The venue had certainly changed from Howard’s minor celebrity days. This wasn’t Turner Hall, or even Tootsies. The songs had softened, too, but a few remained the same. And he could command an audience as well as ever.
“If you came to hear rock and roll…you’re in the wrong place,” Howard said into the old-timey microphone, no sign of a smile, the elderly crowd at the nursing home chuckling under its collective breath. He removed his cap and smoothed his silvery hair with is palm, a stubborn clump that wouldn’t quite sit flat at the back of his head. His fingers plucked a few strings while Grandma finished setting up the keyboard and furiously set her music book to the right page, rocking back on her seat. The attendees sat at tables and in wheelchairs, in various stages of degradation. Some slumped, others whispered to one another. A lonely few sat up straight with anticipation. I won’t lie. I felt a little sad, looking around at all the wrinkly faces, seeing those chins set by heartache, hardened by their own reality. But, it didn’t last long. Howard wouldn’t let it.
“I see Lucy went and got her hair did since last we were here,” Howard grumbled into the microphone. He paused, waiting for the wave of laughter, a small woman in the front row batting a hand at him. Grandma snorted with laughter, knowing how he liked to get the old ladies riled up, his fingers slowly picking the strings of his guitar. Pausing just long enough. Just long enough that you weren’t sure if he had something more to add. Just like his stories.
“Watch out fellas,” he said, and the hoots of laughter were reborn, Howard finally smiling down at his guitar.
Old Rugged Cross
He Touched Me
In the Garden
O Danny Boy
Make the World Go Away
(*Pop’s Waltz is a reference to Grandma Bonnie’s father, whom everyone referred to as Pop. Not to be confused with my own father, whom I often refer to as Pops. It’s completely coincidence, albeit entertaining, that we refer to them in such a similar way. He was a farmer who married a school teacher, and after they were married, she taught him to read and write. A fine violin player, the little I know about him was that he was a quiet man with a wry sense of humor. Howard always thought that Pops’ Waltz was fine song, and worked it into their regular performances. Below are pictures of Grandma’s music book. She would list the key Howard wanted her to play it in, as well as a few notes about the speed/tempo.)
Just two songs in and the crowd had been infused with life. More laughter. Folks sitting up straight. Sharing whispered memories with one another that a particular song invoked. The staff, who’d resembled security guards when we arrived (arms folded, mouths flat), clapped and smiled now, enjoying their patients’ sudden revival.
“We’d play for $25,” Grandma Bonnie told Pops last week. “And we’d try to get a meal out of them if we could,” she said, laughing her wonderful laugh.
Back to playing for meager pay, Howard and Grandma’s true intention with music was revealed to me that day. And while I probably could have surmised that on my own, it was certainly an awakening to see it first hand.
It was life.
That was what they were sharing with their audience. Life. The life that brought them, and held them, together. Stories and memories. Songs that made you come alive in your seat. Made you tap your foot and smile. Songs you’d heard so many times you couldn’t count. But, for some reason, sounded a little sweeter from folks who just loved playing together. A woman who couldn’t read music, playing piano and singing harmony with a man who just loved to entertain people with his song. It didn’t matter that the songs sounded old-timey, or that they missed a note here and there. That much was evident in the younger staff members who just couldn’t help but be absorbed in the life that bobbed and clapped and smirked around them. Breathing life into the room.
They played for about an hour, Howard pausing to tell the occasional story, or make up a birthday song off the top of his head for one of the regulars he loved to tease. Though they had a general plan for what they would play, even Grandma watched with anticipation at times, not quite sure what Howard might come up with next, laughing at his wordplay.
And just when you hoped it would never end, that the two of them would continue to entertain the nursing home residents for the rest of the day, ‘Good Night Irene,’ made an appearance. This wasn’t always the song of choice for their finale, but it was that day, particularly because there was an ‘Irene’ in the audience. A bit of a joke, but a bit serious too, it was a nice transition to the end. The residents smiled and sighed, knowing the fun was coming to an end, but Howard never failed to offer a final laugh. He thanked them for being a wonderful audience, and parted with his tagline.
