I was driving the other day, right before Thanksgiving, and desperately seeking a radio station that wasn't playing awful Christmas music incessantly. Seriously, we have a station that on Oct. 31 began playing "pop" Christmas tunes 24/7 and will continue to do so until after Jan. 1.
Anyway, I knew that if I heard yet another rendition of "Jingle Bell Rock," I'd start screaming, so I kept pressing the buttons on the steering wheel to locate a station -- any station -- that was playing tolerable music. I finally hit the jackpot -- Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" segued into his "Jungleland." I couldn't stop smiling, despite the tears in my eyes, by the memories the songs evoked.
In our house, the station on the kitchen radio, and even on the fancy stereo system, was always set to the classical music. Until the end of her life, my mother Stella always played classical and opera, with the occasional foray into jazz, folk and NPR, if the mood struck her. She had appointed herself as the arbiter of music and we all had to abide by her rules since the main sound system belonged to her.
Even though I had my own turntable and speakers in my room, I was always required to play at least two hours of classical for every one hour of rock. Sometimes it was just too complicated, so I didn't play anything at all. The same rules went for TV. I was allowed to watch a half hour of television from early Monday until late Friday. If I wanted to watch an hour show, I'd have to save up and watch every other week. Most of the time, it was just too complicated, so I skipped TV altogether.
When I was a very new teen, Bruce Springsteen became (and still is) one of my favorites. I loved the whole Born to Run album. I willingly tolerated two hours of lugubrious piano dirges just so I could listen to it. I was an honest kid, so even though my mother was at work, I still abided by our agreement.
One day, as I was blaring out the album, there was a diffident knock on my door. This in itself was unusual, since most times everyone just barged in. In fact, I deliberately kept a pile of clothes on the floor strategically placed (and clean since I did my own laundry from age ten on) to cause the adults difficulty in reaching my bed. Not that it did any good. I'd place my bed in one position, and if I went away on an overnight or to camp, I'd come home and find my room rearranged the way my mother wanted. Then I'd do it my way again and have to listen to the complaints of how long it took to redo it, and why did I change it.
The door opened a crack and my Yiayia stood in the doorway. "Jungleland" was playing and it was at the point of the late, great, Clarence Clemons' wonderful saxophone solo. She had tears in her eyes.
"ποιος είναι?" (Who is this?) She asked.
I told her and she came in and sat on my bed. Not a word was spoken about the state of my room, just a request to play the album from the beginning. "What a wonderful storyteller!" she exclaimed as we played the album again.
As Bruce wailed the last notes of "Jungleland" for the second time, she stood up and asked me if he was Greek, because of the quality of his voice and lyrics. I told her no, that he was from New Jersey.
"Ah, that explains it," She replied. Yiayia landed in Massachusetts when she arrived and thought that the entire eastern seaboard had a Greek tragedy type of sensibility.
For once, I wasn't just the sullen teen, and she, the aristocratic grandmother, confused with my ongoing rebelliousness. That day changed our relationship forever. We found common ground over the album, and the stories "o Bruce" told.
That album even freed up the downstairs stereo. A couple years later, my uncle and I were painting the living room, and Yiayia was supervising. My mother was at work, when after an hour of nonstop complaining from me, Yiayia said, "Bring down your album." I knew which one, raced for it, and put in on. Before I knew it, we were in the middle of the second coat and were actually dancing around, Yiayia too, when my mom came home.
She was stunned at her brother, daughter, and 80-year-old-plus mother dancing and singing as we painted. Even so, she went upstairs, changed clothes and came down and joined us. We never knew she could rock with the best of us!
When we finished painting, my uncle got us all pizza. We made Stella listen to Born to Run in its entirety and she even conceded its operatic qualities. For full disclosure, my mother did buy me The Who's Tommy, since it was a "rock opera" and she'd heard nice things about it. It actually counted as part of my "classical" hours because it had the word "opera" in it.
Jungleland, with its lyric storytelling, remained my yiayia's favorite, even though she appreciated other Springsteen albums. When I went to Ohio Wesleyan and then grad school at the University of Pittsburgh, I'd call home and play the album in the background as we chatted and caught up. When it came to the end, where the lyrics are "Outside the street's on fire..." we'd sing together till the end, and then say good night.
I was alone one night with Yiayia when she was in her nursing home, visiting before going out of town. My mom and uncles had gone for coffee. Poor Yiayia was a shadow of her former self, a thin, tiny woman drifting into her senile dementia shadows, rarely cognizant of her surroundings. I didn't know what else to do, so I started softly singing, and when I got to the line "What's fact and what's fantasy," she opened her eyes and smiled at me, and whispered, "Tonight in Jungleland..."
I kissed her goodnight and told her I'd see her when I got back.
It was the last time I saw her.
This past weekend was one for giving thanks, and the prelude to the, sometimes, bittersweet holiday season. I am happy in my own life, and always look forward to a shining future, however I never forget where I came from, or the influences that made me... unique.
While others were out celebrating with family, I was remembering mine. Even though they are all gone now, and there's no more dancing in the living room, every time I hear I Bruce Springsteen's voice... especially Jungleland, I stop and relive those fragile memories.
Think it's time to give a listen... and maybe, if the mood strikes me, dance.