I can’t recall why that record player stayed at our house for a period of time, but it did; the only music I knew coming from vinyl disks as big as oversized pies was the theme song for “The Lone Ranger.” That I was very familiar with (our favorite family radio show), but not by the name of the “William Tell Overture” until I read it on its white label.
The rich are different from you and me. True, true, F. Scott Fitzgerald. The first obvious difference was that her family had upholstered chairs. I didn’t know the word then—just that the seats felt very cushy. All we had to sit in at home were wooden chairs with bottoms caned by Mama from strips of white oak. The only electric apparatus we had in the house besides a refrigerator was a radio.
One thing we Smiths did have in common with the Milner family was black shoe polish. Why I was polishing my shoes at their home with black liquid polish and why I was sitting in an upholstered chair to do so is not clear to me now. What will always remain lucid is that ugly spidery spot on the armchair when I spilled some of the shoe polish.
Most baby sisters wouldn’t be alive to tell this tale, but Ree has always been an exceptionally kind and wonderful sister. She was, in fact, as fond of my high school sweetheart as I was. He and I had a great time dating for those first four years. A date was comprised of driving up to Walters’ Store on Highway 171 for a Dr. Pepper. He also insisted on bringing his record player to my house so that I could listen to some of his favorite records. “Blue Christmas” was one I remember, probably because I had a very blue Christmas the first semester when I was home from the University of Alabama in possession of a much larger world view, but with a totally different boyfriend, and without a record player. It would have seemed too crass for me to ask to keep the record player as I handed him back his photos.
This year when my darling Tommy asked me what I wanted for Christmas, unlike other years when I have muttered some general remarks about the efficacy of health and happiness, I had a very specific and materialistic request: a record player. He and I had bought various turntables throughout our marriage, but this was our fiftieth Christmas. I wanted more: a record player that would convert all our music from aging vinyl records to DVDs. I had heard that the Crosley Director did just that, but also looked like the other old record players. I found a stack of them quite by chance at Belk’s near an exit door at the Galleria.
As soon as the box was in the house, I opened it and set up the record player. What was the use of having it for Christmas, I reasoned, if we couldn’t hear Jose Feliciano sing “Felice Navidad” and the “Carol of the Cherry Tree” during the holidays? Next step: find our old records. This search took me upstairs where I found a stack of those huge records with their original covers. I couldn’t remember at first what speed to choose: 33, 45, or 78. The performers ranged from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Carol Hensel’s and Jane Fonda’s aerobic workouts, and lots of strange things in between. Anybody remember, “Me and My Arrow”? Rod McKuen narrating and singing his poems? The original sound track from “Dr. Zhivago,” the first movie (and first date) with Tommy? The last record that size we collected was a gift from a business acquaintance of Tommy’s who mailed it to us from old Stockholm, where we had shopped on the narrow streets and enjoyed with him an amazing chateaubriand, my first, in a small restaurant. The recording was a series of songs by C.M. Bellman, well-known poet of Sweden, “To Carl Michael with Love.”
Better still than all of these, in my search through objects of days gone by, I found a little white rectangular carrying case with all the superhero figures of the 1970s on the outside in color stored in a bin. After the children were older, this bin held the small vinyl records from both the pre-teen selections of my daughter, Teresa, and the bedtime faves of her younger brother, Stephen.
Teresa is six years older than Stephen, just the same age difference as there is between my sister Ree and me. During this past few days of Christmas it has been fun to see the children eager to hear their favorites of this old, old music. Teresa wanted to hear “Felice Navidad” first; Stephen chose “Abracadabra,” one of the preteen selections that his very kind big sister shared with him, dancing while he bobbed up and down, the dance of a toddler.
I wanted to hear all the old music. I wanted the leisure of time to take one record off and put another on—one by one, in between making sugar cookies from The Joy of Cooking, an early edition handed down to me by Ree. I wanted to sing all the Christmas lyrics with Barbara Streisand as I cooked a boiled icing for the coconut cake and thought of my oldest sister, Ann, master cake baker, spending Christmas in a nursing home and my only living brother, J.B., hardly able to leave his home now. I wanted to think about my bff’s from college, Ivodean, Mary Frances, and Carol, and imagine what they were doing. I wanted to remember other friends, Johnny Bowyer, neighbor at The Marshes in Savannah, and Carolyn Watson, and Katonah Summertree, and Betty Clapper in Prattville—all gone. I wanted to remember Mama and Daddy and those other family members who were still around when I first heard the “William Tell Overture,” when happiness saturated me like a pleasant and familiar melody, when my heart knew little more about sorrow than the regret of spilling black shoe polish.