“Now ya’ll be good, ya hear?” he said.
“Well, what if we don’t wanna?” a voice from the audience called.
“Well, if you can be good, then be safe,” Howard would answer.
Long pause, the gears turning in his head.
“And if you can’t be safe, don’t name it after me.” A final hearty laugh from the crowd. During all the times I saw them play, I can recall this going a few different ways. Sometimes the laugh itself would end it. Other times, one of the feistier ladies that Howard had teased during the show might stand up and and jab a finger in his direction.
“Well, what if we do name it after you?” These were the moments Howard seemed to love. Those unpredictable moments where he was caught off guard, and had to improvise a bit. His smile was large and genuine, his voice calm, fingers picking a couple strings.
“Well, uh, I guess that, uh…I suppose Howard, Jr. would be a fine name.”
It was hard not to smile as I loaded up their car that day, although the reality of the moment set in a bit, too. Their equipment was heavy. And Howard said as much as I put the amplifier into the car.
“Not sure how much longer we can keep lugging this stuff around,” he thanked me as I closed the trunk. And he was right. The journey to Lena was getting longer, particularly when you added the physical toll it was taking on Howard, in his late 80s at that point, lugging the equipment in and out of the car twice on the days that they played. While I don’t know for sure, memory tells me that was the last time they played in Lena.
It had become too much, taking care of the house. Cooking. It was wearing on Grandma like a lead vest those last couple years in Freeport, so much that they had stopped playing music much at the churches and nursing homes around town. Moving to the Heritage Woods Assisted Living Facility in Rockford in 2010 was a big change for them. They’d be closer to my folks, which was a benefit. Meals were taken care of. The two small rooms wouldn’t be much to maintain. New friends to share stories with. New groups to entertain with music on Saturday nights. It was a huge relief on Grandma, but I could see the hesitation from Howard, the glitch in his careful step. Gone was the back deck, where he would play music when his nephew and golfing buddy, Paul, would visit from St. Louis. Gone was the music room. The garage where he loved to tinker. The dump full of treasures. The freedom he’d had to move around. Explore. Income probably as rigid (or more so, since he had no control over it anymore) as it had been since he was a poor farm boy in Arkansas. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to relinquish the kinds of freedoms you enjoy for most of your life. The independence. When you don’t need help, but can’t quite do it yourself anymore. Especially for a man who had spent much of his life just making things work, even if the end result wasn’t necessarily pretty to those around him. The new people around him was probably a nice change. Folks who hadn’t heard his legendary stories or clever turns of phrase. But, I have a feeling it left him feeling a bit stuck. Not just in the rooms that took them two years to secure, but in his aging form as well. Sitting too long was painful. Standing too long wasn’t much better.
They kept the car for a couple years, and I think that was the saving grace at first. That still allowed them to go out to eat on rare occasions, drive to Freeport for a day trip to see friends, or Grandma’s sister, Hazel. I know it had been hard for Grandma, too. Leaving her. The improvement in her day to day life was unparalleled, but she’d developed an important bond with her during her time in Freeport, and Hazel was one of only two sisters left from her six siblings.
Life offered me monumental changes for me as well. Marriage. First child, followed quickly by another. A new home, even further from where I grew up. But there were always connections, always little surprises or stories that popped up whenever I visited them.
“What did you say her name was?” Howard sat forward in his chair. He’d been sitting there quietly while Grandma tossed my little girl around, my wife squeezing my shoulder in horror.
“Emma,” I answered him, a big grin on his face.
“Well, how about that.” Howard and Grandma Bonnie shared a smile.
“Did I ever tell you that?” he started. “My mother’s name was Bernice Emma. Name of my daughter, too.” He laughed. “Did I mention that when we did the interview back in Freeport?”
He hadn’t. But I smiled, thinking about all the little connections we’d made over the years. And this one was as fitting as any.