Send In The Clowns
“Daddy,” she asked as I attempted to rock her to sleep, “can, can, can you sing the other song?” At night we put her in her crib and let her do the work. But nap times are more challenging, so even though Ada is now two years old, I still rock her to sleep in my arms before laying her down. Sometimes I sing, but only if she approves. “No, no, don’t sing,” she says sometimes, often after gently grabbing my chin to tilt it in her direction.
Ada is child number three. With each new child the bedtime playlist has changed, but not radically so. You pick up a few new songs, drop a few others. Still there are anchors. Perhaps sung less frequently, but always at the ready when the current chart toppers go out of style.
What was the other song? The day before I’d burned through my current set list and she was still not down. I had to change it up before she got her second wind. I reached back for some songs that I’d sang to Ella, our oldest, when she was a baby. End of the Road. Send in the Clowns.
I launched into End of the Road — predictably starting in the wrong key so that I’d left myself stranded by the time the chorus came around. Thankfully, Ada saved me. “No, not that song.”
Cue up song number two in my 2011 lullaby playlist:
Isn’t it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air,
Where are the clowns?
I paused, “Is this the song?”
“Huh,” she said, her own personal version of ‘yes’. “This, this, is a bootiful song.”
In the week since she first asked about the ‘other song’, it’s become a constant request. Unlike Sunshine, or all the Frozen songs, she doesn’t really know the words. That’s probably because I don’t really know the words, at least I don’t know the words in any consistent order. But it doesn’t stop her from trying to sing along, her mouth flexing around as if she were doing vocal warm-ups through the verses until finally settling on an exaggerated ‘O’ as we get to ‘clOwns’.
‘Daddy, do you love this song?’ she asks.
‘Yes, yes I do.’
Send In The Clowns is literally one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. But I should clarify that I’ve only ever listened to the version as its sung by Frank Sinatra. The song, written by Stephen Sondheim, was originally composed for the musical “A Little Night Music.” It became more popular when Sinatra recorded a cover, and then when Judy Collins covered it yet again. Ask Alexa to play the song and you are likely to get a version by Barbra Streisand.
The song is all about a couple who have drifted apart — and when one of them finally decides they want to commit for the long haul they realize it’s too late. Sinatra’s version is slow and unassuming. The music from the orchestra in the background isn’t so much playing along with him as it is haunting his words.
After two verses delivered in a gentle cadence that might allow for some less disheartening interpretation, the third verse takes off at a more frenetic pace and lands like a punch to the gut.
Just when I stopped
The one that I wanted was yours
Making my entrance again with my usual flair
Sure of my lines
No one is there
There are still two verses left, but the outcome is no longer in doubt.
My attachment to this song is about much more than the lyrics, or the ominous delivery. It is simply one piece in a Kevin-Bacon like game I play in my head:
My children listen to Sinatra (because I force them to, occasionally)
My grandparents listened to Sinatra
My grandparents brought my mother into this world and raised her. In many ways, from my perspective growing up, my grandparents were synonymous with my mother
My youngest two children never had the chance to meet my mother, and my oldest had precious little time with her
Ergo, Sinatra is a thread that stretches from my children in the present back to my grandparents, and from them forward into the past to my mother
I first made the connection between Frank Sinatra and my mother’s parents after one of them had passed away. No doubt I’d heard them play some of his music before, but it wasn’t until after they died that Sinatra become a proxy for them.
Frank Brayer died when I was 21. My brother and I had driven from Maryland to upstate New York, lagging a few hours behind my parents. He died late that night with his children, and a few of his grandchildren, gathered by his bedside. Some in the family speculated that he’d waited until my mom arrived, the one of his eight children who didn’t live close by.
A couple years later, almost to the day, Mary Brayer lay in a hospice bed in her home. Again, surrounded by her children. This time with a few more of the grandchildren as well.
Those two deaths bleed into each other. Someone laying in a hospital bed in a near comatose state. The strange sense of calm in the room preempted by a startle of fast breathing. And then sudden calm again. A body that seems perfectly normal one moment and then absolutely uncanny the next. Gatherings after the funeral that felt at times like celebrations.
One pin prick of a memory stands out from the others: sitting, or perhaps standing, in my grandparents living room when people started talking about taking things. Things to remember them by. My oldest cousin talked about taking one of their Sinatra albums.
In the following years I started listening to Sinatra now and then. Not regularly, certainly not obsessively. But big band music made it onto MP3 playlists where they would have been out of place before. Somewhere in my brain new neural pathways had formed to connect It Was a Very Good Year, Fly Me to the Moon and Come Fly with Me with Frank and Mary. I donned their music the way others wore a grandparent’s old jacket — feigning a casualness; but feeling as though history might collapse without it.
My mother died on March 11, 2013. In some ways, her death was much the same. In a bed, surrounded by those she loved. As with my grandfather, I was in a mad dash to get there in time.
But in other ways, her death was completely different. She was only 66. She’d arrived at the hospital with some signs of pneumonia, but there was no reason to think it would be anything but a full recovery. And whereas I’d made it to my grandfather’s bedside to kiss his forehead and speak some words I no longer remember, and sat in the room with his own children as he drifted off under a veil of morphine, I never made it to her beside in time.
