Monday, December 22, 2014

Mother's last Christmas

By Chuck Bauerlein

            Back in February my mother's doctor in Wisconsin told my sister, who lives near her, that Mother's Alzheimer's disease had progressed to a final stage. My mom could no longer chew her food, a sign that the end of her life was approaching.

            I went out to visit with her in July and had several memorable days with her, but it was sadly obvious to see she was fading. She slept half the day and wasn't eating much. It would take me 60 or 70 minutes to feed her a small container of yogurt and some cut fruit. She would wake up and smile once in a while and on one or two occasions, she seemed to  laugh at something I said.

            About a month ago, my sister wrote to us that Mom was losing weight and now sleeping about 18 hours a day. We should prepare ourselves for the news of her passing at any time. There is little reason to doubt next Thursday will be my mother's last Christmas.

            It is impossible to know what this loss will feel like, especially on future Christmas mornings. Her children will wake up on those days and realize Mom has passed and all we have left of her are memories of the many Christmases she made feel so special for so many years.

            We came of age in a large three-story stone house my dad christened "Kidzaplenty Place." Christmas day would start with the smells of a very special breakfast wafting up to the third floor bedrooms. Coffee brewed on the stove and the oven over-flowed with the smells of a Dutch treat my grandmother had passed down to her daughters, saucejzenbroodges.

              These were small pork sausages wrapped in a delicate blanket of flaky baked and glazed flour crust. The crust would melt in our mouths before we could bite the sausage. Mother only made them on Christmas, so these treats seemed magical because they were so rare. When we arrived downstairs, her other baked delicacy already had been placed carefully in the center of the family dining table: a large Dutch stollen (a foot-long Christmas cake crammed with jellied fruits and walnuts, sprinkled with powdered sugar).

            We came down to the kitchen one by one, wiping sleepy dust from our eyes and reaching for coffee mugs. Mother sliced grapefruit using the curved blade of a grapefruit knife, carefully carving each pod of the juicy flesh of a pink grapefruit, flicking the seeds into the kitchen sink. So adept was she with the blade, she could carve six or seven of them in the time it took me to carve one.

      She would send one of my sisters scurrying into the dining room carrying two at a time, placing them with care on small plates at our assigned places at the table.  Breakfast was ready to go by 7:30 a.m. The grapefruit, two large plates of scrambled eggs, coffee or hot chocolate, the sausages and the stollen. A feast fit for royalty.

      After the blessing my father would ask each of the children to say something we were thankful for that year.  With 11 hungry mouths staring at this mountain of exotic food, this last chore seemed like torture. We had no choice but to endure it. When we all complained, my dad pointed out it had been a year since the last such feast, what was 10 more minutes?

      We trotted out the usual tropes. Our thanks tended to be the same year after year: we were thankful for our friends; our pets; the new clothes we wore; the new bike or baseball glove or rag doll we received for our last birthday. Then one of the younger children would thank the Lord for her sister or brother. The table chatter stopped and we watched my mother and father glance knowingly at each other. The older kids would feel foolish (again) for taking so much for granted.

      This was the blessing of Christmas and our family. That moment when Dad looked at Mom and she at him, both of them surveying the domestic tableau, taking in its sights and fragrances, the children waiting impatiently for one minute more. That moment when love shined in their eyes for one another and all the hard work of their marriage was realized.  Here was the real blessing, an unspoken, magnetic bond of enduring love and gratitude. Look at this! Look at what we made!

      There was a lesson there for all of us, if we could just see it. This is what family is. This is what marriage looks like.

      We lingered at breakfast for at least an hour while the blinking white lights of the Christmas tree in the library and the sweet smell of the pine needles called to us like sirens.  Piles of presents circled the foot of the tree. Opening them would wait. We all knew breakfast was part of the special ritual, too.

      Finally, around 9 a.m., the youngest among us would feel the irresistible pull of the main event. We would all leave the table full of dishes, retreat to the library and gather in a large circle on sofas or folding chairs, the young ones sitting crossed legged nearest the tree and retrieving presents for everyone else. 

      A family rule was that each of us had to buy at least one small present for every member of the family, so there were at least 125 presents to be unwrapped. My parents insisted we open them one at a time, and that we formally thank the person who gave it to us. This was also part of the family tradition. It made the spirit of Christmas last for hours.

