Sometime before 1928, my mother, a curly-headed child, is leaning out of a window, fascinated by the passers-by on — let us say — 135th Street in Harlem. In that same year, in a different part of the city, my father, dressed in a suit and a shirt with a painfully high collar, but having trouble hiding a smile, sits in the photographer’s studio, his mandolin on his lap.
My mother’s image exists only in my imagination; I can pick up the framed photograph and stare at it. These are my parents as the children I never knew, well before I was even an idea. But music ties these memories together, and ties them to my life.
At this late date, with my adolescence forty years gone, I think of how many hours I spent in my upstairs room in the suburban house my mother kept tidy, my father maintained. I was constantly playing jazz records, surely too loudly. The archaic but thrilling music of the 1920s and 1930s. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Eddie Condon, Bessie Smith.
My mother died in 2000, my father in 1982. What do I recall of their stories of their own childhoods?
She told me about wanting a dog as a child and her grandfather bringing her “a white ball of fur” when she was sick in bed with scarlet fever, a dog that grew up to be a beloved chow.
My father told me of his (entirely unaggressive) gang of Brooklyn boys – all with nicknames. I remember only that one was Doc, another pair Itch and Scratch. And their joke — perhaps beloved in his generation, his neighborhood? — to go under the window of your apartment and holler up to your mother, “Ma! Throw me down a roll and a glass of water!”
In my childhood, years later, while my father was working around the house, he sang the pop hits of his adolescence — in snippets, so that I didn’t know that they were real songs until I heard Bing Crosby and others sing them, twenty years later: “Lullaby of the Leaves,” “A Faded Summer Love,” “I Faw Down and Go Boom,” and more.
Some years after my mother died, my sister said, casually, “Did Mom ever tell you about the Cotton Club?” I know I said, “What?” and stared at her. “Mom said that when she was a little girl — they lived in Harlem, you know — she would look out the window or sit out on the front stoop and watched the beautifully-dressed black people — so beautifully dressed with fine hats and gloves — on their way to the Cotton Club.” I imagine one of them might have looked like the beautiful woman in this James Van Der Zee photograph.
It pains me now that I did not know this, and that my mother (even with those Harlem rhythms of my records, years later, pounding above her head in her suburban kitchen) never thought to tell me. I could have said, “Mom, what did those people look like?” “Did you ever walk by the Cotton Club in the daytime? The Savoy Ballroom? The Renaissance?” and on and on. I console myself that what is now critically interesting to me might not have occupied a great deal of space in her memory. I didn’t think to ask my father, “When did your family get a radio, and what programs do you remember listening to? Did you ever see any swing bands live?”
Of course, my mother’s story is a myth, easily punctured and brought down to earth by facts. I gather that the audiences at the Cotton Club were white. And did the entertainment start so early that she was able to sit on the steps, perhaps on a hot summer night long after little girls were supposed to be asleep, watching the people? Was she up early in the morning watching them come home? Did she see musicians and dancers on their way to other clubs? Could she have unwittingly seen someone whose music I now revere? What details was she unwittingly misremembering? But none of those details truly matter. The fuzziness, the half-wrongness of the story is essential to its charm, its enchantment.
That story is one of only a few windows I have into the life of my parents before I was born, before I saw them as My Parents, In Charge Of Everything. I recall with cinematic force those rare moments when they gleefully revealed something of their youthful romantic selves. Once, because of a record I was playing, they broke out of Being Parents to show me, in the living room with its gray rug, how they danced the Shag in the mid-forties. That bit of unexpected choreography lasted no more than twenty seconds, but it is indelible today.
There’s no moral to this tale, no implicit suggestion to readers, whether they are parents or children. Many of the questions that we want to ask we can no longer ask, and the dead take their past lives and their untold stories with them. But the glimpses they give of what it was like Before The World Was Made are tantalizing, lovely, elusive.