Generations ‘Spanish Harlem’: From Childhood Song to Caregiving Anthem
“My parents are quietly crumbling, and their house is crumbling around them.”
There is a rose in Spanish Harlem.
That song from 1960, sung by Ben E. King , has been stuck in my head. A restaurant in Manhattan I frequent always has it on their playlist. I remember it from my childhood, playing on our tinkly living room stereo when I was still so little but had already begun observing my family, noting the details. I can be in my adult life in New York City, shuffling through emails and ordering a cocktail, but when I hear this song, the camera in my imagination goes back in time to my childhood and pans: me walking down the hall after playing or fighting with my sister. Then it moves to my slender, quiet mother wearing an apron and bustling in the kitchen. And it turns to the back of my father’s head as he reclines in his chair and dreams or watches TV with the volume so low, I don’t know what the show is about; I only hear the song and the beat.
It is a special one, it’s never seen the sun It only comes out when the moon is on the run And all the stars are gleaming
It’s still playing in my head when I go to visit my parents in Orange County. It’s a different, bigger house than the one I grew up in forty years ago, but in the same neighborhood.
We’re all getting old—my parents, their house, me, that song. Lately, my father only lives upstairs. When I’m downstairs I can hear the movement of his swollen, weakened feet that the caregiver describes as “dancing”—a process by which my father swivels each foot from side to side so that he can maneuver himself out of the rolling chair and up to his bathroom sink to brush his teeth. He doesn’t use a wheelchair because it won’t fit through the doorway of his TV room. The fire marshal started this, with the chair, after he picked my father up off the floor for the third time last spring and told my mother that she can’t let him go downstairs anymore. And then they got a caregiver. In my imagination, the song my father is dancing to is, of course, “Spanish Harlem.”
My mother lost another tooth this afternoon, and is scheduled to have the gap filled two weeks before she has her second hip replacement surgery. She plops with exhaustion into her recliner and struggles so much to get the blanket out from under her that she starts laughing. I start laughing too and cover her up. She’s had a long day. She gets tired much faster these days.
My parents are quietly crumbling, and their house is crumbling around them, just like in movies about old people and their old houses. I think about Miss Havisham mostly.
It’s growing in the street right up through the concrete But soft and sweet and dreaming
All I ever saw my dad wear were suits and ties, even when we visited Disneyland. Clean-shaven and short hair. When my dad was young he looked like a cross between Harry Belafonte and that dude from Fantasy Island. He even sent me a birthday card once that was a picture of Ricardo Montalban holding up a cocktail in a toast. Like my father was welcoming me to Fantasy Island. It was the most perfect, hilarious thing.
We were outsiders when I was growing up, or that was my perception of us. We were sincere and humble and my mother didn’t wear shorts and we didn’t have a Jacuzzi. Now, their feet and their teeth and their joints and their toilets and their ears and their eyes fill up my time here. There’s so much to worry about, so much to take care of, so many new noises I have to learn how to sleep through in my new station downstairs on the sofa bed. My mother kicked me out of my old bedroom because she sleeps in there now. She doesn’t want to sleep in the room with my dad anymore, because he gets up so early and hoists himself into his chair and punches his feet into his sneakers before seven. She wants her own space.
The creaking and thumping from my dad upstairs, the groans I hear from him having a bad dream, the kitchen noises at 7:15 when the caregiver arrives to make breakfast for him. The caregiver is on his iPhone headset already, talking to one of his relatives in the Philippines. I wake up to the sounds of his Tagalog while he opens the dishwasher and sets the electric kettle to boil. The busyness of the house is already starting without me. I kind of enjoy observing and listening to the routine from the sofa bed. Then I try to drift off to sleep again.
Last Christmas my father thought I’d grown taller, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him No, Dad, you shrank. He carried me as a child, threw me around. Now I could practically carry him. I can feel his spine when I hug him. After a few seconds of embrace, he needs to let go.
That Christmas we watched Dial M for Murder together. It’s one of his favorite movies, and mine too. He still laughs at the joke about how the man walking down the street carrying a purse would get arrested. I apologize for having a politically incorrect father, but I’m glad he can still enjoy his Hitchcock movies. The first time I saw that movie we watched it on television one afternoon in the 1970s. I was too young to understand the whole plot, but liked certain details: the rooms, the clothes, the tension, the close-up shot of the key hidden under the carpet on the stairs. A bit like a Hitchcock film, “Spanish Harlem” is old-fashioned and corny. The lyrics seem kind of racist and sexist. But as a child I just liked the violins and the xylophone, the pum-pum-pum of the beat, the magical words “in my garden.” Ben E. King made having a garden sound so interesting and mysterious, and I looked forward to having one in the future.