     When it was done, my parents let us congregate around the tree, laughing and playing with new toys or trying on new clothes. Then they would go do the breakfast dishes, she washing, he drying.

      They would smile and listen to the sounds of Christmas from all corners of the large stone home they called Kitzaplenty Place. Squeals of happiness and laughter and of the pounding of small feet racing up the staircases, barking dogs chasing after them.

      After the dishes were dried and stacked up on the kitchen counter, my dad would carry them all into the dining room and set the table again. Mom would start the Christmas dinner.

      Paul and I, the two oldest, would sidle into the kitchen and find the left over saucejzenbroodges. The flaky crust would melt in our mouths. But the real meat of the sausage was like the day itself. Tasty, filling. In a word: unforgettable. The very essence of Mother's Christmases.

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Sunday, December 7, 2014

The year in pop music: a ten best list for 2014

These were the CDs I enjoyed listening to the most this year. These all stayed in my car CD player for long stretches of time and bore up to repeated listenings. Not everyone will enjoy each of these picks. But if you read carefully, you're likely to find something that will make you glad youpurchased it or you might find something here to stuff in your family's Christmas stockings.

Happy listening!

1) The War on Drugs: “Lost in the Dream.” This album was released in March and has been in heavy rotation in my car ever since. It’s the band’s third and most fully realized album.  Starting with the epic two-chord romp "Under the Pressure," Adam Granducial and the band offer a mesmorizing collection of entirely engaging rock songs. They tend to start with predictable rock instrumentation but blossom into more interesting set pieces that feature floating ambient passages, assorted blasts of brass instruments and synthesizers. Songs like "Red Eyes" and the gorgeous "An Ocean in Between the Waves" channel the energy of Bruce Springsteen with the introspective navel-gazing of Jackson Browne’s most introspective songs. The album’s ten songs are a sprawling pastiche of deceptively simple yet utterly unforgettable reflections on modern living. "Lost in the Dream" is a meandering masterpiece of shifting moods and dreamy vibes, always anchored by Granducial’s guitar. 

2) Ought. "More Than Any Other Day". This Montreal-based post-punk band had one of the most explosive debuts of the year. My son and I caught their sparsely populated set at Johnny Brenda's for just $8 and thought we were seeing the Talking Heads, circa 1978 at CBGBs. It won't be so easy (or so cheap) to see them next time around. The energy they brought to their high-powered rock n' roll set was exhilerating to witness. The band takes a collaborative approach to their songs. They tend to start slowly and gradually build to climatic crescendoes of slashing dissonance and vocal angst. Tim Beeler's vocals (like David Byrne's) may grate on some ears, but there's never any doubt he's totally invested in the performance of the song. "More Than Any Other Day" rocks harder than any CD I heard all year. 

3) Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. This is the second Simpson album release this year. The album’s title clearly borrows from the landmark Ray Charles' country set. But the musical precedents he’s channeling are Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Jimmy Webb. The album’s first single, “Turtles All the Way” takes an unpredictable and somewhat disconcerting psychedelic approach that works surprisingly well considering the genre Simpson is working in. His rich baritone and his phrasing sound as if he’s been taking voice lessons from Jamey Johnson. If you don’t like your country music in its most distilled form, you probably won’t dig Sturgill Simpson. But if Willie, Waylon and the boys are still rattling around your memory bank, you’ll love this one.

4) Ex-Hex. Rips. In her earlier work with Autoclave and Helium and, more recently, Wild Flag, Mary Timoney’s virtuosic guitar work always threw up in-your-face riffs that reeked of snarky confidence. If you loved her then, you’ll really  love her new album with an old collective known as Ex-Hex, who debuted in 2005 and has been on hiatus since. A punky, feminist romp, “Rips” is an economical, throwback to classic rock albums on the 1970s. This one is similar to Elvis Costello’s first record. Every song is a gem and all 12 of them clock in under 35 minutes.  Highlights include “Hot and Cold,” “You’ll Fall Apart” and “New Kid”. But trying to pick just three cuts off an album of 12 great blistering rock and roll songs is like choosing which fingers you want to slice off your hand.  “Rips” rips.   

