In honor of his 100th birthday, this week's episode of This American Life was about Frank Sinatra. The short version is that Frank himself was probably not a guy I would have wanted to hang out with, but that voice. That voice sounds like my childhood.
We used to have a record player that was housed in a pretty considerable piece of furniture. A large wooden cabinet affair. Were it in a vintage shop today, it would probably inspire a brawl: midcentury modern furniture and a record player? That means you get to check off two boxes at once on your hipness card. (In case you were going to call my mom and make her an offer, I should inform you that there was a fire in 1984. It didn't make it.) My parents had a very modest record collection, the most up-to-date release being Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, after which they seemed to stop buying music, although my father did once win a copy the Eagles' The Long Run at a race. Mostly we had what we called "story records" which were sort of 1970s audio books, of which I especially liked Winnie the Pooh and Bread and Jam for Frances; musicals, which were good for dancing vigorously around the living room when no one was around, particularly West Side Story with its heady combination of accents and pathos; Irish records, which my brother and I mostly disliked and played only on St. Patrick's Day; a pretty sizable collection of Christmas music; and dinner music, which was everything else.
My brother and I used to trade off nights of setting the table or washing the dishes (the former being by far the better assignment and the latter seeming to always fall to you when dinner involved use of the dreaded broiler pan). As part of table-setting duty, you were allowed to choose the dinner music. I never liked The Kingston Trio or Charlie Byrd, but I enjoyed Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne. Mostly though, we listened to Frank. Frank Sinatra is why, no matter what paths our romantic lives have taken, somewhere deep within us, my brother and I believe that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. We know that when you're in love you've got the world on a string. We're clear on what makes the lady a tramp. We enjoyed hearing our father sing off key to my mother "I've got a crush on you, sweetie pie." Even in the 80s when my brother went the way of Fifty Cent and I went the way of The Cure, Frank endured at dinnertime.
Now, when I eat with my parents it is most often in the company of Alex Trebek, but we didn't watch TV during the dinners of my childhood except for the original Must See TV lineup: Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, The Muppet Show, and The Wonderful World of Disney, when all four of us would head downstairs and eat off TV trays. I am grateful for it. All those thousands of meals and that little island of family, even when we didn't think we wanted it. All the while, Frank Sinatra crooning in the background, giving us a soundtrack of civility and constancy. At least until it was time to do the dishes.