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Friday, 3 July 2009

Billy Joel, my late mum and me

When my mum was in her late 70s, she became obsessed by an old Billy Joel song, "My Life."

She would dance round the kitchen and sing, "I don't care what you say this is my life - go ahead with your own life - leave me alone." I didn't pay much attention because she was always singing and dancing (a habit that is overtaking me with advancing age.) I also couldn't quite see the attraction of this song - from the little I knew of Billy Joel, this didn't seem to be one of his best.

Only when she was long dead, did it dawn on me that she loved it because she was finally rid of us children, rid of her husband and free as a bird. In her late 70s, she'd taken up ballroom dancing, found a boyfriend and was having the time of her life. But I was far too involved with my own, at the time, less happy life, to register any of that.

My first commission after she died on June 27, 2000, was to go to Stresa in Italy and write about the setting for Hemingway's Farewell to Arms for the Daily Express. I was a guest at the Grand Hotel where Hemingway lived for a while and set some key scenes of what was the first great love story I have ever read. But I felt gloomy and sad having just lost mum and the weather was grey and gloomy too.

One dreary afternoon, I stopped for tea in the bar and realized that the only other people in there were Billy Joel and his daughter. And in that enormous hotel, their suite was next door to my room. Mother would have been delighted.

Last week, a day or two after the 9th anniversary of my mother's death, I was in the local Chinese produce store, standing in line with my mangoes, broccoli and bananas when a doo-wop song came over the speakers. I didn't recognize the singer but was so taken by the bouncy, happy lyrics and harmonies that I had to let several people go ahead of me in the queue in order to hear it to the end.
I memorized a couple of lines that I really liked:

"If you said goodbye to me tonight, there would still be music left to write. What else could I do, I'm so inspired by you, that hasn't happened for the longest time."
The song hit home because I, too, had recently had a brief encounter with later-life love.
"Once I thought my innocence was gone. Now I know that happiness goes on. " As a devoted Wagnerian I can safely say that never once did old Richard put a lovely truth quite so succinctly. And one last line of happy wisdom:
"I don't care what consequence it brings. I have been a fool for lesser things."

I skipped off home to prepare a feature on Wagner... and look up this doo-wop song on Wikipedia..
And, of course, as probably everyone on the planet except me knows, it was Billy Joel again - singing all 14 tracks of this wise and happy 1980s song.

A couple of days earlier when I'd drunk a toast to my mother on that anniversary of her death, a rainbow had appeared right outside my window. Any Wagnerian knows how symbolic that is. But I'd like to think that mum decided a bit of bopping frivolity was also in order - and browsed the iTunes store to make sure I found the perfect song by her favourite singer.


Anonymous said...

Hi Janette,
I wrote a reply but it seems to have been swallowed. You mum sounds like a dream mum, all happy and dancing.

I have written a post about how I'm feeling now on my blog if you'd like to have a look some time. I sound like a sad sack but I am very miserable because I've lost contact with my son who moved to Sweden last month - like ALL contact.

Go well, Val.

Anonymous said...

OK - since the last post on your blog and now, I received this -

Hi, everything's fine. I'm in the countryside outside Gothenburg. There's nothing to worry about, it's just an inbetween time before I find out for sure about a place I can stay for a longer period of time and a course of study. But for now, I'm staying with friends and it's really nice here.

All better now.

Myles said...

That's a wonderful remembrance, Janette. Thanks. -Myles Marlow