5) Beck. Morning Phase. It’s been six years since Beck released an album. He had some serious health issues that kept him from working or recording in the interim, but the time off seemed to add layer of reflection that’s been missing from his songwriting since “Sea Change,” his most introspective record. Like that one, “Morning Phases” shows a more philosophical side of Beck that makes this latest recording a distinct pleasure to hear many times. “Sea Change” broke from Beck’s heavy use of sampling and electronic gimmicks an acoustic presentation of the songs. So, too, does “Morning Phases.” The songs possess a warmer, gentler tone and show the subtle side of an artist who destined for the rock n’ roll hall. “Cycle,” “Morning” and “Waking Light” are songs to start the day with.

6) Teddy Thompson. Family.  Just last month Teddy Thompson (Richard and Linda’s son) released his latest collaborative project, called “Family.” His mother and father and his sister, Kami, all contribute songs to the record, as do Kami’s husband (James Walbourne) and their stepbrother, Jack Thompson, from Richard’s second marriage. In an interview with the New York Times, Teddy said “at first, I thought it would be fun and easy,” but he soon realized “I was definitely trying to repair some kind of damage.” Kami, in the same story, said the family reunion concept was “like a family song-writing competition – it’s a bloody nightmare. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?” If “Shoot Out the Lights” (a ‘70s classic five-star recording ) was the Thompson’s truth about their divorce, “Family” shows that they’ve weathered the emotional storm just fine. 

7) Temples. Sun Structures. The nostalgic trip-fest of the year goes to this debut CD from Temples, a band from Kettering, England. Lead by guitarist and vocalist James Bagshaw, the Temples’ template takes 1967 psychedelic era pop and reinvents it, adding layers of sonic tricks that are pleasurable if a tad polished. Their best songs sound like T. Rex at their glittery finest but on a few others, the sheer studio sheen makes it seem as if the band is trying a little too hard to replicate a ‘60s pop confection. I caught their gig at the Union Transfer and the band pushed the songs forward with a gritty, guitar attack that suited their material better. “Shelter Song,” the title track and “Mesmerize” all sound like top of the pops chart-toppers from the late ‘60s. Temples is a band to watch.

8) Allo Darlin’ – We Come From the Same Place. Anglo-Australian band Allo Darlin' released their third album this year and it’s another batch of well-crafted, hook-laden songs written by Elizabeth Morris, the band’s songwriter and lead singer. She’s supported here with effortless ease by her band but it’s Morris’s show and she delivers these introspective, anecdotal stories with lines that sound like tossed-off couplets but reel you in close for a hard look at her heart. “I wanted to impress you, and I think you knew” she sings in “Kings and Queens”.  There are the idiosyncratic characteristics here, especially her use of the ukulele as a center point for some songs,  but the band behind her rocks hard. This is an immensely likable pop album, reminiscent of Joni Mitchell in her prime.  

9) The Antlers. Familiars.  On “Familiars”, The Antlers abandon the electronic influences that informed the Brooklyn band’s first two records, 2011’s “Burst Apart” and 2009 “Hospice”, opting  for a jazzier vibe that showcases a reliance on horns. Peter Silberman’s controlled falsetto remains one The Antler’s most compelling assets. There’s not a cut on the album that one might hear on top 40 radio, and that’s meant as a compliment.  Nine compelling cuts that bring you to another world and craft a soundtrack that just needs the right movie to find its audience. The Antlers seem like one of the most interesting bands making music today.

10 Roseanne Cash, The River & The Thread. Cash’s string of terrific CDs released in the last seven or eight years continues on this well-crafted set that has flown under the radar since it was released in January. (I didn’t discover its many charms until about a month ago.) Much of her most recent work was imbued with a sense of memory and grief, coming on the heels of the death of her mother and her iconic father. The River & the Thread finds the veteran Nashville songwriter crafting songs of immense detail and emotion she delivers in her trademark plaintive voice. The uptempo rocker “Modern Blue”sounds like an outtake from her classic “King’s Record Store” but the rest of the record travels down blues and folk roads, with the able contributions from her husband, John Leventhal. "A Feather's Not a Bird" and "Etta's Tune" are highlights.

In alphabetical order, here are some CDs that almost made my end of the year list: Anansy Cissy, "Mali Overdrive"; Gary Clark, Jr., “Live”; Joe Henry, “Invisible Hour”; Parquet Courts, “Sun-bathing Animals”; Cookie Rabinowitz, “Four-Eyed Soul”. Spoon, "They Want My Soul", St. Vincent, "St. Vincent"; U.S. Rails, "Heartbreak Superstar"; Sharon Van Etten "Are We There"; Woods, “With Light & With Love”.