words: Gabriella M. Geisinger
photo: Liz Seabrook
I am a professional listener of music. Years of practice in self-isolation, my headphones lost beneath a mass of curls; hidden – during class, on walks, in the locker room at swim practice. Before technology had caught up with my sleuth listening capabilities, I carried a disc-man around in a knit turquoise bag. I could fit three jewel cases inside with it. Each day, three different CDs. One morning, a classmate nicked it off a bench and hid it. When I realised it was gone I burst into tears in front of our entire middle school. Sobbing, I searched for my homeroom teacher to fix this egregious trespass. Only when the disc-man was safely in my hands did the crying stop. I was 12. I should have been embarrassed, I was embarrassed by nearly everything – but I wasn’t this time. Music was everything.
My life had one continuous soundtrack – the royalties I must owe! – and in all that time, music grew with me. I never allowed a single moment – or person – to taint a song. To mark it with their humanness; sully it with the visceral ephemera of a memory.
The moment my father died was one devoid of music. He folded up the New York Times, and set it beside himself on the sofa. He looked at me and said, “you know, I really love those shoes,” – my brown, well worn, strappy sandals; then he went for a nap. From that point on, my brain only conjures up trauma flashes – frantic, fingers gripping our cordless phone, the tremble of my heart in my chest as I spoke into the receiver ‘my dad is dead’ to the nameless 911 operator. I stood in my apartment. Once there were two people here, now there was one.
With such striking clarity, I remember the sunshine the next day. It was June 2008, and I was going to tell the Fitzgerald children why I couldn’t babysit them this week, the first people outside of my immediate friends and family to whom I had to say those little words. My dad died. As if they explained anything – everything. In the elevator, I slipped my headphones in.
/what can I compare you to, my favourite pair of shoes/
With no warning, my life in this moment was inexorably linked with a song. Too late to stop it happening, its harmonies pulled from me the tremulous grief in my bones and solidified it there, rewriting the notes of myself. For three minutes and 53 seconds I stood in the middle of the street and wept.
There were very few moments after that when I could listen to this song. The opening notes ripped from the depths of me that single moment, standing on the street outside the diner – crying in the sweltering summer heat. No matter where I was, the world would melt away and I would be on the same street in the bright June sun, almost 19 years old, weeping.
I am sitting in Italy, the land of my mothers. I am writing in a house on Via Ciambrelli in a small mountain town called Bucciano. The sun is warm despite Christmas’ approach. I have Take It From Me playing on repeat. It was the second play that brought up the tears. So much time has passed since that moment, the grief has further to travel – more scar tissues to work through. More life to navigate before returning to the surface to breathe. But it is always there. There is no quicker way to tap it – oil from a well – than this song. It is etched deep into my skin, into the crisscross of veins in the back of my hand.
/come on take it, take it from me (we’ve got a good life)/
So many songs move with time. The I’s and You’s and Here’s and There’s shift like visions in a dream, relevant only to things in this moment. Music is malleable that way. It is magical that way. This song, on the contrary, is a door that only opens into one room. Its power and beauty exists in its ability to bring me back to that summer afternoon – a window through which I can look at my past, feel it with only an eddy of grief, not a crashing wave.
The sandals have long since gone. I no longer live on that street, or in the same country. I don’t even have an iPod anymore. But nostalgia is powerful, and music more so – and when those notes begin, I am standing in a pair of brown strappy sandals in the blinding, heart-warming heat of the summer sun.
Gabriella M Geisinger is a freelance writer specialising in music, societal commentary, and poetry. For her MA in Narrative Nonfiction at City, University of London, she completed her memoir, The Many Lives of my Father. She uses words like bricks, building houses that keep you safe for a time. You can follow her on twitter, and visit her website.
For more tales of return, pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 34.