I'm staggering through Walgreens Wednesday night, my brain in slo-mo, and my body numb. I'm getting a cold and I'm hoping to diminish its severity with some mass-produced placebos. My head is thick, the walls are moving and the floor is tilted. I come to a shelf packed with various remedies all promising instant relief. I blink my eyes, trying to focus, when suddenly a familiar voice comes floating through the air, singing a song I haven't heard in decades:
"Throw mama from the train a kiss, a kiss
Wave mama from the train a goodbye...."
At first, I think I'm hallucinating. The garbled syntax of the lyric echoes my own muddled thinking, but then the old memory cells kick in and I'm transported back to my youth.
"Mama From the Train" was a hit song for Patti Page back in the '50s. When my brother and I first heard it coming out of the radio, we laughed hysterically. Why would you want to throw your mother off a moving train? The idea was so wacky that we didn't bother listening to the rest of the song. We laughed till our sides ached. When our mother asked us what was so funny, we clammed up. We didn't want her to know that we thought matricide was funny.
The next time I heard the song, the DJ explained that the odd phrasing was based on the grammar of Pennsylvania's German immigrants, who might also say "Look the window out" or "Eat mama up all her pie," another phrase from the song. This time I listened to the song without laughing and appreciated Page's laid-back, jazzy phrasing. I didn't understand the song's emotional context -- fond memories of a dead parent -- until I was a lot older, but I loved the soothing tone of her voice.
Earlier this week in Trader Joe's, they played "Old Cape Cod," another Page hit. It's a tribute to small town life that Page sings in a hushed, reverent tone. My favorite aunt and uncle lived in Massachusetts, and I imagined them walking down the streets of Cape Cod with me. The song made me nostalgic, even though I was still a boy, a tribute to the power of a good song. As I walked home with my flu remedies, I wondered what the chances were of hearing two Patti Page songs in a week. I didn't know until I booted up my computer later that night that Page had died.
I'd always liked Page's full, rich, emotional delivery, but in my teen years, I hid my Patti Page albums when friends came over. I didn't want them to think I was a square for crying when I played "The Tennessee Waltz." I was embarrassed to admit that I liked Page's singing, even though she was a pioneering artist. Her lush vocal style was the result of double-tracking; she was the first singer to use the technique to "fatten" her delivery. Her biggest hit, "The Tennessee Waltz," topped the pop, country, and R&B charts and sold 10 million singles. She was the best-selling female vocalist of the '50s and recorded jazz, country, folk, and pop material. After rock took over the pop charts, Page went back to country music, her first love, and had chart hits until the '80s. Her early career took place before the Grammys were created, but she won a Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance Grammy for her Live at Carnegie Hall: The 50th Anniversary Concert album in 1998 and was going to pick up a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Grammy in February 2013. Page was still in good voice and averaging 50 concerts a year, until her health started to fail about a year ago. She died on New Year's Day at age 85.