The classic songs from “back in the day” bring a touch of familiarity and provide a fun way to interact when memory is on the wane but musicality remains strong.
I have just returned from a delicious dinner with Helen, my 94-year-old friend and music buddy. We both love to sing and are prone to break into song at any time.
This evening Helen is especially lively. At dusk on a cloudless day with spring blooms bursting forth everywhere, just having enjoyed an excursion at our favorite Japanese restaurant, she spontaneously breaks into a song that is new to me:
What a day this has been
What a rare mood I’m in
Why, it’s almost like being in love
Such a sublime articulation of Helen’s joy state! We consult the all-knowing Internet and have a great time watching Gene Kelly singing and dancing to “Almost Like Being In Love” in the movie Brigadoon.
For Helen and many of her contemporaries, it’s all about the Crooner era and hit songs from the big musicals. Being able to search for songs online brings fun improvisational moments of social and musical engagement.
In the process of looking up Gene Kelly on my phone, I quickly navigate to “Singing in the Rain“—a pep-me-up in any weather. Helen is transfixed as she watches and listens to the dazzling dance number.
Speaking of Frank (whose music Helen adores), Helen taught me the chorus of his song “New York, New York” from the movie On the Town, and it has become one of our standards. It always makes us laugh to sing it.
One of our frequent walks down memory lane recalls a signature event in Helen’s life. Not long after her release from the Japanese-American internment camp where her family was forced to live during WWII, Helen and a friend traveled to New York City as young adults. What an exhilarating experience to see a Broadway production of South Pacific and hear “Some Enchanted Evening” for the first time, sung to Mary Martin by the famous opera singer Ezio Pinza:
Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger
You may see a stranger, across a crowded room…
Once you have found (him), never let (him) go.
Transfixed in the South Pacific audience with her traveling companion, little did she know that she was sitting next to the sister of her future husband, whom she didn’t know yet! Eventually she did see that “stranger across a crowded room” and they ended up together for 66 happy years. He is gone now, but we recall him often in conversation.
For accompanying wistful moments thinking of loved ones who have passed on, it’s hard to beat “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Helen and I sing along to the version by Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey’s band. When she gets to missing her favorite crooners, “Is Frank Sinatra gone?” may find me cuing up a YouTube of his classic “My Way.” Or “Is Andy Williams gone?” becomes an excuse to look up and sing along with Andy’s “Moon River.”
Although Helen knows and loves many songs, “Moon River” is her #1 favorite. We never tire of this special song and are prone to sing it at the drop of a hat, whenever we see the moon in the sky—or for no reason at all.
I treasure the way that Helen and I share music as a vehicle of communication. Through our relationship I have learned so much about her era of music and what songs people may retain meaningful connections with. She knows portions of lyrics to lots of songs, so once she catches on to what is playing, she chimes right in.
Helen’s musicality and conviviality have been vital to her identity through the years and remain robust even as her conversational range diminishes. At 94 years, all of her musical experience and affinity provide a foundation for vibrant and fun present-time connections to life, family, and memory.
Helen’s Music Videos Playlist
Familiar music brings comfort when memory is receding. Recordings of well-loved songs can be enjoyed time and again. Use the links in this article as a starting point. Wherever possible, the original movie versions and best-known recordings are used because these are especially effective in triggering musical and verbal memory.
Learnings from my musical friendship with Helen, as well as my involvement in the Threshold Choir over the past ten years, informed the making of “Music, Ministry and Spirit,” a video about bedside singing.