by Steph Ceraso
Bridge. noun. In music, a transitional passage connecting two subjects or movements.
My grandmother and I never talked much about music when I was growing up. I was aware that she liked music—I have vague memories of jitterbugging to records in her living room as a young child—but it just wasn’t an important part of our relationship. Until my grandpa died. Suddenly. When none of us were ready for it.
My grandma has always been my rock. She’s a keep-your-chin-up-and-move-on kind of person. She seemed unshakable, so when I saw how profoundly shook up she was after my grandpa’s death, I was scared for the both of us. I searched hard for words that would diminish her pain and uncharacteristic fragility. But I couldn’t find any. I knew that there was nothing I could say to change what had happened.
One day when I was sitting at my desk trying to think of ways to cheer her up, I found myself creating a playlist of songs that she might like. And that’s how it began. The more music I gave her, the more she seemed like her old self. Every time I made her a mix we would talk about her new favorite songs (Feist and Andrew Bird got some heavy rotation). Then she would start to tell me about the bands she listened to as a teenager, or about music that reminded her of family stories. Many of these stories involved my grandpa, and in a weird way, the music brought him back to life for us.
While my grandma was listening to the indie rock mixes I made her, I started listening to the music that mattered to her: the Ink Spots, Peggy Lee, Bobby Darin. The further we strayed from the music of our own generations, the closer we became. Unlike the stereotypical “boys club” model of music collecting and swapping, we did not exchange songs to prove that we knew more than each other or to flaunt our distinct coolness. In fact, our mix sharing revealed that we had more similarities than either of us had ever realized.
Despite the almost 50 years of life between us, the relationship I have with my grandma defies dominant cultural narratives about music as a divisive force—about older generations not understanding their kids’ music because they don’t understand their kids. Quite the contrary, music has been a connective energy that has helped us through a number of difficult life transitions since my grandpa’s passing. Though the oral history piece you are about to hear is from the fall of 2008, my grandma and I still continue to exchange music and memories. And we’re both better listeners because of it.