Dear Switchback fans,
We were in Stillwater, Minnesota last week, and as usual we chose to do some outreach programs. We were at a retirement home called The Greeley. It was an unbelievably warm day, and the residents were brought outside for a concert on the patio. The director brought out straw hats for them to wear as we set up our sound system and commenced playing. It was a great deal of fun as always, with the twists and turns that one encounters when doing outreach programs. As our “Sycamore View” song goes, every resident has some “damn claim to fame” and more often than not, it really is a bona fide claim to fame or notable accomplishment. (I feel one of the great tragedies of modern living is that our elderly and their life experiences are not appreciated, recorded, or used for knowledge by the younger generations, but that is for another article.)
He was sitting in a wheelchair and watching us play with an intensity that made me guess that he must be a musician. We continued on and about halfway through our concert he left, wheeling back through the door and into the residence. Usually when that happens during a senior outreach, it means one of three things: a) the person is bored with our program; b) the person has to go to the bathroom; c) both. In this case, I thought that he must need to get to the bathroom, for he was clearly enjoying himself. Sure enough, out he came about two songs later with a manila envelope in his hand. He clutched it throughout the rest of the show, and when we were finished with the program, he came up to us.
“My name is Eric Sjoberd and I am a Laplander! My people came from the far north.”
“Ok,” I said, “well, you live in the right state then.”
“I do,” he smiled. “Did you know that Sjoberd is Lapp for Sea-Mountain?”
“No,” I replied, “but that is a pretty cool name.”
“I was in music,” he said.
Brian and I naturally are curious when someone says they “were in music.” That can mean a lot of things, from playing in a high school band to sharing the stage with Dizzy Gillespie. Eric carefully opened the manila envelope and pulled out a photo. It was a scene from the late 50’s of a tour bus. Hanging out of its windows and around it were various musicians, all dressed in suits of the folk era and clutching musical instruments.
“This was my group,” he said. “The Jubilaires.”
We studied the photo of the band. Here was clearly a traveling outfit which reminded me of the New Christy Minstrels-type of bands that were popular before rock and roll started taking off. It was a magical time, when folk music was king and before some other Minnesotan with the last name of Zimmerman traveled down Route 61 and literally changed the world as we knew it.
Eric pointed to people in the photograph. “Here is my wife. She played the banjo. And here is my son, he played guitar.”
Turned out that Eric and his wife lived up in the Iron Range part of Minnesota. His wife’s musical interests were something that he embraced. Together they formed a traveling folk band. Gathering other musicians around them, they formed the Jubilaires. (In research on the internet, I found the Jubalaires, which was a gospel group from the 1940’s-1950’s, but I couldn’t find any mention of Eric’s group.)
“We would plan a tour of about 28 shows and see how far we could get from the Twin Cities,” said Eric. “And we kept it going for 42 years.”
Sadly, the Sjoberds' son died of an aneurysm, and at his passing they decided to end the band.
“How old are you now?” I asked.
“96 years old,” he replied.
“Ah, another proof of music keeping you young!” I said.
He happily fist-pumped the air, holding onto his picture.
Brian and I thanked him for being a journeyman. And for taking the risk of doing what he loved. Amazingly, the fact that he, his wife, and son were able to share those 42 years bringing joy to countless others was something that stuck with me.
Too often, it seems that we are preoccupied with equating fame with success. The idea that one can be a success but not famous (or rich for that matter) is not as exciting. We were raised on the notion that to be someone in this world, we had to be something. That is why social media has become such a huge hit. We all can be something, even if it just means that it is something going out into the ether.
The journeyman (and woman) flies in the face of this notion. Their idea is that this world is just a playground for the imagination. And whoever touches the most souls during the journey wins. What wasn’t in Eric’s photo were the countless souls that were touched. Souls that most likely had no idea of the personal cost of losing his son so suddenly. Or that he is now confined to a wheelchair at a nursing home in Minnesota.
But Eric does. And that is the point.
