By GARRISON KEILLOR
I went down to the Bowery one night last week to see Aoife O’Donovan sing to a ballroom packed with young people standing for two hours and whooping and yelling—I sat up in the balcony and whooped and yelled too—and what the woman could do with her voice and guitar was astonishing, utterly fabulous, and for a man my age to be astonished is remarkable, she was competing with my memory of Uncle Jim handing me the reins to his horse-drawn hayrack and my grandma chopping the head off a chicken and seeing Buster Keaton perform at the Minnesota State Fair and also Paul Simon at Madison Square Garden and Renée Fleming in Der Rosenkavalier, but there she is, Aoife, in my pantheon of wonderment.
I came home from the Bowery to learn that a dear friend, Christine Jacobson, had died — amazement and mortality in one evening, and it’s a rare privilege to be aware of both, the beauty of life and the brevity. I look down from my balcony seat on the heads of young people excited by an artist and in their behalf I am worried about our country, with so many of our countrymen in favor of resuming the Civil War, with our history of trillions spent on wars in Vietnam and Iraq from which no benefit whatever was gained, but the exhilaration of the young is better than bourbon, more wonderful than wine.
Two young people called my wife recently and she put the phone on Speaker and I could hear the quiet joy in their voices that told the story, no explanation needed: she was pregnant, a child is on the way, she can feel it moving. Someday, I trust, my grandson will call me and I’ll hear that joy in his voice, and the Keillor line will extend into the 22nd century.
I am descended, in part, from William Cox, a British seaman aboard a man-o’-war docked in Charleston harbor in the early 19th century, who jumped ship, which was a capital offense, and made his way to Pennsylvania and settled among Quakers who were unlikely to turn a man in for desertion, and married Elizabeth Boggs who bore a daughter, Martha Ann, who married David Powell from whom my paternal grandmother, the one who beheaded the chicken, was descended. I sat by her bedside when she died in 1964, tended by her daughters. She and her twin sister had been railroad telegraphers, a rare thing for women in 1900—they had learned Morse code as kids to give each other the answers to tests in school—and she became a schoolteacher and married my grandfather, who was on the school board.
Having a grandma who’d taught school was a big factor in my childhood: I wrote her letters and was very careful about spelling and grammar. I write this sentence now and I am aware of Grandma Dora. If I came home with a poor grade, my mother said, “Grandma would be disappointed,” and her possible disappointment weighed very heavily on me. I became a professional journalist at age 14, writing sports for a weekly newspaper, and my grandma read them and approved. And so a man finds his career.
I wrote a magazine piece about a radio show, which led me to start my own, which is how I came to know Aoife and I’d sung with her before, and now, sitting in the balcony, I was dazed with admiration. Admiration of her artistry and also of the openhearted enthusiasm of the crowd below. To me it’s all connected somehow, the desertion of Mr. Cox from the cruelty of life below decks, my good penmanship writing to Grandma, the old radio show, and the woman on stage bestowing enormous gifts on us all.
Mortality is what makes the gifts enormous. That afternoon I got a phone call from my old pal George, who is 87 and who announced that he’d been bounced out of hospice because he’d failed to die and was feeling very chipper about it. He recalled eulogies I’d given at funerals for our friends Arvonne and Martin and he seemed to be angling for me to eulogize him. I said, “George, if I do it for you then everyone’s going to want it for them. I used to think death was a tragedy and now it’s a trend.”
A necessary trend. There are people standing in the crowd who will need to sit down, and we in the balcony need to make room for them. ISI