With eyes as black as coal that look down in my soul And starts a fire there and then I lose control I have to beg your pardon
“What is this?”
My dad holds up a flour tortilla from El Pollo Loco, a meal he just ate two months ago with my sister. I have just brought his dinner tray up to him. He holds up the limp tortilla, like it’s a foreign object not remotely appetizing, even though he has eaten them many times over the last several decades. He always loved Mexican food. Now he looks at the whole plate like it doesn’t make any sense.
“This is the chicken,” I explain, “and this is the rice. Here is some salsa.”
“What do I do with that?”
I tell him he can layer everything together and it tastes good. He wags the tortilla again.
“So it’s some sort of bread, right?”
I say “Yes, exactly. It’s like some sort of bread.”
I roll him to his bedroom, he gets through his bathroom routine, and I help him into bed and tuck him in. In the kitchen, I sit at the table near the dishwasher, which is running, with my back to the open window. It is finally cool at night and the breeze feels good on my back and my bare feet. A fruit fly buzzes past me. I don’t want it to get into my glass of Cremant, a bottle I purchased at the fancy grocery store where nothing is cheap. The air coming in through the open windows is starting to smell like wet earth and herbs and ocean, the smell of the nearby marsh that I have treasured for years. I grew up going to that marsh.
Not this time around. My garden. I am starting to feel nervous.
My mother was having hip replacement surgery the next morning. We had reminded my father earlier about this detail, but he didn’t really get it. He exclaimed Oh my goodness, like it was an inconvenience for him. And it was, because he wanted her to make Xeroxes of a bill that was already two months overdue. So when she reminded him her surgery was in the morning, he complained. When we were alone we joked that she would also be quite inconvenienced by this surgery.
I brought my mother’s pale gray lacy bra downstairs and put it in her purple faux snakeskin overnight bag. We were leaving the house for the hospital at 6:30 in the morning. I’d be in charge of her bag while she was in surgery, and wouldn’t deliver it until she was finished with post-op and settled in her room. It was a pretty bra. We talked for a while about colorful Fruit of the Loom panties from Target that come in a package of four. She had started wearing those with her fancy lace bras instead of the matching underwear, because she used to spend twenty-four dollars for a pretty little matching panty, and after one washing it shrank. She was about to take her pre-surgery shower and I had to wipe down her back with the chlorhexidine gluconate cloths, and she’d wipe down the other areas. We’d have to do it again in the morning before going to the hospital.
When she got out of the shower and opened the bathroom door, I wiped her back carefully for thirty seconds, moving from neck to lower spine while counting out the numbers in a slow murmur, and my mother stood there with a towel covering her front. She focused her gaze down into the sink and her blonde hair was wet, flopping forward over her eyes. Naked with wet hair, my mom looked sexy, liberated.
I’m going to pick that rose And watch her as she grows in my garden
It is strange how we move through the house now. Dad has transformed into an ocean creature, the nautilus upstairs. He pushes backwards down the hall in his chair that holds him like a protective shell, his swollen feet scuttling along the floor in busy paddling motions. Like a nautilus, he bumps into things and often needs help maneuvering out of doorways. I guide him and pull his chair from room to room in the evenings. During the day, it’s his caregiver’s job.
M om, downstairs, is more like a determined goat. She and the physical therapist and I walk in a loop three times downstairs, deep in conversation, strolling as if in a garden.
This is my new vocabulary, my family as some kind of bestiary, with lines from the song all tangled in it. It’s like the telephone game we played as kids. Remember? The chain of whispering until it’s all mangled and misconstrued by the end? The first word had been whispered so carefully, then the phrase grew longer and fuller and more complicated, then got changed around and the longer it went through the many ears and mouths whispering all of those words it became a paragraph long, but none of it contained the original word. No more meaning than a wordless refrain.
La la la, la la la, la la la la
So maybe it is the right song for my visits. All the things that used to make me feel embarrassed or self-conscious about my family are the things I miss now and love more than ever. They were the glue that held the story together for me. It’s where my embarrassment ends. And where the song ends, too. “Spanish Harlem” is a little bit comforting but also haunting as it plays and replays in my head, blurring the past and current reality. I’m taller than when I listened to it in our living room, and now I’m the one asking my parents what they want for dinner, offering my father treats like ice cream or chocolate for dessert. We’ve switched roles. But Ben E. King is still serenading us as I blur the long timeline of our lives.
La la la, la la la, la la la la