When I was 9 years old, I would watch my mother softly sway to the sound of the old RCA radio that sat atop the refrigerator. It was big and brown, with a lit amber dial and a gold needle that marked the stations. The speaker boomed deep and rich, and she would sometimes sing along.
My mother had two favorite songs that year, and they told tales as different as could be. One was Dinah Washington's R&B rendition of "What a Diff'rence a Day Made," which tells a story of blissful newfound love. The other was "El Paso," Marty Robbins' Tex-Mex lament for the love of a cowboy gone fatally wrong in Rosa's Cantina.
My mother drifted dreamily as Dinah sang: "What a difference a day made./ Twenty-four little hours/ Brought the sun and the flowers/ Where there used to be rain.
"My yesterday was blue, dear./ Today I'm part of you, dear./ My lonely nights are through, dear,/ Since you said you were mine."
It was a marked contrast to the Robbins tune, which I understood a little when it began as a cowboy song but could not really follow once it moved on to more adult topics: "Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina,/ Wicked and evil while casting a spell./ My love was deep for this Mexican maiden;/ I was in love but in vain, I could tell."
The song went from jealousy to violence: "So in anger I/ Challenged his right for the love of this maiden./ Down went his hand for the gun that he wore./ My challenge was answered in less than a heartbeat;/ The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor."
And then to death: "But my love for/ Felina is strong and I rise where I've fallen./ Though I am weary, I can't stop to rest./ I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle./ I feel the bullet go deep in my chest."
When I was a child and an adolescent, my eyes could not see, and my imagination could not fathom, that my mother might have ever had a romantic thought or moment in her life. She had lived most of her life in a small town in Pennsylvania's coal region, and as far as I could tell, all her time outside the house was spent working behind the cloth and notions counter at the local J.C. Penney.
It wasn't until years later that I was mature enough to really learn about her life.
She was one of four children; a fifth did not make it out of infancy, which was common in her place and time. Her father was a hardworking coal miner for a time, but then time caught up with him. By 1940, when she was just a few years out of high school, she was working at the Budd Co. factory in Philadelphia, welding planes for the war effort.
After Mom's funeral, in 2001, we were going through her things and found some work glasses with thick, almost opaque, violet lenses. In the same box as the glasses was a tax card from her time building those metal birds. It turned out that she was carrying the whole family. Her mother and younger siblings, still at home upstate, and her unemployed father, who would not live to see the end of the war, were all her dependents.
A depression, a war, and some drama between my future parents — drama the details of which I will never know — derailed their romance for a few years. But they both returned to their hometown after their wartime wanderings. Whatever was once between them was rekindled, and it brought my two sisters and me into the world.
What a difference a life made.