Keeping Time

by Deborah Davis
At this moment, it's wedged between “Kinda Kinks” and “Abbey Road.” It's an inch and a half thick and encased in a creamy colored leather, with gold script lettering on the front and the side. An interloper in my album collection, it's a reminder that there was superb music long before the British Invasion. The dog by the gramophone, “His Master's Voice,” adorns the front cover, along with the words “RCA Victor.” On the side binding is the title: “Glenn Miller: Limited Edition.” Ten LPs, the entire collection of the Glenn Miller Orchestra's recordings, all in extremely good condition, even with that old, musty smell. If the house were on fire, and I had time to get one item out, I wouldn't have to think. I'd run to save “The Miller,” as we always called it. It belonged to my father, the only one of his belongings that is now in my possession. He wanted me to have it. He knew I'd take good care of it.

Never a pack rat, my dad went through another manic round of possession-purging each time we moved. We don't need all this old stuff, he'd proclaim. Let's get rid of whatever we can't use. Away went my childhood toys, old tools, assorted household bric-a-brac. He traveled light; home was simply a place to hang one's hat. But he knew what was important. Books were never disposed of. Neither was music. Especially the music. He couldn't play an instrument, but he was an accomplished dancer. He sang on key, in a bold baritone. A child of the 1930's and 40's, he held a special place in his heart for swing and the “Big Bands.”  Usually he was not a discriminating listener. Kenton, Krupa, both the Dorseys—he appreciated them all equally. Glenn Miller, however, was a cut above. Was that because Miller was lost during his service in World War II? A military man himself, my father would have identified with that. Was it the fact that Miller played the trombone? Dad always admired brass players. Who knew? He liked Miller best, and that was that.

He used to sing around the house, and the earlier in the morning the better. He was a very early riser. On weekends he'd be up long before the rest of us, making breakfast, singing with the Miller as he stirred the food in the skillet. The tones of “String of Pearls” made their way up the stairs along with the aroma of coffee and bacon. He flipped pancakes to the rhythm and time of “Little Brown Jug,” doing a two-step at the stove. If anyone had seen him through the window, he wouldn't have cared. No sleeping in on Saturdays in his house! We woke to lush arrangements of romantic dance songs. A “Sunrise Serenade,” indeed.

We moved with his career changes; I was growing up, and he was determined to turn out a well-finished product. When I was about thirteen my father taught me to dance all the ballroom steps. I balked; no one danced that way at the Friday night mixers. We young teenagers were usually plastered against the gym walls, with girls on one side of the room and boys on the other. If we danced at all, it wasn't in pairs. But he insisted. I would be dating soon, he said; I needed to learn to Foxtrot and Tango. So off we'd go, across the living room rug, usually with the Miller on the stereo. One, two – one, two, three. No, let the gentleman lead. Good, you've got it. You step backward while I step forward. That's right – that's it! The Miller played on. I learned. I was doing the Foxtrot. Even as we danced, I was growing up, growing away from him. He led, but how long would I follow?

The years went on. Popular music became permeated by politics. My record collection was my prized possession, as my father's was his; I embraced his music. He couldn't embrace mine. Ironically, it brought the first real break in our relationship. He was affronted by the anti-war movement. Service wasn't optional. It was what men had to do for their country. The lowest of the low were the draft dodgers and resisters. He thought they should all be shot. Hearing “Power to the People,” he'd nearly had a stroke; my admiration for Joan Baez put him way over the top. Didn't I know that she was against the war? How could I listen to that?! He stormed away from the table, leaving me in tears.

On Christmas morning, under the tree, was Joan's new album. A peace offering, a valued possession for me. A gesture, which I was happy to accept. I asked him if he wanted to listen to it with me—no, he said with a gentle smile. It's not my music. I knew. I'd made the Miller my music, but that was different, because listening to Glenn Miller didn't strike a raw nerve with me, didn't offend my beliefs. He lit his pipe and sat on the couch, thinking. He looked old.

I finished high school and went away to college, and had less connection with home each passing month. I found a job and moved to a distant state; I married and started a family. I'd visit my father and he'd visit me. Nothing was the same. He retired.  My children grew up. Every once in a while I'd hear an old swing tune on Muzak or on the radio. Time would evaporate, and I'd think about how I should call him soon, and tell him I heard “Fools Rush In” today. I never did. Nothing was the same.

He had a quintuple bypass and deteriorated steadily. Soon he was diagnosed with dementia. While his possessions were being moved to the assisted living facility, many states away, I brought him to my home, to spend a few days with my family. We talked about the old days, all the places we'd lived, the people we'd known. One moment he'd remember quite a bit; the next moment, he didn't recognize me. He seemed to think I was some woman he'd dated a long time ago. In a way, I was. I was his old dance partner. We danced to the Miller. It's in the cabinet surrounded by my albums. I am taking care of it.
Deborah Davis is a former equities trader who lives and writes in Richland, Michigan. She is a member of the Richland Writers' Circle, where she enjoys the fellowship and encouragement of kindred spirits. Deborah plays piano, though not as well as she'd like. She tends a large vegetable garden, cares for two precious rescue dogs, and considers Evan S. Connell's Mrs. Bridge the finest novel ever written.

© 2014, Deborah Davis