Thursday, November 17, 2016

Ah Sweet Mystery of Life

I don’t remember the precise moment I met Fran Hament. But I do know it was love at first song. Eight years ago, I started playing the piano for my Mom at the Jewish Home for the Aged. Our words had mostly run out, so it was time to be together with our first, last and most beautiful language—music. My Mom didn’t sing or play herself, but coming to age in the 40’s and 50’s, she was fluent in the vernacular of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and the like. I liked to think that hearing the old familiar tunes would help bring her back to a happier time and offer some comfort and familiarity. And I think it did.

But then along came Fran and she sang every song I played. Every one. Knew all the words and all the notes and though she had never been a trained singer or performer, had an uncanny precise intonation. And then started suggesting the songs that I didn’t know yet and this became my weekly homework, to go home and learn them. Which I faithfully did.

And so we shared eight years of joyful music making, every Friday afternoon and sometimes more. We made up—apart and together—new lyrics to the old chestnuts (“Kosher Weather” for “Stormy Weather,” “Hallways” for “Always,” “My Francine” for “Tangerine), we marveled at some lines (“you are the mate that fate had me created for”) and laughed at others (“order orange juice for one”) and kept pulling magnetically to some of her favorites—Everything Happens to Me, More Than You Know, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Embraceable You, Let’s Get Away From It All and one I introduced her to that we equally loved, Haunted Heart. We often looked at each other in amazement and exclaimed, “I don’t think we ever sang that one before!” We resisted the pull of the clock’s hands towards five and lamented, “We’re just getting warmed up!” I often played without music, one song just suggesting another— travel songs, Cole Porter or Jerome Kern or Irving Berlin songs, songs from the ‘20’s and so on. Our mutual friend Edie was always with us and Fran always made sure she had a turn at the microphone singing her favorite, Sentimental Journey.

 Every July, I brought my summer Jazz Course folks to sing for and with Fran and the others and how she loved that! And how they loved her! Also the Interns over the years, some of whom struck up a friendship beyond a few visits. My family, of course, met her and Front Desk at school got used to her Friday morning call making sure I was coming that day.

So much to say about this marvelous woman—I’m just getting warmed up. But how to capture the special affection and love that grew between us, 25 years apart in age, but instantly at home in each other’s company. Fran was a visual artist mostly, gifting me with many of her trademark miniature paintings. She never sang professionally, but she told me she went to a musical theater camp at the same time as Jerome Robbins and Lauren Bacall. And she also played piano, in fact, mostly one song by Victor Herbert, “Ah Sweet Mystery of Life.”

Fran turned 90 this past Spring and though she was still vibrant and robust and healthy, I knew this couldn’t go on forever. My first scare came when I returned from summer travels and found out that she had been in the hospital. They brought her back the same day I brought my Jazz Course to perform, but couldn’t make it out of bed to join us. And then a nurse had the brilliant idea to roll her out in her bed. She did and Fran sang a few. What a happy moment that was, captured here in the photo.

This Fall, she complained that her voice was going and in October, she just didn’t have the strength to leave her room until the very end of my visits. The last time I played, she did come out and sang in whisper some of her favorites. I bid an affectionate goodbye, as I always do, with no premonition that this had been our last time singing together.

Last Friday, amidst the horror of the national disaster disguised as an election, I got a call from my sister that I better hurry over. I did and found Fran like I had never seen her, clearly on her way out. Her daughter left the room to give us a moment together and I told her how much she had meant to me and reminded her how much fun we had and told her how much I loved her. She opened her eyes wide and said as clear as a bell, “”I love you.” By Monday, she was gone.

Fran, this attempt to capture you is failing so miserably. I could resort to song titles; “There Will Never Be Another You,” for example. And I confess that amidst everything else, it’s hard to feel the full impact of this irretrievable loss. Of course, I can quote Dr. Spock and remind myself to balance the sadness of your passing with the happiness I feel that we got to know each other as we did. Eight years. At the end of your long and fruitful life. That’s a cause for celebration. But still. Life without Fran? How can it be?

For now, I’ll leave you with the words to that song you played on the piano, the one that tells of how you indeed lived your life, loving and being loved. R.I.P., my dear friend.

Ah, sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found you.
Ah, at last I know the secret of it all.
All the longing, seeking, striving, waiting, yearning,
The burning hopes, the joy and idle tears that fall.

For tis love and love alone the world is seeking.
And tis love and love alone that can repay.
Tis the answer, tis the end of all our living.
For it is love alone that rules for aye.

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