My mother taught me to dance. This wasn’t some white-glove ballroom foxtrot; my mom could do a hot lindy. She could shake it. Family lore has it that as a teenager she was prancing in front of the bandstand at Hunter College in New York City one night when Dizzy Gillespie looked down and invited her backstage to dance with him after the show. She chickened out, but that story gave her bebop bona fides for the next sixty years.
I love to dance. My mom taught me the basics and I was more than happy to add to her repertoire. I lost her with the Funky Chicken and the Boogaloo, but she could bop with the best of them. In the ’60s, I was widely acknowledged as the best white male dancer at Middlebury College. Faint praise, indeed.
When my mother was eighty-four years old she was deep into her Alzheimer’s. She had been a firebrand; a biting, caustic political speaker with a hard spirit and an agile mind who trusted no one. She used to read the newspapers and spit. Now her mind was at a crawl and she barely moved. Where she once had been fueled by radical passion, there was no fire behind her eyes. She hadn’t walked in several years. One morning she woke up and had stopped speaking. It was with tremendous effort that she was able to raise her hand from her lap, and when she finally got it to her face she had forgotten the reason for all that lifting. Her dancing days were over.
My mother was not an easy woman to satisfy; nothing was ever quite right. When I played her the first Bob Dylan album, enamored as I was with his smart and gritty folkiness and because I wanted her in my world, she said, “He’s no Pete Seeger.” When I played her the groundbreaking rock of Dylan’s electric Bringing It All Back Home she told me, “I liked him better when he was a folksinger.” The present was when nothing good happened. When I was 22 and needed to make my own decisions—when I needed to lead—I invited her off the dance floor of my life, and she never forgave me. Our life became a distant tango and we were always stepping on each other’s toes. She probed for bruises and dwelled on failure, so of course I told her none of mine, and she lamented our “pass the salt” relationship; as far as she was concerned, all I’d say to her was “Pass the salt.” “Pass the salt.” I heard it as “Past Assault.” If one of my books made the bestsellers list the phone would ring the first Sunday it dropped off, my mother wondering what had happened. The years immediately preceding her descent into her illness were not easy ones for either of us.
But, dutiful son that I am, I visited. Not often enough, no doubt. Not as often as my sister. My mother was at home with a full-time aide, and my time with her was a trial; the best I could do was try to get through it.
So I was sitting by her chair and holding her hand, going through the monologue of my week or month or whatever it had been since I’d last seen her: my son’s guitar playing, my work, the weather, the miscreants in the White House. I filibustered, but there’s a limited amount of time I can listen to myself speak. She had had her limits in that area as well, and after about ten minutes I ran out of things to say. I felt I had to be there for a while but couldn’t just sit in silence.
“Mom,” I asked her, “would you like to hear some music?” Already a study in irony; like asking a book if it wanted to be read. What was she going to say to me?
“Yes,” she whispered.
This was a surprise.
When I was growing up we had spent many Sunday mornings in our Greenwich Village home listening to Mahalia Jackson, Harry Belafonte, the Weavers—records that now sat on her shelves like tablets; the turntable had died long before. This was a while ago; I put on a CD. I had to unwrap it, it had never been touched. The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars.
We were never a klezmer family. While my mother had affection for what she called “deedle-dydle music,” which I suspect connected her to her Bronx ghetto roots, in my parents’ extensive record collection we’d never had a single klezmer album.
But I had seen these guys drive a crowd crazy at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which was why I’d bought my mom that music. They play a bizarre and beatific blend of klezmer, funk, and atonal fusion jazz, and the fans and fanatics in front of the Jazz Fest blues stage had found it impossible to sit still when the band turned up the heat. Sweating, twirling, jumping up and down, crowd and Klezmers had combined in a moment that had moved beyond music. If there is a God, He or She had been up and boogieing. Klezmer is how God gets down.
So I hit Play.
The clarinet was frenzied from the first note. A happy clamor. There was a party going on. The song was called “Freitog Nokhn Tsimmous.” (The CD cover translated that as “Friday Night Big Deal.”) I stretched out my arms, snapped my fingers and did a little Tevya as I walked back to my mom.
She was beaming.
Her eyes were open way too wide, her face almost bursting, as if desperate to tell me she was having a good time. She smiled. My mother smiled! As I sat down next to her, she leaned forward and began to rise from her chair. Only her physical limitations prevented her from hitting the dance floor. When she could propel herself no further she leaned back, her chin raised, and let the music pulse through her. She was alive. I looked at her hands, so arthritic, her fingers pursed, and she was tapping them on her leg—in rhythm! I looked at her legs. She was tapping her feet—on the beat!
The Klezmers brought my mother to life. The music went on for an hour and she boogied all the way through. During one number, when the saxophone and clarinet were wailing, the violin screeching, the accordion going wild, my mother spoke. Her head never moved, her eyes remained fixed; still, she said slowly, “This really gets to me.” It was the closest to a conversation we’d had in five years.
But when the music finally ended, my mom returned to her world. She slumped back in her chair, her chin lowered to her chest, her smile not so much snuffed out as evaporated. It left no trace. I put on her favorites, trying to reignite the flame. Billie Holiday. Nothing. Ella Fitzgerald. Bubkes. Frank Sinatra. Bobby-soxer that she was, she moved not a finger and spoke not a word.
To brighten her day I asked the women who took care of my mother to keep the music playing. My sister, who can’t abide klezmer, refused to put it on when she was around, which was much more often than I was. (She’s a good daughter.) But in the years before my mother died she and I had our routine; when I came to visit (not often enough, I know), we would put on our klezmer and we’d dance.
Peter Knobler has collaborated on the autobiographies of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ann Richards, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, Hakeem Olajuwon, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, Sumner Redstone and Tommy Hilfiger. With James Carville and Mary Matalin, he is co-author of All’s Fair: Love, War, and Running for President. Knobler has written songs with Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Chris Hillman, Steve Miller, and the E Street Band’s Garry Tallent. He is the former editor-in-chief of Crawdaddy, the first magazine to take rock and roll seriously. Knobler is the journalist who discovered Bruce Springsteen.
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Susan Davidman Cleveland says
My sister sent this to me. I had the same experience performing at senior citizen homes for 5 years. People came to life with the music they grew up on. I could not tell that they had Alzheimers or Dementia when we sang “Oh, Danny Boy” or “Hatikva”. This is a great article.
Susan Gilbert says
Beautiful, moving story of your mother, your relationship, and the power of music to bring back the memories and bring us all together.