I took a life lesson the other day while watching, of all things, a re-run of Jersey Boys. I had seen the Broadway production years ago and found myself more emotionally impacted than I could have possibly foreseen. As the cast and band closed out the show my eyes began to fill up, and as moving as the moment obviously was the strongest emotion I felt was the surprise I experienced at how affected I had been. At the time I thought I was hit by a simple wave of generalized nostalgia. During the ensuing years I had come to focus on Frankie Valli’s aside delivered at the induction of The Four Seasons into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When asked what was the high point of their time together, he replies “… four guys under a street lamp, when it was all still ahead of us… that was the best.” For a long time I believed that for me the weight of the moment was in his recall of the joy of discovering how good they could sound together; an instant when their contemporaneous present was so perfect it obviated the need to waste time thinking about an uncertain future. That fundamental excitement at finding what it was that they had been born to do was for me, then and now, an unrealized dream of quixotic proportions. I didn’t (and to a lesser extent still don’t) have any real sense of what I was really here for. I always assumed that the bittersweet impact of this memory on me was a reflection of my own lack of a similar experience to call upon. Watching the end of the movie the other day I came to the unavoidable conclusion that I got the whole thing wrong. The movie is in many ways a filmed version of the show, and as such left me a little cold. Nothing terrible, mind you, just not as commandingly engaged as I was when I sat in the balcony of the August Wilson theater over a decade before. The less than rapt attention I was paying allowed my mind to wander a bit. When Valli delivered his soliloquy I was underwhelmed enough to reconsider it’s initial weight in a more dry-eyed fashion. I believe that what I was really (if subconsciously) reacting to was the thought of what my world looked like in the late 1960’s, when I had yet to set foot in kindergarten, no less get wrapped up in some existential morass concerning my role as an insignificant if not invisible speck in this world. As best as I can remember, my first exposure to The Four Seasons came in my parents kitchen. When I hear their music I can see myself as a very young child sitting at the table, waiting for dinner at the end of a summer’s day. The house would be (if we were lucky) slowly cooling off, and the power falsetto of Francesco Castelluccio would drift out of the tinny AM radios of the passing vehicles into my parent’s home through our open windows. As sweet as that setting might have been it’s what was missing that I suppose generated that unheralded bout of tears. Those evenings were spent in a warm, gentle quiet as opposed to the alternating heated screaming and icy silence that would become the standard soundtrack of that building before I finished middle school. It’s possible that things between my parents were already unpleasant but I don’t have any specific reminiscence to push me in that direction. What I am left with is the faint sound of “Rag Doll” changing frequency as the source of the song slowly rolled through my neighborhood and my mother calling everyone to supper when my father got home. And everything was just fine.
As the credits rolled I began to wonder how many times I had been absolutely sure of some remembrance that turned out to be a mistaken impression or an interpretation altered by the pressing needs of my more current self. As it turned out I didn’t have to work too long or hard to think of an example. Just a few days before watching the film I had been to dinner with the two men I have known longer than anyone else I am friends with. Danny, whom I’ve written about (Oh Come On: The Conversation Is Over, Hate Crime Legislation: Criminal Minds?), and Neil have each been a part of my life for close to forty years. The brothers I never had growing up, they have seen me through all that one could imagine. Our lives no longer enjoy geographic convenience but we still get together whenever we can. Like many a group of aging friends with lives that are, on a temporal level, comprised of more responsibility than reward we have a tendency to walk through our shared history at any opportunity, and that last meal together was no exception. As is almost always the case the conversation found it’s way back to the first time we had all life guarded together. At some point during the evening, by way of our conversation I came to the realization that a central element of our history was in it’s own way a complete, if subtly so, inaccuracy. The three of us have spent the better part of the last four decades telling any poor soul who was drinking with us that we worked with each other summer after summer, and you know, that’s not exactly what happened. Two weeks into July, 1983, Danny returned home from a trip to Israel and came to work at Brightwater Towers, the apartment building pool that Neil and I had been at for a few years. We spent the rest of the summer working together. That’s it. Those seven or so weeks are the entirety of the time that the three of us were all at the same place through the close of business on Labor Day. Which is not to say that we fabricated the rest of what we love to bullshit about. We all continued to work for the same company (Trident Recreation) for another few seasons, but were never together at that pool again. Trident had the contract on other apartment complex pools in Brooklyn and we each ended up working at all of them from time to time. Two of us were usually at the same place. On rare occasion the third one would join the other two for a day or two, but never on anything but a very temporary basis. Not that I blame our boss for keeping us apart. Part of enjoying our time together was definitely a function of not bringing out the best in each other. There was never any conscious decision to run it all together in the re-telling. It just happened. But as I thought about it I began to gain a little insight into the impetus for the way things got confused in the fullness of time. Danny has always been close with his parents. For Neil and I that wasn’t really the case. For us 1983 got bigger over the course of our lives because it was a beginning of sorts for us. That was when we got the family we wanted instead of the ones we were missing.
Sitting there feeling like a fool, I realized I had about thirty minutes before my wife and I would eat, leaving me ample time to get in a little more brooding on the subject. Not wanting to miss out on opportunity to darken my mood I began to think about a long standing peculiarity of my mom’s in which I had probably recalled the facts without error but drawn the wrong conclusion anyway. My mother is now in a nursing home in Florida. Fortunately my immediately older sister works at the facility and has kept an eye on her. More than a year before she entered the home she underwent her first medical exam since Reagan was the president. No foolin’. She simply refused to go to a physician. I have accepted that my mother has suffered with a variety of neuroses for not less than all of my life, and I would imagine all of hers as well. As I got older I just ascribed her pathological aversion to the doctor’s office to her overall shaky mental well being. I was also aware that she had lost her own mother at age thirteen. Three weeks after being diagnosed with leukemia she was gone. Somehow I managed to avoid connecting those dots. Shame on me. Not that the causal relationship was that starkly drawn. She had gone to our family physician (it used to be a thing) when I was a kid. But around the time she was the age that I am now (55) her paranoia began to creep up on her. I can only imagine that she convinced herself that availing herself of the services of the health care profession would be like inviting disaster, if not actually signing her own death warrant.
I’m under no illusions as to the likelihood that this event will lead to a life changing commitment to re-examine every longstanding belief I have. I don’t think I have any profound proclivity to misconstrue the happenings of my day to day life. But I would be a liar if I said that this episode hasn’t left a small mark on me. I think most of us understand how time has a way of softening the edges of our memory. We can all remember that we forget things. It’s so much harder to keep in mind that even the moments we recall with vivid sharpness are not really memories until we put some thought to them. And then think some more.