Tom Waits – Blue Valentine

So, my grandmother died earlier today. She was my dad’s mother. She was my last grandparent. She died eighteen days before her ninetieth birthday, which is a shame because I don’t get to say she died at ninety with a completely clear conscience. But fuck it, she died at ninety. Tom Waits’ “Blue Valentine” is a bunch of bluesy jazz songs except for the opener, a symphony and voice cover of a West Side Story song.

My last conversation with her was ten days ago, plus or minus one or two days, I’m not exactly sure. She’d wanted me to come visit her. Our call ended when she had a knock at her door, probably from her care worker. She asked me to call her back the next day. I said I would, but I didn’t do it because I figured I might as well wait until shortly before her ninetieth birthday party. Don’t make your last communication with someone a lie about calling them the next day. But you won’t know anyway. Most of the songs are based around pretty simple vamps, which means that I like the shorter songs more and think that the songwriting was hard to come by this time around.

When she died she had borrowed my copy of Franzen’s “The Corrections”, and had talked with me about it once or twice, not in depth, and I’m not sure what to make of my aunt (her closest child by far) telling me she was lying about having started it and that she’d stopped reading months ago. She had plenty of books with her in the hospital when I last saw her – her last months weren’t happy times – but my aunt probably knows best. I’m skeptical because I don’t like to consider myself fooled by an old dying woman. The first-person “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” is the obvious highlight but I’m sure I’ve heard that lick from “Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard” before, and too many songs aren’t memorable.

She was the closest thing to a Mordecai Richler character I’ve ever known, or likely will ever know. Hopefully on the last one. She was a miserable, unhappy, bitter old woman, the kind of person to whom “irascible” is the closest thing to compliment you can honestly give them. She lived a hard life. She was left-handed as a kid at a time when that meant having your arm tied behind your back and being beaten. She was fat and lonely through her adult life, then married into an abusive marriage at a time when that sort of thing was normal, then got a divorce at a time when that wasn’t normal. Then she lived alone and friendless, working until a fall stopped that when she was seventy-five. She sustained herself on mean-spirited remarks about family members, every family member not present in the room at the time was open to derision. Well, that and complaining, complaining complaining, which was her greatest talent. I saw her reduce my father to yelling in thirty seconds over the phone, counting hellos. I saw her disown her grand-daughter for calling her “grandmother” instead of “bubbie.” She loved attention, but mostly so that people could hear her complain. It’s a strong album lyrically, not that I feel like printing any of the lyrics, but there’s nothing ear-catching here, and that means it fades into the background without rapt attention. It’s a bit too good for dinner parties.

Which brings me to the next thing. She was Jewish in exactly the way most Jews are Jews in North America: very much culturally but vaguely religiously. My aunt told me that she kept the house kosher on Passover but never otherwise. Sounds annoying. Being a Jew was very important to her for reasons I’ll never understand, any more than I get why anyone’s cultural heritage matters to them as more than a curiosity. She confided, at least in me in an atheist, and often, that she had doubts bordering on disbelief about all of it. Almost every time I saw her when she was old she’d tell me something about “I don’t think anything happens when we die” or “I don’t think anybody’s up there.” The funeral will be a Jewish funeral, of course. When someone dies filled with doubt, the respectful thing to do is to pretend they were devoutly religious all along, to make their offspring (themselves filled with doubt) feel better. It’s still a niggerlip of an improvement over the last album.
I was probably her second-favourite person, after my aunt. And I had it better because I never had to put up with her impressive meanness. We talked about books and writing, and I tried to treat her like a friend. Old people like being teased and treated like peers, just young people. I loved her, and I really liked seeing her. She’s gone and with her the 1930s are gone, the 1940s are gone, the last remnants of my family coming to Toronto are gone. But fuck all that, it’s just part of the fact that she’s gone. I avoided her like everyone avoids their nagging grandparents, but she called me on my birthday from the hospital less than two months before her death. She made me smile by complaining and disliking. Her anger at cheerfulness and sunshine was somehow a link to reality, a sign that she was seeing through the bullshit. And I think she did, even if she caused so much of it. Tom’s growlyvoice sounds laughable with the symphony and the symphony’s cheeseball anyway. Still, Tom’s coming to his end as a jazzman, or a loungeman, or whatever he was, and the noir schtick was growing quite the beard.

She died in the apartment she hated but with the independence that she loved. I should have spent more time with her, of course, like everyone else, but I’m happy I got to know her. Loving her for her personality (and not her mere existence) was and is a guilty pleasure, but fuck it. I believe in atheism, vegetarianism, and friendship, and the first two are negotiable. It’s a rare person over thirty that even resembles a friend of mine. Betty Borofsky, March 20th, 1920 – March 2nd, 2010, you were ninety and you were my friend. I hope I made your last years better. So while there’s a lot to like there isn’t much to love. Maybe he can blame the band or something.

A seven, because I’m feeling generous today.



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