100 Awesome Things – Part 22

I started writing this yesterday. It was going to be about Led Zeppelin. They're all around at the moment what with the Kennedy Center Honors and the release of Celebration Day. I saw a bit of the O2 gig aired on BBC2 on Saturday and I was impressed with how not-sucky it was. How the three of them and Jason Bonham are all good enough musicians that it doesn't matter how snake-hipped or lion-maned one is.

And I was listening to the playlist I titled 'The Zeppelin Has Landed' on my iPod while I pretended to edit the novel o' doom. I hadn't decided what song to feature for certain.

Then in conversation with my dad and my brother at Costa Coffee at lunchtime, I realised what the date was. No, I cared not about 12/12/12. It's my brother's birthday on 14th so I gave him his present – a Noam Chomsky t-shirt, because that's how the kid rolls. Then I remember what today's date must therefore be.

If Wednesday was 12/12/12 and Friday was 14/12/12, then it follows that Thursday must be 13/12/12. And once we'd done birthday things, that mattered a great deal to me.

You see, my grandmother Maria died on 13/12/72, so today marks forty years since my family had to learn to live without her.

Once my brother had headed back to work, I settled in his vacant spot next to my dad and asked him to talk about Maria. He doesn't do it much, and usually cries off citing 'I can't remember.'

Well I discovered something: with a bit of time and a few gentle prompts, he can remember. Sadly, he is like my granddad in that he doesn't tend to talk about these sort of things.

I grew up with two of the four grandparents you're generally assigned. A maternal grandmother and a paternal grandfather. Awesome, and more than a lot of people get. I missed having Maria, though. I knew it even as a small child. My middle name is Marie, by the way. As a primary school child I went through a phase of using Maria instead, as if it could bring me closer. She was a ghost, someone else's memory.

I have never believed in the phrase "You can't miss what you never had" because I never had her and I always, always missed her.

Maria was born in the twenties in a town which was Italian at the time but had been Austro-Hungarian when her father embarked on his sailing career (embarked, boom boom) and would be Croatian by the time he retired. She was a teenager at the start of the war and an adult by the end of it. During that time she did some work for the local resistance (details unknown to me), was blown down a set of stairs in an explosion, and otherwise existed under an occupying force. Oh, and she had to live with the knowledge that her cousin of the same name was marched off to Auschwitz and would never know which Maria the bastards had intended to take. (Other Maria survived but was not allowed back home because the then powers that be presumed survivors must've collaborated with the enemy).

I ask you, could you live with wondering if your cousin was sent to the ultimate horror on your behalf? All the while living in or near starvation under an oppressive regime, while also being both young and pretty? Of dealing with air raids because your town has been chosen as a naval centre… of everything.

By the end of the proceedings, my granddad's unit had fought its way through North Africa and Italy. Long story short: Pretty young woman. Handsome young soldier uses Supply connections to 'borrow/commandeer/nick' some meat for her family. Marriage ensues in late 1945. My dad born in Italy in September 1946. Family goes to London. They live happily ever after.

That last bit isn't entirely true. The London to which Maria came was a bomb crater. The people had practically naff all for years after the war ended. I've seen film, photos and bomb maps of the area she came to (where I live, give or take a few hundred yards or so) and it was a crater, and I'm not exaggerating (except the brewery, saved according to legend because they used beer to put out the fires). She arrived in a big, stinking, deprived city where she knew nobody and they spoke a language that wasn't hers. She had to present herself and her child to In-Laws she'd never met, who hadn't seen their eldest son since he'd gone off to the war at the start of proceedings – almost a decade by that point.

It's at about that point that I think I'd probably break down as a quivering wreck of PTSD, fear, disappointment, hunger, fatigue and everything.

Well, Maria did have a breakdown in the 50s and I don't blame her or judge her for a nanosecond. I haven't mentioned yet that nobody who has spoken of her to me has a truly bad word to say about her. They speak of her endless generosity and kindness, her willingness to talk to just about anybody no matter who they were, how she was so often the centre of any gathering. In conjunction with my granddad, a man with more charm than Errol Flynn and Clark Gable combined with a beekeper, I can only imagine that people swarmed around them, that they were most always the centre of any group of people, as my dad describes. I would've loved to have seen them together…

I cannot express to you the deep, abiding sense of loss I feel when I consider Maria. I'm sure my relationship to my granddad would've been different. I even worry we would not have been so close. I wonder what he would've been like with her around. He never remarried after she died. I know of no relationships – I would not be unduly surprised to learn of something trivial/shallow, but I never heard a word of anything ever. He lived more years with her than without her, and rarely spoke of her to me. He didn't talk about things he found painful, not the war, not her.

