In the middle of the night, I knew he had died. I opened my eyes, lifted my laptop from the floor, and googled his name plus the word “obit.” I pressed “search.” Sure enough, there it was. Three months before, at ninety-three, Walt had passed away. I had loved him, even though 71 years stood between us. The last time we met, he kissed me on the cheek. I didn’t wash my face until the next day.
Walt was one of my “SingerStorytellers,” those with and for whom I wrote my senior thesis in college. Eight of us—seven ninety to ninety-four year olds, and me, clocking in at twenty-one, met every Friday for one year and created musical memoirs, singing songs and hearing stories. Each week I presented several songs from different genres or themes, such as “classical,” “patriotic,” or “popular in the 40s.” As we sang the songs, the SingerStorytellers shared memories of their collective past, which inevitably led to songs that they would remember on their own. I learned about my SingerStorytellers, only several of whom had any formal musical training, as individuals, as a group, and as members of a generation who would soon cease to sing. Music served as our catalyst for memory.
I wanted to be the keeper of their life moments, the one who saved them from their bodies, from their minds. I had overzealous notions of being a champion for the aged, an award-winning ethnographer, modeling myself after anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, who, like me, once found her subjects in a retirement community. I took pages and pages of notes, transcribed until my eyelids shut. Walt’s voice grew to be the one I listened to the most as I rewound and pressed play on my tape recorder. I didn’t realize I would fall in love.
When answering my questions, Walt was fond of saying “I don’t want to expound on it,” and then smiling, almost slyly, his playfully bushy eyebrows rising ever so slightly. Ten minutes later, he’d tap me on the shoulder, run his hand over his non-existent hair, and tell me the rest of the story. His eyes were bright. “My eyes just don’t work,” he’d explain as he adjusted his thick wire-rimmed glasses. During an early session, I passed out song lyrics to “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” so we could sing as a group and share our memories of the holiday season. Walt put the lyrics down, and when I asked him why, instead of responding “well, you naïve and insensitive college student, I can’t see because my eyes are ninety-two years old,” he replied, “I’d rather dream about that Christmas.” He promptly fell asleep.
Walt cried often, especially after songs that reminded him of his wife. His tears didn’t seem to disrupt the other SingerStorytellers, but the first time I saw him begin to sniffle and push his glasses to his forehead to rub his eyes, I froze, assuming I had hurt his feelings. Yet whenever I asked whether he was okay, he took his white handkerchief out of the pocket of the red plaid shirt he always wore, wiped his eyes, and said “Of course… it happens.” By the next song, he was tapping his mahogany cane or, on bad days, his metal walker, to the rhythm, smiling. At the end of our sessions, Walt was always smiling.
I was nervous about leaving Walt and the rest of my SingerStorytellers for winter break. I wasn’t going to pass up my month-long vacation to stay in the tundra of upstate New York, but the thought did cross my mind. “You’re crazy,” my housemate chided me. “I’m not crazy,” I joked, “I’m just in love with my old people.” “I knew there was a reason you weren’t hooking up with anyone right now,” my other housemate chimed in. “You’re in love with some ninety-year-old!” I explained to both of them that of course I didn’t want to date my thesis subject — I just didn’t want to lose him. Loss was something we, as soon-to-be college graduates, collectively and conceptually understood, as we were on the cusp of losing the only things we had ever known: school, structure, security. By the end of our conversation, I was contemplating squatting in the woods behind our locked on-campus house during vacation, just so I could visit my SingerStorytellers to make sure they weren’t going anywhere, and my housemates didn’t think I was completely crazy. In the end, I resigned myself to going home.
My first visit back after the break, I re-assembled the group and saw Walt walking in the hall. At first he didn’t recognize me, but as I got closer, he proclaimed, “My God! It’s you! I didn’t think I would see you again!” He grabbed my shoulder and kissed me on the forehead. I felt the same way I had felt when I was twelve and my boyfriend of three days told me I was “hot.” I melted. After a month apart from my SingerStorytellers, I understood that I could walk into the doors of the nursing home and be greeted by one fewer participant, one fewer voice. Death and uncertainty were uninvited guests at our sessions each week, and often they spoke the loudest. I hadn’t known if I would see him again. But there he was — and he wanted to see me. Walt remembered me.
The weeks flew by. Some in the group moved, some died; the rest of them sang and talked and bickered and chastised me for being late to our sessions even when I was twenty minutes early. I found myself humming “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)” by The Andrews Sisters in between my classes, talking about different types of walkers when I was slightly drunk at parties, and sleeping with my tape recorder beside my pillow. I looked forward to greeting the woman at the desk who called me “the singing student” every Friday morning.
Walt started to sit next to me: each time he claimed it was because that’s where there was the best light, and then winked. He became more vocal, joking with me about the time I handed him the piece of paper that he couldn’t read — “I knew you were a real tenderfoot,” he chuckled. He regaled me with stories of his children and his “wild” youth. He showed me pictures of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, telling me that I must “meet them and sing with them! They love to sing and are much better than me.”
Walt invited me to join him in the dining room after our sessions, and once asked me to accompany him to a weekly gathering in which residents were allowed to have one glass of wine or beer. He didn’t like this rule, but he disliked the company even more. “All of those people are CRIPPLES!” he shouted. When I motioned to his walker, asking with my eyes how he was different from “those people,” he slammed his hand down on the metal frame. “I talk funny, walk with this thing, But I am still living. Those people are DEAD.” I didn’t dare to disagree.
I declined all of his offers to join him after hours (I was, after all, a budding ethnographer and couldn’t play favorites). But each afternoon as I left, I thought of us sitting underneath our own apple tree.
And then time did that funny thing that it always does — it kept ticking. I accepted a two-year fellowship in Mississippi, far away from upstate New York. I had a future, a plan. I was a few sentences from finishing my thesis, a few songs from completing my project. I desperately tried to hold on to those sentences, to hold out those notes, but I knew it was time to say goodbye to my SingerStorytellers, to him. I had always thought that by holding on to their memories I would somehow be able to hold on to them, and while this was true on paper, I didn’t anticipate how much it would hurt when I let go of their hands. I knew the more time passed, the more they would forget, the more I would become just another song that they vaguely remembered, just another sweet girl who came and then left. But I knew I had to let them go, and that meant letting Walt go too.
In the middle of our last session we started to talk about birds. Walt told our group that grackles — black and purple birds — had begun to appear outside his window. “I know that the other animals are coming when I see them,” he explained, “I know that a new season is around the corner. The grackles are the first to arrive.” I asked if the birds were pretty, and he thought for a minute. Walt looked me in the eye and took his time forming his thoughts. “Everything that is alive is pretty,” he said. I blushed.
After the session ended, I walked him back to his room. I held on to his right hand so that he could keep his balance. I tried to say goodbye, and Walt firmly kissed my cheek. “Claire,” he said, “for birds like you, I am alive.” I smiled. I sniffled. I closed his door. I went home.
The night I found Walt’s obituary I stayed up thinking about grackles. What do grackles sound like? Grackles, the creatures that mark the renewal of time. It wasn’t their beauty that was striking, it was their presence.
I googled “grackle,” pressed “search,” and listened to their call. Their voices were calm but assertive. Grackles function as helpers to other birds of the species. They are older, wiser. They walk instead of hop — deliberate in speech, and in action. They were exactly like Walt.
He saw beginnings and endings in a bird. He heard its call and knew he was alive.