle on about my own life. But having a walking buddy is not always possible, particularly in the summer when people scatter. I’ve learned the hard way that a walking date is the first thing to go when the day gets a little hectic, meaning I’m on my own.

A lot of people took up walking during the pandemic to get outside and stay relatively fit. There’s a couple in my neighborhood who march by military style every day, the husband 10 paces ahead of the wife, occasionally making circles to wait for her to catch up. But I’d rather walk alone than trail someone who can’t be bothered talking to me. I’m annoyed for this woman, though it seems to be working for them.

I’m late to the Audiobook game, a person who always wondered about the state of marriages of couples who insist on listening to books on long road trips. I relish having a chance to chat with the Curmudgeon on long car trips because he’s a captive audience, unable to scroll through his phone or sneak a peek at the Boston Red Sox or Boston Bruins game as I rail about something.

The Curmudgeon and I are seasoned long haulers, able to keep a conversation going for most of our annual 16-hour road trip to Hilton Head Island every spring. When things get dull, I play DJ, digging through my music library to play old chestnuts like the Stray Cats and the Peppermint Rainbow, an obscure group from the 60s. No surprise that they were one-hit wonders with a ridiculous name like that.

I first turned to Audible in the early part of the pandemic, listening to a free autobiography by music legend James Taylor. Bonus: Taylor narrated the book in his beautiful voice, which is just as soulful and appealing as his singing voice. Between chapters, I’d play some of Taylor’s songs, happy to know the background of how they came to be.

Taylor’s book unwittingly sparked a succession of Audiobooks about musicians and their music, a kind of MTV “Behind the Music” walk down memory lane. Since March 2020, I’ve listened to 12 Audiobooks about musicians, from Jim Morrison of the Doors, Grace Slick of Jefferson Starship and Tom Petty to Rod Stewart, Heart, Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton. 

One of the most surprising aspects of my selections is the number of lesser known group members I’ve opted to listen to over their more famous bandmates. I passed up Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler’s book “Is The Noise in My Head Bothering You?” in favor of bassist Joe Perry’s book “Rocks.” I passed on Go-Go Girls’ lead singer Belinda Carlisle’s book in favor of bassist Kathy Valentine’s book, “All I Ever Wanted,” which I thoroughly enjoyed. 

For me, there’s something fascinating about the “fly on the wall” stories from people who were in groups, but not center stage. I tried to listen to both Tyler and Carlisle’s stories after listening to their bandmates’ books, but wasn’t interested enough to go past the sample. I’m sure there could be a psychological element involved: I am, of course, the second born child, never having the spotlight to myself. Or it may have something to do with my appreciation for a good base, which makes the song.

Rock memoirs strike the right note during a stroll, engaging me but not forcing me to think too hard. I tried listening to a biography of William Faulkner, but got bored after a few chapters. I have no idea what I was thinking when I bought it, because I don’t have the patience for any of it. I’m pretty sure the hard copy of the book is just as tedious.

One of the best parts about this endeavor is learning tidbits about singers and songs that I’ve loved for years:

John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful played harmonica on the Doors’ Roadhouse Blues, changing his name on the album credits so his fans wouldn’t be upset.

Stevie Wonder played harmonica on Chaka Khan’s song “I Feel for You” after attending Marvin Gaye’s funeral. Listening to it, you can almost hear Wonder’s joy and appreciation for life. I’ve loved that song for years, yet never focused on the harmonica part until I realized who was playing.

For me, the background to a song has always been as interesting as the song itself. When he was writing his song “Melissa,”, Greg Allman couldn’t come up with a suitable girl’s name until he walked into a convenience store and someone yelled, “Melissa.” David Lee Roth wrote the words to nearly every Van Halen song after his bandmates wrote the music.

Next up: Sinead O’Connor’s new memoir narrated in her delightful Irish accent, which was suggested by one of my sisters with an equal passion for rock memoirs. I don’t know her music that well, but that’s half the fun of this endeavor. It opened my horizons during a bleak period of entrapment, giving me a mental as well as a physical escape. And for that, I’ll be eternally grateful.

Back in the Saddle

My former editor Linda’s family has created a website containing many of her personal columns and readings for Vermont Public Radio. The address is http://lduchar.me/.

I’ve been looking for a good reason to blog lately.

It came rather unexpectedly as I was saying goodbye to my friend Linda’s son after her memorial service in Vermont.

Like many people over the last 16 months, Linda’s funeral was postponed due the Covid 19 pandemic, preventing her family, friends and former co-workers from gathering to properly mourn, raise a glass and share stories about her. The lack of ceremony made her death at age 83 in March, 2020, a little surreal. Depriving people of the ritual and comfort of gathering to mourn was one of the most difficult parts of the pandemic.

I was relieved that her family decided to press ahead with a memorial mass because such ceremonies often fall by the wayside with the passage of time. When my mother-in-law died in 2004, we planned to hold a memorial service in her hometown “at a later date.” We never could muster the strength or enthusiasm for the memorial service, contenting ourselves with her funeral on Martha’s Vineyard.

