My mom could never get the name right of her favorite song. Its real title was “Joy to the World”, but she just called it “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog”. I would try to correct her and she would ignore me. She had many instances like this where, when confronted with the truth from me, she would balk as if I was the crazy person.
“The boys like those ray-man noodles,” she would say.
“It’s ramen, Mom.”
“Maybe that’s the way they say it out West.”
“No, Mom, this is not tomato and tomahto. This is like me pronouncing it house and you pronouncing it hise. One of us is right and the other one sounds like a well-meaning moron.”
“Stop being so ridiculous.”
Mom and I had outlooks on life that differed far beyond saying it tomato or tomahto. I was her artsy, sensitive daughter. She was my stoic, practical mother. I lived in the creative and symbolic. She acknowledged nothing but the most literal version of everyone.
Which brings me to the time we spent upwards of four hours planning the music for her funeral visitation.
You might not even realize this is a thing, but it is. Beyond just the funeral, there is usually one or two sessions where family and friends can come to the funeral home and pay respects to the dearly departed.
The whole pomp and circumstance generally runs 2-3 hours. During that period, which includes a lot of quiet time, music will play in the background. When my grandpa died a couple of years ago, the songs were strange elevator muzak versions of pop hits. I was so jarred hearing the Kenny G-esque version of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” I couldn’t even be all that sad he was gone. I was too busy being downright perplexed why my farmer, good ole boy grandpa would have a song about cartoon lions falling in love playing at his wake.
So when we went to the funeral home to plan Mom’s services before she died, I was quick to ask if we could bring our own playlist. Dolores had meticulously pre-planned every aspect of her funeral, but this hadn’t crossed her mind. Rather than be relieved there was one less thing about her own impending death she had to consider, my mom immediately grew concerned.
“Well I think you will need to run them by me first.”
“I know what kind of music you like. It’ll be Elvis and The Carpenters, it isn’t like I am going to pick Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.”
This was not sufficient for Dolores, who never met something she didn’t want to completely control every aspect of, so we came up with a musical selection process more intense than vetting potential freshmen at Ivy League colleges.
Mom’s hearing was not what it used to be thanks to the chemo, so the first step of the process was for me to read aloud the lyrics of a prospective song from beginning to end. When I say all the lyrics, I mean ALL of them.
For example, I had to say all 22 “ooh-oos” in “Ooh Child”. If I tried to say something like “get easier, get brighter, etc etc,” Mom would stop me.
“Ahem. What does it fully say?”
I don’t know if my mother thought I was trying to slip f-bombs in without her noticing, but even if I skipped them in the reading, they came to light during step two, which involved silently listening to the song in its entirety.
When the song was over, she would take anywhere from ten seconds to a couple of days to decide whether or not it was acceptable. The longest battle came when she specifically requested a Beach Boys song and I brought her “God Only Knows“. She tried to veto it as soon as she realized the song started “I may not always love you,” which she deemed “a terrible sentiment,” but she listened to it and heard my argument that tens of thousands of funerals had previously used this song before she acquiesced a couple of days later.
Other songs were not so lucky. Some she would cut off right away, like “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. Mom and Dad both adored John Denver, so one of the first songs I set aside for the playlist was this pretty ditty about the beauty of going home to the country.
We started out successfully enough with “Almost heaven,” but as as soon as I got to “West Virginia”, she abruptly scoffed.
“West Virginia! Jessica, I am not from West Virginia! That does not make any sense. What’s next?”
I tried to rationalize with Dolores that her brothers, sisters, mother, nieces, and nephews would probably not mistakenly believe she is from a state she is not from, but she insisted it was just preposterous to try and make this song fit in at her visitation, so it was axed.
She suggested another Denver tune, “Sunshine on My Shoulders”, but I had to advise my mom a song with the sentiment, “If I had a day that I could give you, I’d give to you a day just like today,” was probably not going to be very comforting to her grieving relatives. Mom relented.
My persuasive skills helped convince her the ideal The Carpenters song for the occasion was “We’ve Only Just Begun“.
“I don’t know, Jessica,” she said uncertain after the song finished playing. She loved Karen Carpenter and the mood of the song was appropriate enough, but she had one concern.
“It sounds like it is about newlyweds just getting started.”
Mom believed in heaven. We all did, which helped Dad’s death in 1992 be a little easier. Knowing that and knowing how much what I was about to say was helping me be okay with things, I offered this insight:
“Won’t you just be beginning your eternal life together up their with Daddy though? You’ve waited a long time for it.”
She gave a little nod and what I swore might had been a small grin and it was on the list.
For some artists, like Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton, it fell to me to scour their catalogs even though they were her favorite artists. Parton just did not have many songs about death and Mom did not like the standard Elvis fare.
She decided of all Elvis songs to select “The Wonder of You“, a weirdly bombastic song of love about how great the woman Elvis sings about is. I think she wanted us to be reminded how great we found her while still remaining happy. Many songs made the list both because they were palliative and because they were chipper. In our initial pass, none pleased her more than Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” for she hated the sentiment that things happened for a reason and because you could tap your foot to it. I lobbied for a more somber cover of the song, but she insisted we needed the peppier version.
