Do you know where my iPad is? I’ve been asking everyone for months, and I’ve looked everywhere, and have been begging it to come home using the “find iPhone” thing to no avail. And although I come from a long line of people who lose things — my dad with his glasses, my Grandpa Tony with his sense of direction as he’d drive to my parents’ house for the 87th time, both of them with their tempers — it’s just not usually like me…but when I moved to Nashville by myself in November I was overwhelmed to say the least, and I started misplacing things. I’m not super attached to electronics but there’s stuff on this particular device that wasn’t saved in the cloud — like lyrics to songs I’ll never finish and voicemails from my parents and grandparents that I’d recorded onto it from my phone because I couldn’t figure out another way to save them. And I was getting flack from a completely clogged mailbox.
But these voicemails didn’t just sit in my iPad, they were part of my life’s soundtrack — I’d listen when I missed my family or when I wanted to share the insanity that sometimes ensues — my favorite one of all time has to be from Grandpa Tony. It simply went, “Grandpaaa! ::click::” If you knew him that wouldn’t sound so weird.
He’s always been known as a singer, a trumpet player, and a band leader. He created a family unit that some may consider a unique version of the Partridge Family, with some added New York flair (accent), a little more “Cry Me A River” than “Come On Get Happy,” and to this day still features my father playing accordion solos. My dad’s side, Greeks who are self-proclaimed honorary Jews, frequented the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and wedding scenes as musicians, upstate in the Catskills and then in South Florida, where we relocated shortly after I was born.
My grandpa, “Tony Stevens PhD,” made sure that I (his only grandchild) inherited the music gene by trying to give me piano lessons — which lasted about half a year when I was, like, 6 because we had very different “styles.” He played with the army band in Korea, of course had a PhD in music, performed at Carnegie Hall, and worked with some jazz greats including Dakota Staton and Harry James. He basically hated anything that wasn’t in that realm and I was a pop girl. And, his way was the only way. Even after I studied music in college with a focus on jazz, and became a professional musician, if he played what he said was a “G,” but I explained technically it really was a “C,” it was still, no question, a “G.” (Gotta give it to the O.G.)
Every holiday and family gathering, there’d be music. One of his favorite songs to play was, “The Curtain Falls,” made famous by Bobby Darin, which I could not find online for a while because I kept searching for the title “Closer” — the new title Grandpa Tony lovingly gave the song. He’d end all of his one man shows with it, singing:
“If I had this to do again
And the evening were new again
I would spend it with you again
But now the curtain falls.”
When we got together we’d also have passive aggressive, more often aggressive, fights about who got to play, who’d play what, the voicing of a chord, my vibrato, Grandpa’s politics, my dad’s politics, religion…The last argument I had with him in person was about six months ago. He towered over me saying I wasn’t allowed to talk at the dinner table because I don’t know about politics, I’m a woman, and I’m “the child.” I finally stood up and asserted, “You can’t talk to me like this, Grandpa. This is not okay.” I think that may have been the same night I announced I was moving to Nashville so his fuse was shorter than usual. In a later phone call he was fuming: “You should stay in Florida, meet someone, and get married!” Grandpa’s M.O. was to “keep the family together.” My parents adamantly reinforced this as I grew up, and several years beyond college I willingly abided, but I knew it was time to go.
When we began spending less time together, Grandpa and I got into a rhythm of him calling me Wednesdays and me calling him Sundays. Sometimes we’d miss each other because he was practicing or sleeping or running an errand, and I was recording or auditioning or socializing. We’d always forgive each other and promise to call the next specified day. One day, after he got more used to me living in Tennessee, he turned a corner: “You’re doing the right thing. Focus on your career and you’ll meet someone when it’s time.”
In December I went back to Florida to play some shows and had the opportunity to be a guest vocalist with the Sunrise Pops Orchestra, a 60 piece band. As well as preparing standards and show tunes, my conductor helped me arrange two of my original songs. One of them, “Comin’ Home Real Soon,” I wrote with my parents as a Father’s Day gift for my dad, and in the lyric I mention specific family members, including my grandpa. Whenever I play it I like to dedicate it to my family, especially if they’re in the audience. I hesitated to invite him to the show — he did walk out of one of my gigs very upset because he wasn’t thrilled with the band or what I was doing. But, at 91 years old, Grandpa Tony was there taking it all in and changed his tune, and I got to dedicate the song to him. After the performance he pulled me close and said, “Baby doll, if you don’t make it, it’s not because you’re not talented.” By then I’d come to terms with the idea that his opinion wasn’t going to define my direction, but it was still nice to hear and I was happy he was happy.
I headed back to Nashville and we continued our weekly calling. A few weeks ago I was on the phone with my guitar player about a gig and Grandpa called on the other line. I didn’t pick up and totally forgot to call him back. He left a voicemail that I didn’t listen to. The day after, I considered going through messages and deleting everything to clear space — I was at capacity again — but left his latest voicemail as it was, still unheard, as a reminder to call him back. The day after that my mom got in touch with me. Grandpa Tony had died.
His timing was impeccable if there is such a thing as picking the right time to go. I had four gigs scheduled in Florida and had to leave just a day sooner than planned to be back in time for his funeral.
It was a perfect sendoff for him. One of his tapes (yes, cassette tapes) featuring songs from almost all of our family members played through the speakers as the viewing began. As I approached my grandpa’s casket to see him one last time, his version of “The Curtain Falls”, “Closer,” began to play.
After the funeral the family went back to his place — his glasses were still sitting on a piece of music he’d been working on, next to a pair of tweezers poised with a tiny paper music note, ready to be glued down to amend a chord on the page. He never needed updated technology to create something beautiful. Our small, shaken family gathered around his dining room table, ate dinner, and missed him. It dawned on me that I still had the unheard voicemail in my phone, so with everyone’s permission I played it. We collectively laughed harder than we have in a long time. Mission accomplished, Grandpa.
Right before we left, my dad sat down at Grandpa Tony’s piano and began to play. I sang:
“Oh, Nanny and Grandpa come over
Tonight by the light of the moon
And I want yours to be the first face I see
‘Cause I’ll be comin’ home real soon”
I’d like to dedicate this story to the memory of my iPad.