There is comfort in gathering after someone you love dies because at the end of the day, it’s how people touch our lives that matters. All too often today, we use social media or a text to convey feelings of sympathy, but there is something to be said for showing up for people in their time of sorrow. In his 2009 book Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir, Chris Buckley (son of William F. Buckley) wrote that you don’t remember who shows up at wakes and funerals, but you remember who doesn’t. I’ve come to see the wisdom in his words.

As I was bidding goodbye to Linda’s oldest child Bob and complimenting him on his eulogy, he told me that he once read some of my blogs to his mother during a weekend visit at an assisted living facility in Brattleboro, where she lived her final years with her loving husband of 61 years Bob Sr. As he read one blog about some women having the great fortune of looking great with gray hair, he realized that I had included his mother in the piece. He thought it was incredibly coincidental – he had randomly picked that blog. I thought him telling me the story was equally coincidental. Over the last few weeks, I’ve lamented more than once that I’ve let my blog slide. That’s not like me, and I’m sure Linda, who also happened to be my first newspaper editor, would be disappointed that I’ve been slacking off.

I don’t know why we let things slide that we love from time to time, but we do and sometimes we need messages from heaven to get back on track. I love to blog, but glitches with WordPress and the resumption of life post-pandemic over the past few months put the blog in mothballs. I have a few pieces in the hopper, but I began to feel self-conscious about posting. I began to overthink, a sure recipe for blocking anything good in life.

I began to write personal columns under Linda’s guidance as a reporter for the Milford Citizen in the early 80s. We had a rotating column called “In This Corner” in which reporters and editors waxed about everything from sisters stealing clothes (me) to learning how to drive (Linda). We wrote when the spirit moved us, and it usually did. Everyone contributed columns, including an older society pages assistant named Kay Patrick, who once shared her recipe for blueberry buckle.

The Milford Citizen was a tight-knit group: what we lacked in prestige and size we made up for in fun and camaraderie. People dressed in costumes on Halloween and we had a standing table at a bar next door, where we drank pitchers of beer and feasted on chicken wings during happy hours. One day, we roasted the pressman Warren, who always wore flannel shirts, gathering around the press in the backroom in a collection of plaid shirts. Going to work wasn’t a chore because it was fun, even when we were pushing to get out the paper.

Much of the credit for the atmosphere goes to Linda, who ran the place like a mother hen. She was the first person through the door at 6 a.m., relishing having the newsroom to herself, and couldn’t understand why I could never arrive at work on time at 8 a.m. She ate yogurt at her desk every day, depriving herself the luxury of a lunch out, and was slightly jealous when I’d return from a lunch of whole belly fried clams and french fries, wishing she could indulge like a 23 year old. I don’t think anyone over the age of 25 can pull that off, but it was fun while it lasted. 

During my interview for my first reporter’s job, Linda spent the bulk of the time telling me about her four children, including Bob, who was a student at Columbia University at the time. It was clear that although she was a working mom, her first priority was her kids, and to her credit, I could never tell which one was her favorite. She gushed about all of them with equal fervor and I sometimes was envious that they had such a cool parent. I often thought of her as a second mom, though I don’t think she knew that.

When I fell in love with the sports editor and planned to marry, Linda threw a surprise bridal shower at her house, where every woman from the entire newspaper gathered and presented me with gifts. I still remember her luring me over to her house, saying, “Hey, could you come here for a minute?” I was stunned when I entered her house to a roomful of smiling women bearing everything from placemats to picnic baskets. In photos from that day, I have the look of someone who’s seen a ghost; I don’t think my heartbeat returned to normal until the following day when the shock wore off.

As part of the memorial service, Linda’s children compiled a website with slice of life columns that she wrote for the Brattleboro Reformer, the newspaper that lured her away with the promise of a job in the mid-80s. The timing was right: her youngest son Peter had just graduated from high school, and Linda longed for the green mountains of Vermont, where she’d spent her youth before her family settled in Connecticut. I was, of course, devastated. Things were never the same after she left.

The priest praised Linda’s columns about everyday things, noting they evoked feelings of a simpler time and ultimately gave people hope in their everyday lives. As he spoke, I thought of my blog, and how my friend Barbara told me she read some of them to fellow patients while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Barbara told me that they gave them a chuckle at a low point, lifting their spirits as cancer-fighting drugs seeped into their veins. For me, that was the highest praise – better than a paycheck or Pulitzer, though to be honest, both would be nice.

So I’m back to the blog in a very big part because of Linda, and the things she taught me about life: family first, friendship, laughter, faith, home-cooked meals, frugality, keep things simple, celebrate the good times and above all, share your talents, even if it’s just with one person.

I miss her, but she lives in my heart and inspires me. Most of all, I think she’d be happy that I’m back in the saddle again.