Little light of Milwaukee


One winter before Christmas, my mother and I entered a bar in the neighborhood of one of my high school friends. We were to meet with my friend and her parents for an early dinner.


The bar was full of people coming in from a cold night into the low lit room. Multicolored Christmas tree lights bordered the windows. People seemed happy.


Before my friend arrived, my mother went over to the jukebox and, after looking over the selections and dropping some coins into it, came back to sit.

An orchestra began to play, and the voice of Nat King Cole sang, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose..."

She closed her eyes and smiled. I imagined she was far away in a place without bills and a car that risked not starting every morning. She was safe. No matter the trouble we had growing up (and there was some), we always had music---my mother's Brazilian jazz records played so often they wouldn't play anymore, my brother's rock (in which I was so often schooled by his encyclopedic knowledge of it) came from his room daily, and of course my sister's early taste for pop and reggae months before they hit the airwaves made her the coolest sister ever.


When she opened her eyes, ever the teacher, my mother instructed me on Nat King Cole, not only who he was and his importance to music, but in how to appreciate his genius.


"Listen to the way he modulates his voice."

"Did you hear that turn of phrase?"


We ate thick hamburgers and fries with malt vinegar and talked for a long time. What we talked about, I don't know.


I only recall that dark December night, the twinkling lights, the snow coming down outside, and my mother giving me one quarter at a time until each Nat King Cole song had been played, each time like a magic token until the spell was complete, until we were all safe at home in music.


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