Free Story: Music
There was a note taped to the top of the first box of albums. It read:
Keep your music close. It will bring good things to you.
It reminded me of something Uncle Ellis told me back when I was in college. This was about two months before Mom passed away. She was pretty sick then, and as usual, no one knew how to get in touch with Uncle Ellis. He never seemed to be in any one place for more than a few months. But then one day he just showed up.
I opened the front door to check Mom’s mail and there he was, strolling up the walkway in faded bellbottom jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, with a leather backpack that looked like it had been around since the Pony Express slung over one shoulder. He wore the same dreadlocks he’d worn for as long as I could remember. The only thing different about him this time were the strands of gray interlacing his black braids.
He stepped up onto the porch, shook my hand and grabbed me in a bear hug. “How’s my sister?” he asked.
I don’t know how he knew that my mother was sick. Like I said, nobody ever knew where he was or how to get in touch with him. But there he was, showing up right on time like he always did.
He spent most of the morning up in my mother’s room. Then after lunch, we sat out on the front porch, with me on a patio chair and Uncle Ellis in Mom’s straight-backed rocker. We talked – mostly him asking me how things were in college and him commenting a few times about how proud Mom was of me, and how proud he was of me.
Then we had a spell were we didn’t say anything at all. We just sat on the porch, watching traffic and probably thinking about what life was going to be like without my mother in it, and hoping that somehow fate would make a U-turn and she’d be all right. At least that’s what I was thinking.
And then Uncle Ellis asked, “If you had to associate your favorite memory of a song with your mom, what song would it be, and why?”
I thought about that for a minute, and then answered, “‘Love or Let Me Be Lonely’ by the Friends of Distinction.”
“Why that song?” he asked.
I said, “I remember her in the kitchen when I was a little kid. She was making cookies, I think, and that song came on the radio. She liked that song, and she started dancing and singing along with it as she did her thing with the cookies.” Reliving that memory got me a little choked up. My voice trembled as I added, “That was a good day.”
Uncle Ellis nodded at me and said, “Yeah, I remember that jam.” He rubbed the stubble on his chin and gazed up at the clouds, and then began rocking slowly. His eyes had a far away look, as if he were looking at something beyond those clouds; something in his mind’s eye. He started humming the Friends of Distinction tune, and a slow smile spread over his face.
I watched my uncle as he lost himself in a place in his memory. His humming turned into singing, and he went through the chorus in a voice barely more than a whisper. He wasn’t singing for my benefit; he was singing to himself, for himself. He wasn’t with me on the porch anymore. The song had taken him somewhere else.
When he was done, still rocking and smiling, he muttered a soft, “Yeah.” He wasn’t talking to me, either. He was talking to the gods of music. Then he looked at me and said, “That was a good song, nephew.”
“Yeah, it was.”
He stopped rocking and turned and leaned toward me. “Always remember music,” he said. “Music is the soundtrack of your existence. Songs are the bookmarks in the novel of your life. When you’re having good times, always remember the music that was playing. Then in the years to come, whenever you hear those songs, it’ll be like opening up that book to a favorite chapter in your life and reliving that moment all over again. My nephew, my brother, keep your music in your heart and soul. If you do, the precious memories of your life will never leave you. If you keep your music close, good things will come to you”
On that day on the porch I thought Uncle Ellis was just talking some of the crazy talk my mom said he did when he was smoking “that stuff.” But today, as I opened the boxes of albums he’d left me and placed them on the shelves in my apartment, it was like reliving my life. There was so much nostalgia associated with the images on the album covers; so many memories associated with the songs.
I came across The Fifth Dimension’s Greatest Hits. One of the listed tunes was ‘Aquarius – Let the Sunshine In.’ I remembered a home movie my mom had of Uncle Ellis and his hippie friends from back in the day, hamming it up, singing that song for the camera. The memory brought a smile to my face. All of a sudden I was very glad that I’d hung onto my mother’s old turntable. I fired up my stereo and put the album on.
I sang along with the music as I unpacked the records and put them up. I had the volume cranked, so at first I didn’t hear the knocking on my apartment door. When I did, I turned the stereo down fast, figuring that I must have been disturbing one of my neighbors. I went to the door, preparing to offer my apologies.
A twenty-something sister stood on the balcony outside my door. She was cute, but what struck me at first was that her hair was styled in an Afro, and that she wore gold hoop earrings, a tank top and faded bellbottom jeans. Who the heck dressed like that these days?
She didn’t look annoyed at all, but greeted me with a smile full of sunshine.
“Hi,” she beamed. “I’m Angie. I’m moving in next door, and I heard your music playing – ‘Aquarius.’ So I’m like, ‘Oh my God; who’s playing that?’ I love that song! It’s so classic, you know?”
As I stood in my doorway looking out at this angel who seemed like a link to my family’s past, and therefore my past, I remembered the note left to me by my late Uncle Ellis:
Keep your music close. It will bring good things to you.
Rest in peace, Uncle Ellis, and thank you.