Ella Fitzgerald Makes Me Cry

Me and Grandpa, circa 1988. Note the matching immaculate hair styles.

August 31 would be my paternal grandfather’s (henceforth referred to as “Grandpa” or “Grandpa Shahen”) 95th birthday. For years there’s been a lot I’ve wanted to say about him, what he meant to me growing up and how much all the time I spent with him helped shape me into the person I am today. I’m not going to do that here; that story would be too long to fully flesh out and I don’t know that I even could. But, this is a start.

From the age of about 2 until about 16 or 17, I saw Grandpa Shahen nearly every day, excepting things like vacation. As much as he served a crucial role as the person who took care of me when my parents were at work, I probably served an important role in his post-retirement life, giving him a companion around the house after my grandmother died. Eventually, when we moved to Knox, we were neighbors, his house separated from mine by a little walkway.

I learned a lot from him. He was a voracious reader, taking on 3-4 books at a time, on heavy-duty political and historical topics, as well as pulp Mack Bolan novels and some of the sports/mass market paperback novels I read as a kid and early teenager. Really, no topic was taboo. He was probably the only person in America with subscriptions to both National Review and People Magazine and I tend to think that my ability to switch between high-and-low culture came as a result of this.

The love of the pulp magazines found at a newsstand was always hilarious, since for as long as I knew him, Grandpa was very much an adult. By the time I could really remember things (like age 5), he had been retired for quite some time. He was into gardening. He had that easygoing grace of manner and personality that I think most people wish they had at some point in their lives. While I was still a kid, playing with toys and watching cartoons and pro wrestling with him and my brother after school and on weekends when we stopped over, he talked to me like an adult, calmly and rationally. I was still a kid, but my opinions and thoughts and interests became topics of lengthy conversations that often put into context my interests with what it was like when my dad and his siblings were growing up.

Grandpa was a first-generation-born American. His family were Christians who left Syria (from what is modern-day Lebanon) a few years before he was born in 1920. They ended up living in Cohoes, where they ran a market. He went to college at RPI and eventually became a doctor. I asked a lot of general questions about his childhood and time with Grandma, but they were very general. It was a combination of both our ages at that time; i was a tween and he was in his 70s. In contrast, I have a thorough understanding of my maternal grandfather’s life because as he entered retirement years, I was in college and knew how to ask those questions. Among my many wishes in this life is the ability to go back and ask Grandpa Shahen what it was like to be an Arab in America. More of how he and my grandmother met, beyond it taking place during medical school.

The closest I got to a glimpse into those years came when I was like 14. That year, my mom and dad got him a CD player for his birthday. And he was thrilled. He never had a music-player of any sort in the house when I grew up, and he let met listen to whatever I wanted on the radio if we went somewhere. It turned out Grandpa had a love of 1940s/1950s pre-bop jazz and standards. This was the music he listened to growing up and going out with Grandma. I learned a lot from this, both about him and about that era of music. He thought Sinatra was ok, but Dean Martin was better. I listened to Duke Ellington and Cole Porter for the first time with him, music I didn’t quite get back then but have since grown to appreciate. Then there was his favorite, Ella Fitzgerald.

He just loved her voice and I came to as well. It was my first experience really hearing the Great American Songbook and I came to see why he enjoyed her deft vocal touch. I could imagine he and Grandma out somewhere, on a vacation or just growing up together in their 20s,  dancing to “The Nearness of You,” “Love You Madly” or “Prelude to a Kiss.”

Fast-forward several years and Grandpa became increasingly infirm, living out the last 3 years of his life in a nursing home before passing away in 2005. I was in my sophomore year of college. I didn’t visit him nearly as much as I should have, but I don’t know that I could have if I tried. It was tough, but I think he understood. Prior to his admittance to a nursing home, there was a moment when I was helping him walk after a surgery. He could sense how hard it was for me emotionally coming to terms with it all, and kissed me on the cheek. I still saw him a lot after that but in retrospect, that was probably the real moment we said our goodbyes.

The afternoon he died, I went to my room to reflect and mourn privately. I turned on one of the CDs we bought him, Ella Fitzgerald’s Love Songs: Best of the Verve Song Book. The first song is “From This Moment On.” I lay down on my bed, wept and thought about everything, all the positive memories and experiences I was fortunate to have. The next morning I put together some of those thoughts for his eulogy.

For years after I didn’t give that album a second thought. Then on a whim, I threw it on in the car on my way to work. That song played and all the memories, of that day, of everything, came flooding back.

To this day, I can’t make it through that song without tears. It isn’t a sad song; it’s a happy one. And my memories and those times aren’t sad times; they are happy times. So as Ella sings, “From this happy day, no more blue songs, only whoop de doo songs, from this moment on.”