Archive for the ‘The Innocence Mission’ Category
We didn’t come to New York much when I was growing up, even though we only lived a two-hour train ride away—it was the 1970s and the Bronx was burning. But one of my earliest memories is of a day trip to the city with my parents, to visit my dad’s friend Tom, when I was about three or four years old. My father and Tom had served together in World War II and had kept in intermittent touch since. They were now in their late forties. Tom lived in suburban Long Island and ran a hair salon in Manhattan; on that trip, he styled my mother’s hair, probably in the pixie cut she wore during those years. Afterward, we all went to lunch at a busy restaurant with wood-paneled walls. For most of my life I believed I had imagined this part—that we sat down to eat in chairs with individual tray tables across our laps, like babies. I thought I must have projected my own recent state of high-chair captivity onto the adults in our party. Then one day a couple of years ago I met my friend Suzy for lunch. She wanted to go to a midtown diner called Prime Burger. I was hesitant, because I’m a vegetarian and I find most diners tired and dispiriting, but she was about to leave for Turkey for two years, and I let her choose. You can get a grilled cheese sandwich, she said. When we walked in, I realized it was the same place I had been nearly four decades earlier. The chairs with the tray tables were there, and Suzy and I sat in them, and I was happy to have the mystery solved, but of course something was missing—my parents still in early middle age; my mother’s new hairdo; the prospect of a visit later that day to the Central Park Zoo; the high, good humor of my father and Tom’s friendship in the middle of a big, threatening, promising city.
My dad lost touch with Tom, though he still mentioned him when he reminisced about his war experiences, which he did more frequently as he aged. One day, after I was grown up and had moved to New York, my father asked me to help him find his old friend. With the Internet, I tracked down Tom in moments—he still lived in Long Island, in a town whose name my father remembered. They reconnected by phone, and my dad was pleased to be in touch again. For a while, they spoke every few months. One spring I invited my parents down for a weekend in the city, and I planned a brunch at my apartment so they could meet a few of our close friends. My father invited Tom, who drove in from Long Island, and Tom and my parents had a brief, affectionate reunion that moved the rest of us deeply.
Over the next few years they continued speaking by phone and exchanging e-mails. And then one day Tom was gone. My father called and a message said the number had been disconnected. He sent an e-mail and no reply came. I stepped in to help again. I called Long Island families with the same last name, but no one knew Tom. I sent messages to people on Facebook with the same names as Tom’s children, but they turned out to be unrelated. I punched Tom’s address into Google and zoomed in to look at the satellite photo of the top of his house, but of course I couldn’t tell if Tom was in there. After a while we stopped searching. “He had had heart surgery,” my father said. “I think something must have happened to him.” I tried to keep alive the hope that Tom was somewhere, that life didn’t end—perhaps, I said, he had moved to a nursing home. But of course the most likely thing is that Tom died, and none of his relatives knew to contact my dad, or cared that much. At the end of our spring brunch, Tom, who was slender—he and his wife ballroom-danced—poked my father affectionately in the belly. “I want you to lose this,” he said. “You’ve got to take care of yourself.” But now, from that day, only a few years ago, Tom probably gone, my mom gone.
Last night I had a jolly dinner with five friends with whom I worked at a bookstore in the early ’90s. One I hadn’t seen in seventeen years; another I see every few weeks; the others, somewhere in between. We had organized the reunion through Facebook. Facebook! Say what you will about it, but it’s allowed me to get back in touch with, and stay in some kind of contact with, friends from every period of my life. Not too long ago I was friended by one of my very first friends from second grade, and we had a brief exchange of messages in which we remembered playing together one afternoon on the swing set in my childhood backyard, back before they called them “play dates.” Now our lives progress in parallel, hers on my News Feed, mine on hers. We may not get much closer than that. But that’s fine—I just want to keep track of everyone I’ve cared about, a luxury my parents’ generation didn’t always have.
Photo by Adam Kuban.
Now, this band, this band I should have listened to back in the 1990s. I would have loved it, if I had let myself, which I might not have seeing as it wasn’t on Matador or Sub Pop. It doesn’t much matter, because I love it and listen to it a lot now. I was introduced to it by my friend Nathaniel. When he told me a few years back that he was a fan of its music, I thought, oh, it’s that kind of band whose name I used to always see floating around. Its songs were probably included on those free sampler CDs that came with CMJ New Music Monthly, and I probably skipped over them, out of sheer, stubborn, youthful lack of curiosity. I had to admit to him that I didn’t know the first thing about the Innocence Mission. The associations I had, that it was intimately bound up with its era, weren’t exactly wrong—its songs were played on Beverly Hills 90210 and Party of Five. This song, “Bright as Yellow,” the band’s biggest hit, has that shiny but woozy ’90s production style.
The video is totally ’90s too—the camera wavering in and out of focus; the flickery film projected on the band members; the big, empty, Shaker-esque rooms of an old house in the country. And yet, isn’t it beautiful? It all works for me. The smile on Karen Peris’ face, the way she interlaces her fingers and twists them around—I see that they might be affected, a little bit of stage business to play up the atmosphere of childhood wonder the video is trying to convey. I see that and I override it. I love the smile and the fidgety fingers. Her eyes, her voice, are genuinely bright and clear and guileless, and they genuinely lift me up, even if just for the duration of the song.
I like Glow, the album this song comes from, but I rarely listen to it, only because, after the burst of attention the Innocence Mission received in the middle of the ’90s, the band went on to make better music. Its last two albums of original songs—Befriended, from 2003, and We Walked in Song, from 2007—have been close companions during the past few years of my life. That woozy production is stripped away. The songs are about parents dying, about missing friends that have moved away, but also about small moments, a picnic in a state park, “walking around New Orleans looking for a birthday cake.” There’s a lot of real life here—“Beautiful changes I feel sometimes/In the middle of the late morning dishes” is one of the lines I like best.
This is a more recent video, of their song “My Sisters Return From Ireland,” the last track on We Walked in Song, and it probably cost a millionth of what it cost to make the “Bright as Yellow” video. In fact, it was most likely pieced together on a laptop. It makes me think of my part-Irish grandmother, who never traveled outside of the United States, or outside of the Northeast, for that matter. When I was a kid I used to think about travel a lot, and I would ask her where she’d most like to go, and she would look off into the distance a little and say, “I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland.” This song seems to be about staying home, maybe because you have to, and daydreaming about a faraway place, even worrying a little about what you would be like if you were to actually get there.