My maternal grandfather was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1903. On my first day of high school in 1967, he died. The death of my grandpa, a tenderhearted man named George, was my introduction to mortality and deep loss, sudden and uncompromising. It shook my emotional world.
I used to draw surprising comfort from watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with my daughter when she was young. Decades later, I see that Grandpa was my Fred Rogers. He made me feel secure, accepted, and—best of all—valued. I remember he once drove me to my piano teacher’s house when my mom wasn’t available, and sat waiting quietly nearby during my lesson. He remarked afterwards that I spoke a different language when I discussed music with my teacher. His comment pleased me immensely. It had never occurred to me that I might know something worthwhile that a grownup didn’t.
I can still picture my grandfather clearly: a compact man, just a smidge over 5 feet tall, holding a fragrant pipe or cigar. He worked the early shift as a machine repairman for General Motors Truck and Coach in Pontiac, Michigan, tooling job to job on a bicycle around the vast plant. By 3:30 he was home, contentedly engaged in his gentle life of family and friends.
I can still hear my grandfather, too, singing old songs in his rich, resonant voice. I miss that. The song I associate most strongly with him is the slow, dreamy waltz “Carolina Moon,” made popular by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians dance band. Grandpa also sang “I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad,” a toe-tapper my senior audiences always appreciate.
From the World War I era, he favored “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag” which, given his sunny disposition, could have been his theme song. He liked “K-K-K-Katy” (my sheet music calls it “The Sensational Stammering Song Success Sung by the Soldiers and Sailors”).
To honor his Irish heritage, he sang “MacNamara’s Band,” George Cohan’s “Harrigan,” and the heart-tugging ballad “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”
He serenaded us with “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” a standard from the barbershop quartet repertoire. And “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” each line ending in a long-vowel “oo” word (spoon, croon, June) that he could stretch out like warm taffy.
Another reminder of my grandpa is “Little Brown Jug,” an old drinking song (a fact lost on me at the time), popularly revived by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. And “Daisy Bell,” better known as “Bicycle Built for Two,” a playful take on romance and a sure bet with my elderly listeners.
He made us laugh by singing “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’,” a silly tune based on a traditional folksong from Kentucky. Of its many verses, here’s what I remember best: A peanut sat on the railroad track / Its heart was all a-flutter / Along came the 4:15 / Toot toot, peanut butter.
These songs bring my grandpa back to me. I play them often.
Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.