I didn’t see it coming: the shock; the rawness of loss; my father’s voice; the connection to a long-dead songwriter; my recall of lyrics from old country songs.
My father was much older than my mother; their cultural influences were a generation apart. My father died in 1985. He was many things in his life: rancher; explosives expert; orderly in a military hospital; Bureau of Reclamation employee; refinery security guard. He did whatever was necessary to pay the bills.
He was a self-taught, talented harmonica player. He could play a few songs on a piano, and he could sing–not great, but in key. He sang lustily or mournfully, depending on the song.
When I was a child, we would take road trips throughout Wyoming and South Dakota. To pass the miles–often on poorly maintained roads where we moved at a snail’s pace–he would sing to us. At home, in the evenings, he’d play his harmonica.
I remembered two songs he sang often, “Red River Valley,” and “Put My Little Shoes Away.” I was moved by the latter, probably because I was a child, and it was about a child’s death. Although those songs remind me of him, so do hundreds of others things.
This morning was typical: I was watching the Sunday Morning show, sipping coffee and chatting with the resident musician. When Charles Osgood announced his retirement and signed off, he sang a bit of “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.” As often happens, that led to a conversation which resulted in my dragging out my iPad. This time, I was looking up Woody Guthrie and the original lyrics to “Dusty Old Dust.”
In the midst of my research, I found a link to a singer and songwriter of the early 1930s–Carson Robison. From there, I discovered an archive of some of the songs he performed (singing and playing harmonica).
That was when the emotional shock occurred. As I read down the list, and began to listen to the old recordings, I realized that I already knew the lyrics to many of the songs. Amazingly, from deep in buried memory, the words emerged. I felt a bit like people must when they get a knock on the head and, allegedly, wake up proficient in a language other than their native language. It wasn’t only the surprise of knowing the lyrics, but the feelings they engendered. I was in tears and couldn’t figure out why until I made the connection.
My father grew up during a time, and in an area of the West, where country music was popular, and old-time lyrics were appreciated and revived. He must have followed the music (radio or records) of Robison. He must have emulated the harmonica virtuoso of Robison and sung those lyrics to me. I’d only consciously remembered the “Red River” and” Little Shoes” ones, but the others were there, and they carried all the emotional impact of seeing my father again.
As writers, we often mine our memories to find inspiration–the muse that lives in our mind (As opposed to a Muse that reportedly hovered over the shoulders of poets in previous centuries–although I wouldn’t mind having one of those as well). Often these memories carry emotional force, but we are somewhat prepared, having consciously dredged up the memory to form or enliven our prose or poetry.
It is the memories that surface when we least expect them that shake us. And, maybe, those are the ones that deserve the most attention. Think what passion those memories triggered, and write while you are still feeling the joy or the sorrow, the pleasure or the sting.
Have you had a similar experience? Did it motivate you? Did you write about it?