One theme. One poet. One memoirist.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Ain't Misbehavin'

Before the beginning of this week's post, a brief aside.

Perhaps one of my favorite aspects about this blog is the way the themes bring to the surface topics about which I've always wanted to write, but have never been able to find the words. On a personal level, it has helped me sift through the debris of everyday life and focus on those things which are important to me. Most notably, my family and the impact they've had on me. It is very difficult to be removed from their daily lives. The writing I have posted here has helped me realize that.

It has also served as a connection to my scattered, extended family. When I post an updated link about one of the family posts I've done, I can count on comments from cousins and siblings from New York to Denver to Milwaukee. This connection--however tenuous and dependent on virtual communication--is one I cherish.

Our theme for this week: Jazz.

Grandmother Prosen is a force to be reckoned with. When my mother, her daughter-in-law, is feeling sassy she refers to Gram as Rose Kennedy--the matriarch of the family. It makes my grandmother crazy, but I think is an apt description. She keeps the family together: she stuffs the turkeys at Thanksgiving; makes us all laugh over Christmas; catches and fries all of the fish for the Good Friday fish fry at my auntie's; cares for her great-grandbabies. Most of the family still takes part of their summer vacation with her at the family cabin.

The stories from my grandmother's childhood are complicated, full of relatives and sort-of relatives. She was raised by extended family after her mother died in childbirth, so I had myriad great-uncles, great-aunts, and an truly daunting network of second-cousins-twice removed populating family stories and family gatherings when I was growing up. I loved to listen to her tell stories about my Aunt Dorothy, who made beer in her basement during Prohibition or how she met my grandfather though her family ties to the railroad.

There are two aspects of my grandmother's early life that stick with me most. The first is her love of prize-fighting. It was a strange revelation, one that Dad told me when I was still in high school. Apparently Gram's adopted mother ("Ma") loved boxing, and would take grandma to neighborhood fights when she was a little girl. I love the image of my grandmother in a dressed up and sitting ringside at a fight.

The second is Gram's love for jazz. I've written here before about Grandma Baker's love of bluegrass, country, and hymns. Grandma Prosen loved jazz equally, and was responsible for my first exposure to it. She tended more toward the vocal/lounge variety of music, perhaps not what most people would consider jazz. But through her, I was introduced to Billie Holliday, Etta James, Dinah Washington, and Ella Fitgerald. I first fell in love with the the song "Ain't Misbehavin'" on a rainy afternoon in high school. Pirating music was easier then, and I had made a CD for the two of us to listen to in the kitchen. She was drinking coffee and keeping and eye on the meatloaf. I was probably reading or doing homework. I still remember Ella's smooth voice giving me pause, drawing my attention from parsing sentences or Fitzgerald's short stories.

Gram didn't say much, aside from small comments of approval when one of her favorite songs came on. She said nothing during this song. When the CD restarted, she pulled the meatloaf from the oven, wiped her hands on a towel, and hugged me goodbye.

"Thanks for the walk down memory lane, kid."

To this day "Ain't Misbehavin'" is a song I have to hear from beginning to end. It makes the breath catch in my throat and makes my chest tighten. I can't hear it without remembering that rainy afternoon and the smell of my grandmother's cooking.


Ain't Misbehavin'

When I hear Ella Fiztgerald's smooth voice
I do not think of falling into love;
slow-dancing in the arms of some well-dressed man;
or even the bar, where, while in graduate school
I would drink Scotch and listen to a jazz on Mondays.
I think instead of my grandmother
in the kitchen in the house where I grew up.
Casually making a meatloaf and boiled potatoes,
helping me understand the meaning of a gerund,
or translate my school edition of Virgil.
I remember her little sigh of pleasure
when I had finished with my questions,
when it was time to put dinner in the oven
and sit down to a cup of coffee and songs she loved.

1 comment:

  1. Your prose made me cry. In a good way.

    The simplicity of the poem is striking and wonderful. I tripped a little bit over the last four lines for some reason.

    I really like the ideals of jazz that you provide in the beginning, the romanticized notions of what jazz music means, and how this contrasts with the real-ness of your grandmother nurturing and caring for you.

    Good work, friend.