She died while I was still in the air, halfway between Iowa and Michigan. When we landed I had a text waiting. Or maybe I texted my brother first. He didn’t want to tell me while I was still by myself, but I begged him. Bent over with my head between my knees, phone pressed into my ear, I heard him say “she’s gone,” as the passengers around me waited anxiously for the seatbelt sign to turn off.
Between flights I called my wife. Called my best friend. I spoke calmly. I didn’t cry. I don’t even remember a thing about the second flight — strange since I can still feel the anxiety that overwhelmed me during the first. I only remember landing and being greeted by my brother and my eventual sister-in-law. I ate Triscuits with some over-the-top garlic and herb seasoning on the ride to the hospital. I hugged my aunt. Squeezed my father. Saw her laying there lifeless. Felt very little.
That night I laid down on the couch in my parents living room. Still mostly in shock, but feeling an overwhelming sense of agony for my father as he made his way up to their bedroom. To sleep for the first night alone. The things by her beside just as she’d left them. A bathroom haunted by toiletries.
My grandparents lived in a house on Lake Lee Road, in the town of Irondequoit just outside of Rochester, New York. Irondequoit sits right on Lake Ontario and the house on Lake Lee was a five minute drive to the beach.
I don’t recall who, but someone in my family once told me that when my grandparents were younger they’d often go to see concerts at the boardwalk. They’d dance in one of the gazebos while some big band played in the background. Sometimes that big band would be accompanied by a singer of certain renown, like Frank Sinatra.
I’m not really religious (anymore). I don’t know what happens to us when we die, but I suspect it’s probably nothing. Still, when people would talk about my grandparents passing, when they’d go so far as to imagine what they might be doing in the afterlife, I had little doubt. They were dancing in a gazebo with old Blue Eyes leading the angels in some upbeat number — like My Way or New York, New York — my atheistic instincts be damned.
With my mother, though, it’s harder to tell such a simple story. I’d like to think she lives on somewhere. I hope she does. But I can’t quite seem to place where. Maybe that’s just a matter of her musical tastes: Enya is not yet dead (as far as I know). I don’t recall her having a special affinity for Sinatra or similar music of that era, so it seems strange to shoehorn her into my grandparents Foxtrot.
I suspect that at least part of the problem is how she died. Ripped away, so suddenly. Not just from me and my father and brother, but from my daughter — her only grandchild at the time. From my son growing in Rachel’s belly. From Ada — who would arrive years after she’d left. The one with curls she would have adored, and an unexpected petiteness that only the women with a hundred tiny tea sets could have fully appreciated.
It’s really the only bit of anger I have left about her death. Most of the time I’m able to think about how lucky we were to have her for those 66 years, how lucky she was to have all of us. She had 7 other siblings, she’d lived many different places, worn several different professional hats and helped countless people through her work and friendships. She’d taken her dream trip to Ireland.
But she was supposed to be around for their childhood, as her mother had been for mine. She was supposed to wait until they were older, until they’d had time to make a childhood’s worth of memories with her, until they’d had a chance to simply meet her at the very least, before laying down in a bed at home and vanishing quietly under white sheets as those around her nodded and held her hand and whispered that it was “time to let go.”
My family will be celebrating Thanksgiving in Rochester, New York this year. My children will finally have a taste of the Thanksgiving I grew up with. It’s the first time that anyone in my extended family will meet Ada. All seven of my mother’s siblings. My eleven cousins. And their children — mostly babies and other toddlers — with whom she will presumably have the most in common.
In bringing her and Ella and Lucas to my family, we will be bypassing Sinatra completely. Cutting out the middleman. She will be given direct access to those who grew up with her grandma Linda. Some who remained her grandmother’s closest confidants throughout her whole life. Folks who carry her grandmother’s stories. Her history. She may even be treated to a visage of my mother, in the form of my aunt Laurie, who has come to share a remarkable resemblance with my mother at a certain age.
I expect that by the time we’ve returned from New York her mind will be altered, if ever so slightly. Somewhere in her tiny brain new neural connections will have been formed, a pattern of electrical activity that encodes something of my mother. A memory of a picture of a ghost. Laying dormant until it is activated again by the smell of green bean casserole or pumpkin pie.
Perhaps one day, when she’s older, she’ll learn about something her grandma Linda loved. Dainty knick knacks, jewelry, collage paper, a young Orlando Bloom. Something she can touch or wear. Or listen to. And she’ll don it with the same feigned casualness with which I play Sinatra. A tiny act of rebellion against the insufferable march of time.
Note: this was previously published over at The Prompt.
Jesse, this is absolutely beautiful. What a lovely tribute to your whole family, past and present. Enjoy your Thanksgiving.
Absolutely fantastic Jesse, not only was Frank Sinatra a constant in our house while growing up, opera was always blaring as well. Your grandpa and grandma Brayer loved listening to music, grandma was prone to listen to Steve Tyrell, Edie Gorma, so many wonderful memories where created in my childhood. Can’t wait to see u all. Safe travels..love you Laurie