I didn’t run off with all of my mother’s LPs, only the coveted Sinatra ones. But when I heard Natalie Cole at the Pops on Sunday night, and watched her interact with an old video recording of Nat King Cole, I immediately experienced a momentary sadness. There had been Nat King Cole records in her stash, along with Glenn, Bing, Dean, all the great performers who were called to mind, with one syllable. But when I was trying to steal some piece of my mother’s soul, to keep for when she slipped away, it was Frank I held on to, and not Nat.
As the concert wore on, Natalie Cole’s presence, her wide eyes conjured up images of her father before those images were projected onto the big screen hovering over the orchestra.
I too was summoning images of long ago, of a mother who once saw Nat King Cole, at the Sands in Vegas, and wrote only this, “Heard Nat King Cole at the Sands.” In her day, she didn’t have the luxury of luxuriating in her good fortune, or mediating or expounding upon the event later. She was just lucky to be there, in the moment, with Nat King Cole. And, I suspect, she may have always had her eye out, for someone else.
I knew all of Natalie’s swing songs. How could I not? I consistently loaded them on Pandora or Spotify whenever I was with Mom. And when Natalie sang a duet, Acércate más (Come Closer to Me), a Nat King Cole hit from the 1940s, with a video recording of her father, I made a mental note to help Mom rediscover those songs as well.
When time for THE song approached, Natalie stepped to the side of the screen, and interacted intimately with the screen version of her father.
Earlier that day, I had been visiting Mom. She and I were in the community room, and one of the assistants, Natasha, was playing a variety of standards on the piano. Mom seldom sang along that day. When the piano playing ceased, the audience returned to its hushed state. The only sound palpable was that of grandchildren and great children of D. scurrying around outside the window. Natasha moved to prepare for another activity.
Mom’s head was drooping. She was beginning to snooze. The day was rainy, dreary. I too was ready for nap, though it was only three in the afternoon. I began humming a few bars from the last song Natasha had so lovingly played. “My bonnie lies over the ocean, my bonnie lies over the sea, my bonnie lies over the ocean, so bring back my bonnie to me.”
Seated around me were Ella, positioned in a wheelchair, a rather stubborn sort on occasion, and Janie, who walked around rubbing her hands together in worried pause, wondering where she was supposed to be, and Polly, skinny as rail, who roamed endlessly, wearing her Mardi Gras beads. I told her she was a little early, but the truth was, she’s been wearing the beads since she most likely absconded with them from someone else’ room.
A soft chorus erupted around me, as if the undercurrent of life had risen to the surface. Joanie began whispering. Patty warbling, my mother waking, beautifully intoning, “Bring back, bring back, bring back my bonnie to me, to me. Bring back, bring back, oh bring back my bonnie to…”
And here each woman paused, to take the breath the tune took, and then resumed….
It was a moment, just that, to savor.
Later that night, after we had navigated the crowds and strolled the two blocks to our home, I should have been singing any of Nat King Cole or Natalie Cole’s standards. But I wasn’t.
I was stuck on the damn “Bonnie” song, reaching for an imaginary recording of my mother, seated in the audience of the Sands, seated next to me witnessing Natalie’s breathtaking performance, seated next to me in her care home, roused from sleep by a number she knew.
That’s how Natalie must have felt, whenever she interfaced with a likeness of her father on a still photo, on the Pops screen, on any other recording, when she extended her hands towards the loving voice of her father.The belief that we can reach across atoms and particles and light waves and sound, barriers to the brain, and bring a loved one back, with the mere calling out of a melody.
Photo by Scott Preston, http://www.cincygroove.com