Yes, Sir, that’s my baby.
No, Sir, I don’t mean maybe.
Yes, Sir, that’s my baby now! (song lyrics to be inserted in italics)
Merry Dancers were supposed to be visible in the nighttime sky that week. These were the auroras, the northern lights that promised to stream across the horizon in swirling curtains of color. A few were sighted arching from New Haven to Hartford. Still, their brilliance paled to the display that sparkled closer to home. The year was 1926. Early spring had stepped aside for winter’s second act, and absolutely no one in the Brass City expected March to dress the earth in diamonds–no one, except my grandmother. She was the first to notice. From her bedroom window on the second floor
of a two-family tenement on Emerald Street, she welcomed the spectacle.
I first learned about the diamonds nearly thirty years later. I was eight years old, and
I had no doubt then, or now, that it had happened exactly as my grandmother had described. She was, after all, a godly woman, a sainted lady who prayed on her knees each morning in church, a modest babushka tied snugly under her chin. To jest prawda, moja droga. To jest prawda! Ziemią diamenty nosiła! (It is true, my dear! It is true. The earth wore diamonds!)
Blame the moon, I suppose, or starlight that Monday in March, the celebrated Ides, when dusk teased with a glimmer of magic that had caught my grandmother’s eye. Outside, ice sparkled from eaves and telephone wires like diamonds, jeweled festoons fated to fall to the whim of weather. Inside, seasoned wood crackled in a blackened coal stove, the stoked kindling casting glints of light across the plain walls of the bedroom. Nearby, a decisive moment loomed.
My mother arrived the sixth of eleven children born to immigrant parents from Poland. She debuted like a star on a wintry stage the day the earth wore diamonds. In one almost mystical moment, a certain rhythm coursed through the pattern of shimmering light seen early that evening. It reveled under the sway of telephone wires and stoke of kindling, keeping the tempo bright with a spirited toe-tapping swing. And I’m certain that’s when it happened: the decisive moment when my mother, Jósepha Catarzyna Szantyr, center stage amid the dazzle of diamonds on Emerald Street, looked up at the world for the first time—and noticed the music.
Ain’t she sweet?
See her coming down the street!
And I ask you very confidentially;
Ain’t she sweet? (insert italics)
My mother played stride piano, rhythm and chords heavy in her left hand, two-note octaves chasing the melody in her right. She sang when she played—in the parlor, in church, and in barrooms across the Brass City, her hometown, Waterbury, Connecticut, a working-class hub of ethnic neighborhoods ninety miles from 42nd Street and the heart of Broadway.
She fancied her style from Eva Tanguay, Ella Fitzgerald, Kate Smith and Sophie Tucker, with a big belt of Ethel Merman, but her inimitable sound was her own—a gruff
kind of sultry as if she strutted with her voice instead of her hips. When she performed, she bellowed like a man and vamped like a woman. Her talent preened brassy and real.
The patrons at Hogan’s on Baldwin Street in the south end of the city on Friday nights were captive fixtures–lounge fans and hackneyed politicos, the regulars my mother wooed with popular show tunes and old standards from Tin Pan Alley. In the late fifties, Hogan’s enticed a lively Irish clientele eager for another song from the diminutive Polish woman with Claudette Colbert cheekbones and Jo Stafford short hair.
Five foot two, eyes of blue
But oh what those five foot could do
Has anybody seen my gal? (italics)
When my mother rehearsed, our house pulsed in a constant up-tempo frenzy with band scores, costumes and coffee mugs strewn across the parlor as if the chaos itself were a prop. She practiced everything, even the lofty arrogance in her walk across the stage at the end of a performance, the confident tapping of her three-inch heels in sync with the applause. Sequenced and jeweled, my mother was not like other mothers. She was a star.
But she’s gone now, long buried in Thomas Gray’s…Country Churchyard. All I have are sweet fragments of jazzy tunes on an old upright, and this belief, of which I am certain: All stars once pregnant with celestial fire fade into obscurity. Sadly, we forget. Too, too sadly, we look around and find no one left in the Brass City who remembers the day the earth wore diamonds.
After you’ve gone and left me crying,
After you’ve gone, there’s no denying,
You’ll feel blue. You’ll fee sad.
You’ll miss the dearest pal
that you have ever had…. (italics)
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