We once had a brief exchange when I found some jewellery in a little box in a drawer in our living room. 'You know whose that is, don't you?' he asked. I don't know if he was just being his cheeky self or if he truly felt like he couldn't say her name right then. I don't know. So much is supposition, guesswork and just plain wondering…

To pull this back to music, which I always intended to do… as I said, I was listening to my Zep playlist. It also includes Solo Plant, of whom I am a big fan. The last album on the list is Raising Sand, which he made with Alison Krauss and T-Bone Burnett. The last song on there is called "Your Long Journey" by a country musician called Doc Watson. It's a lovely, very sad song… the record was released in October 2007, not many months after my granddad shuffled off the mortal coil, so you can imagine how I felt about a song all about a loved one dying before oneself.

"God's given us years of happiness here, now we must part/And as the angels come and call for you, the pains of grief tug at my heart."

Yesterday, after my dad and I went our separate ways, I put my iPod back on. The coffee shop we'd been hanging out in is about three units down the street from the church my grandparents attended, and I went inside to light some candles and take a moment for her. I have many issues with Catholicism, but it was her faith and her church so it's not a hardship for me to make a gesture for her there. And as I left, the song that came on my iPod was "Your Long Journey".

Religion/faith/spirituality aside, I think it's a great but very sad song: one of the best on the album in terms of the blend of the two voices. Plant's performance is restrained, understated. The harmonies are quite lovely, the arrangement simple and evocative. The lyrics are at once deeply sad and yet hopeful.

Regardless of a specific faith or religion, I know what I hope is waiting after death. All I really want is to see Maria and my other ghosts. I hope more than entirely believe it will happen, but that hope is what gets me out of bed some days. To see Maria at long, long last.

Then yesterday, I was listening to "Your Long Journey" and thinking about Maria and Granddad. They were married for 27 years but he lived another thirty-five without her. I only ever knew him in the context of his widower-hood, I knew only the man required to live without her. I only knew the man for whom 'Your Long Journey' is so very appropriate. In 2007 when I first heard it, I thought of it in terms of him and me, but now it seems much more appropriate for him and her.

"Oh the days will be empty, the night so long without you my love/And when God calls for you I'm left alone/But we will meet in Heaven above. Oh my darling… my darling… my heart breaks as you take your long journey."

As far as I'm concerned, this is on a par with Joe Brown's version of "I'll See You In My Dreams" in terms of loss music, different to that I talked about in my post about "Paint It, Black." The grief is different. Less violent, more hopeful. Because if we meet again, we can handle a separation for awhile, right? We're at either 'Bargaining' or 'Acceptance' in the Five Stages of Grief. It also rather pointedly reminds me that I do not – cannot – know the pain of losing someone with whom you were in love and who returned that same kind and depth of feeling. "Your Long Journey" is not for me.

One final thing: I asked my mother for her favourite memory of her mother-in-law. She emailed back with just:  'Lots of memories of Maria, always smiling.'

After everything, Maria was always smiling. She must've had a steel backbone after all, to be smiling after everything.

You can miss what you never had…



Previously in this series:

Part 21 – The Doors – "The Ghost Song"
Part 20 – The Rolling Stones – "Paint It, Black"
Part 19 – Big Mama Thornton – "Rock Me Baby"
Part 18 – Thin Lizzy – "The Boys Are Back In Town"
Part 17 – Nat King Cole – "Mr Cole Won't Rock and Roll"
Part 16 – Rory Gallagher – "A Million Miles Away"
Part 15 – The Shadows – "FBI"
Part 14 – Marilyn Monroe as Elsie Marina – "I Found A Dream
Part 13 – Kenneth Williams as Ramblin' Syd Rumpo – "The Ballad of the Woggler's Moulie"
Part 12 – Chas and Dave – "Rabbit"
Part 11 – The Beatles – "I'm Happy Just To Dance With You"
Part 10 – Duke Ellington – "The Mooche"
Part 9 – The Doors – "Who Do You Love?" featuring Albert King
Part 8 – Queen – "These Are The Days Of Our Lives"
Part 7 – Thin Lizzy – "Don't Believe A Word"
Part 6 – The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band – "Monster Mash"
Part 5 – Craig Ferguson – "Doctor Who Cold Opening"
Part 4 – The Bees – "Who Cares What The Question Is?"
Part 3 – Marvin Gaye – "Got To Give It Up"
Part 2 – The Dubliners – "Octopus Jig"
Part 1 – The Allman Brothers Band – "Statesboro Blues"

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