Dolly Parton was a much more difficult task. I thought I had nailed it with “Coat of Many Colors”, a song about love, family, and the power of sewing. My mom grew up as a relatively poor farmer’s daughter and grew up to be a seamstress acclaimed by everyone who saw her work, so the song seemed a fitting reminder about how family is worth more than money.
Not according to Mom.
“Jessica, this song makes it sound like we were dirt poor. We weren’t dirt poor, this is embarrassing. Lord no.”
At this point, I became selfish. These songs were for me. I wanted to pick them so when I had to stand over her casket and say goodbye I could listen to something that reminded me of the feelings Mom brought to my life. As someone whose mood could be ruined or rescued by a song, I wanted to ensure there was a stream of lifelines playing throughout the night. Mom was more concerned with whether or not these were exact depictions of what her life looked like. I snapped.
“Christ on a cracker, Mom, what is it you think is going to happen at this visitation? You think strangers are just gonna wander in off the street in droves, sit silently in the back nibbling off the free cold sandwich plate you selected assessing who you were as a person based entirely on what music is playing? ‘Oh this is that ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ song that says ‘I don’t hear a word they’re saying’, she must’ve been deaf!”
She paused, then said, “I think we are done for the night.”
I skulked off and cried. Here was something I thought I could give her that she couldn’t give herself. Not being artistic, she lacked the creativity to think of songs that embodied her life and who she was and this was where I was supposed to step in and save the day. Instead we only had eight or nine songs and I would not be able to listen to them that day without thinking about how I had yet another argument with my mom because she is incapable of not taking everything at literal, face value and I couldn’t accept she was never, even in death, going to appreciate a song’s symbolism. Jeremiah was a frog and nothing else.
A few days later, I was running some errands in Mom’s car. The radio was programmed to the oldies station. I found myself bopping my head with the music, not really thinking about what I was listening to when I realized what the words were saying.
“By George, I think we’ve done it,” I yelled to myself, then immediately drove home.
My mom was visiting with my aunt and I interrupted their chat because it was that urgent.
“Mom. I have it. I have a song we are both gonna love. It makes me think of you and it is the most literal song about dying to ever exist.”
I cued up the song, which I am sure you’ve heard countless times before. The opening riffs of it have been used in no less than a dozen movies, usually over a montage of athletes preparing for a big game or soldiers headed into war. Sometimes it is the music of choice for movies about people heading out to ride their Harleys on the open road. I wanted it for my mother’s funeral.
You’ve likely not listened to the words much. They’re pretty simple. It is about a guy who was a good Christian and tight with Jesus during his time on Earth, so now he is off to “the place that’s the best.”
Mom’s face lit up and she smiled as she bobbed her head along.
“It’s perfect,” she told me.
My aunt stared at us, unsure of what was happening and I explained what we were looking for in songs. Expecting we would just pick Christian hymns, she was shocked enough we were using pop songs, let alone this rock gem of the 1970s.
“Well Dolores,” she said. “You sure do have a strange sense of humor.”
It wasn’t about being funny though. Mom wanted songs with concrete purposes. Songs to make us feel better, songs to make us happy about her, and songs like this to remind us that this may have seemed like a sad occasion, but it was ultimately a good thing. She couldn’t leave it up to interpretation, she had to be sure that it very, literally, and completely assured us things were going to be okay.
They weren’t okay. But everyone did comment on how fitting and appropriate the songs were. How much they reminded them of her. In that sense, I got what I wanted too, which was the reassurance I knew how to capture the not so obvious spirit of mom departing for the very tangible sky in her song.
I let out a deep exhale after the last song on the playlist started. Tears started to well knowing this thing, one of the last things about my mom I could look forward to, was almost over. They subsided as the song got to the chorus though.
The experience of making the playlist with my mom was a reminder of how stuck in her ways and stubborn she could be, but this last song reminded me of the side of my mom even her sister was shocked existed. A side only we knew about. One that could by hysterically predictable, but when it did surprise you, it was always best kind of surprise. So when she asked if she needed to include this last song, I was taken aback, but so overjoyed to oblige.
I smiled, then quietly sung along for a second, thinking about my bullfrog and how much I’d miss her.
“I never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine. And he always had some mighty fine wine.”
2 thoughts on “Joy to You and Me”
Music as you know has always played a large part in my life. I cannot live without it. It speaks to the soul when words alone will not do. Beautiful Jess. Thank you for sharing.
Dear Jessica, I just read and listened again what you went through with your Mom to make a playlist. Would you be able to send the music from that playlist to me. I was so “not with it” that day that I didn’t really hear too much of the music. Since you went through such a process choosing the precise songs for your Mom, I would be grateful to listen to the whole playlist.
Thanks! love, Aunt Rebecca