Since 1971, Memorial Day has been celebrated as a national holiday on the last Monday in May. This long weekend also marks the beginning of summer, though it was first established in the 1860s as “Decoration Day” — a solemn time to honor U.S. military personnel who died while serving their country. Informally, it’s now a day to remember all of our departed by decorating their graves or offering other tributes.
I have appreciated reading obituaries since high school when I discovered that a mere 300 words could capture not just a life but often a fascinating history, whether it reads like a resume or a love letter. Way back when, the obituary — from the Latin word “obit,” death — was a legacy to honor aristocrats. Not until the 20th century did the “common man” obituary arise. Eventually this led to a celebration of ordinary people with folksy tributes, thus the list of usually three items the deceased enjoyed. In the Chippewa Valley it’s often the Packers (and Brewers or Badgers), something else, and grandchildren.
My all-time favorite was for Harry “Red” Madsen, a World War II veteran. He died in 1996, but his obituary still sometimes appears in newspapers around Memorial Day. I want to cheer over these lines: “Red loved his wives, his kids, everybody else’s kids, his family, dogs, fishing, whittling, doodling, reading (especially Mark Twain), Cord automobiles, hoisting a few with friends and telling stories. It pleased him that mischief might break out at any time, but it distressed him if anyone got hurt by it, unless maybe it was some powerful S.O.B. who deserved it.”
When I wrote both of my parents’ obituaries, I based them upon Red’s. From my mother’s: “Virgie loved God and babies and old people (long before she was one). Her purse was ready whenever she got a call to go somewhere.
She liked gambling and thrift sales and flea markets and finding a bargain, or, better yet, getting something for free.” And from my father’s: “Joe could make something out of nothing, and he could fix just about anything. He liked a bad joke and a good story. He gave blood religiously, and he voted in every election. His shirt was always tucked in.”
Sometimes obituaries are simply not enough. A new series from National Public Radio, “Songs of Remembrance,” puts names and faces to the over half a million American COVID-19 casualties. Loved ones like Danny Tomasik offer testimonies and links to songs they cherish. He will always associate Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” with his father, Jim, who died at age 58. Danny writes: “Dad was a morning person and liked to have YouTube on for music while he was relaxing, cooking breakfast. ... I used to complain that he listened to the same 10 to 20 songs over and over, but I’d give anything for another morning of him waking me and the others up with his usual playlist.”
Even now, certain records bring my parents back to me. Anything by Glenn Miller or Frankie Yankovic or Doris Day and Mom is sitting beside me in the car or Dad is snoozing in his favorite chair.
My mother loved “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” a song she first heard as a teen, pining for my father who worked two hours away from home on the railroad. When she could still sing — Alzheimer’s took her memory but not yet her voice — she’d croon “Lick me once and lick me twice.” I could never convince her the real lyrics were “Kiss me.”
A week before she died, Mom went into a deep around-the-clock slumber. Those first few awful days my sister and I crawled onto the single bed with her, along with Juliann’s daughters. The four of us nestled around Mom’s tiny body and played her favorite Big Band CD, a comfort to us all.
Seven years later my father died to the sounds of his children’s voices. My brother told some story while his wife and daughter and my sister and I filled the room with laughter. The expression on Dad’s face as he sucked in his last breath was more like a baby being born than a 93-year-old dying.
My father’s music came on 8-track tapes. Les Brown and His Band of Renown, Myron Floren, Whoopee John Wilfahrt — who still wins the prize for funniest name. Dad loved 40 year’s worth of Frank Sinatra songs and so many others. Did he collect 8-tracks because he got them free at thrift sales or because he enjoyed the sound? Likely: both. At every wedding reception Dad sought out Mom to dance when the band played their song “Sentimental Journey,” but it’s the toot of a far-away train whistle that reminds me most of my railroader father.
Perhaps none of us can predict what songs our loved ones associate with us after we’re gone. Will my best friend recall how I belted out “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” at every bar we visited in 1989? Will my son remember dancing with me to “Walk on the Wild Side” when he was just a toddler? As a kid I polkaed in the kitchen with my sisters to “In Heaven There is No Beer.” Today I dance in the dining room with my husband to “These Arms of Mine.”
Anyone who’s been wooed with a mix tape knows songs have the power to convey all kinds of love. Just a few first chords remind us. Hairband slow dance songs — “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Faithfully” — take me back to my high school gym. Wind in my hair summer songs — “Papa Don’t Preach” and “Livin’ on a Prayer” — instantly make me feel sun-kissed and tipsy.
On NPR’s tribute page, Rachel Belanger memorializes her Barbra Streisand-loving father, David, who died of COVID-19 at age 71. She remembers, “Dad and I enjoyed our ‘patio party times.’ Cocktails in hands and music running the gamut from Beach Boys to Spice Girls. ... One constant in these fabulous and sometimes very late father-daughter nights was the final song. He had to hear it before we wrapped it up. ... I’d play him ‘Songbird’ and this big 6’4” San Diego surfer electrician, with fingers the size of bratwurst, would slip into the comforting trance that only your favorite song can bring you.”