Dear Switchback fans,
Brian and I have been on a long tour that essentially started with our St. Patrick’s shows (which began around Valentine’s Day) and is now ending in Hawaii. In the middle of all of this we took a tour group to beautiful Tuscany. As usual, we had a great time and I have to boast that our fans make the best tourists of any band out there. Here is a journal I kept of thoughts during the tour, and I hope you enjoy it. I want to especially thank Michele Shubitowski, our Switchback STeam leader, for taking so many exciting pictures of the trip. Ciao!
Newark, New Jersey
The Voice Has the Man
Brian and I had been on the road almost nonstop since February 10, with stops in Arizona, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana throughout the St. Patrick’s season. Most days had more than one show booked as we ranged from private shows to resorts to performing arts centers. The last week was pretty intense with us flying to Arizona, driving nine hours round trip in one day to California and playing four sets there, boarding a jet to New Jersey to play the equivalent of five sets in one day there, boarding a plane to Chicago, driving across from Midway to O’Hare Airports, and then hopping on a plane with 40 fans and flying over the ocean to Tuscany. And so as we played our last show in the States, I could feel my voice finally telling me “enough!”
As Brian can attest, music has a way of keeping you healthy, but the sheer amount of singing required specifically for the Irish shows had worn me down. And so as we were leaving Arizona for New Jersey, I knew that I was developing a nasty cold to contend with.
A long time ago, I heard my mother quote the great Caruso who asked rhetorically, Does the Man have the Voice or does the Voice have the Man? It is a great question for any singer, because one needs to be aware of one’s health status to answer the latter affirmatively. Unfortunately, my voice was hoarse, and for one of the few times in my life, I felt that the “voice had me” in its control. Truthfully there was very little I could do as all it takes is an errant cold virus to knock on the vocal chords and wreak havoc. Keeping the voice rested would be easy if it could be restricted only to singing. But as independent musicians, we use our voices for so many other things, such as coordinating with hosts where one is staying, talking to fans during breaks, talking to supporters after shows, and negotiating with new and future venues while playing the current place. Add the fatigued body, boosted with coffee, and throw in the odd sleeping arrangement, such as upright in economy class, and voila! The voice has the man. One can see how some singers act antisocial, as that can be an effort to protect the voice.
So my voice is croaking and my left ear is plugged which makes flight in a pressurized cabin a thing of joy. The goal is to be nice to my voice and allow it some rest which I hope to do while taking in the beauty of Tuscany.
Newark Rain to Roman Sun
“So,” I asked the lady sitting next to me at the Newark terminal, “what are you flying to Chicago for?” Brian shot me a look as he saw me sip my cup of coffee, while sucking on a lemon Cold-Eeze lozenge. My voice sounded as if I was the love child of Janis Joplin and Gollum.
The lady took no notice of my voice. “I am heading for something sad,” she said. “My brother passed. He was in the military for 27 years and if there is one thing worse than a regular funeral, it is a military funeral.” I nodded. I knew what she meant. My own dad’s funeral had a military honor guard and the slow folding of the flag. It tugged on the heart. “But he had a good life,” she said. “He was 80, but that leaves just me out of all my siblings left alive.” I tried to console her as much as I could and when she asked me what I was doing, I croaked that I was heading to Chicago to catch a flight to Tuscany.
She smiled when she heard that. And I had to explain that I was a musician, that I was in this band and the guy looking annoyed next to me is he guy I have worked with for thirty years and that we also take people to Ireland each year and so on.
The lady, who had a lovely Long Island accent, told me she was Irish and then asked would I like to hear a joke. I replied that I would.
“Seamus O’Toole’s pet dog died, and beside himself in grief he went to ask Father Murphy, the parish priest, to say a funeral mass for the dog. The good Father acted insulted. ‘I do not say the holy Mass for some animal,’ he snarled. ‘Go find ye some other church.’ Seamus, being a humble man, took his hat off and said quietly, ‘Yes, Father, but would ye answer me this: is $5,000 too small a price to pay for a funeral Mass?’ ‘Oh,’ Father Murphy said sweetly, ‘you didn't tell me it was a Catholic dog now!’
I laughed out loud and we carried on for a bit until Brian said. “Marty, save what is left of your voice!”
We flew to Chicago and I called an Uber ride. Mahood who was from Lebanon, picked us up and we headed toward Oak Park. I had clicked Uber Pool, which is the cheapest option and usually you end up being the only riders as there are few people who act on it. But today, needing to get the airport, would be the day we actually had someone who wished to ride with us and our luggage.
“Why did you pick Uber Pool?” Mahood asked. “No one picks Uberpool.” We pulled up outside a brownstone, and he called the rider. “Sarah, you should be downstairs!”
While waiting for Sarah, Mahood asks me, “Do you ever play the Oud?”
“What is an Oud ?” I asked.
Mahood takes his cellphone and starts searching for an Oud to show me on YouTube.
About five minutes later a young girl came down and got in the car. I look at my phone, about three hours to flight time.
“Here is the Oud ,” says Mahood, and he starts playing his cellphone, while looking for the right place to drop off Sarah.
The video shows a young woman on “Arabs Got Talent” who looks a bit like Sarah McLachlan playing a very medieval looking instrument.
Meanwhile we passed Sarah's place by two blocks.
“I think she was to be dropped off somewhere back there,” says Brian.
Mahood turns around while the video plays this very serious, somber song, with jump cuts to delighted judges nodding and smiling approval. She must really be tearing it up, I am thinking.
Sarah's apartment number it turns out doesn't exist.
“I am not from here,” she says. “Let me call my friend.”
She calls her friend and we spend another five minutes circling the block while “Arabs Got Talent” erupts in cheers for the serious Oud playing McLachlan lookalike.
Finally, Sarah's friend, a teenage kid, walks out to the street in his socks and stands on the sidewalk.
“That is the wrong number!” cries an exasperated Mahood. “If I was to leave her, I could get in big trouble, but look what it does to me!”
We manage to calm him down and get to the apartment in Oak Park.
The next fifteen minutes are spent getting all the gear shifted from the Arizona-New Jersey Tour to the Tuscany Tour. I call Uber and request a large vehicle for four passengers as we now have Brian's wife Maggie as well.
Five minutes later a driver in an Audi shows up and the only thing large is the fact that he has been working out. He looks at us, our baggage and guitars. “I got stuff in my trunk,” he says, looking at us like we are going to give in and get rid of a suitcase and guitar. “Don't know if I can squeeze you in.”
He decides that he can't and leaves. I now request the Uber SUV which I personally think should be called Uber-Uber, but that request would take 30 minutes to show up.
We call a cab and request a minivan. It comes in five minutes. We are on our way.
We arrive at O’Hare where Annie and Áine are waiting. Áine jumps into my arms and hugs Auntie Maggie and Uncle Brian. We sail through security, and I am impressed and relieved that TSA got its act together in Chicago. They even have an assistant to help passengers load their trays for the X-ray, which was a welcome first. We settle into our plane for the flight to Rome and all was uneventful. The morning came as we flew over the French Alps, covered in snow and looking majestic. Áine hung out with Auntie Maggie and looked out the window.
Then we flew into Italy, curving out over the sea and over fields, vineyards and tiny villas with tile roofs. Our plane gently touched down. Fiumicino Airport was awash in sun, and already my throat felt better.
A Beeline to Figline
Donatella Cerrone is the guide for our tour. A pretty woman with dark hair and a great smile that all energized all of us tired Americans immediately, she rounded us up and walked us through customs and out into the warm air.
She immediately passed the test as Brian teased her.
“You are our guide? This is all like a bad dream.”
Not missing a beat, Donatella shot back in her Italian accent.
“Yes, I am your worst nightmare, now get on the coach.”
We all laughed like we knew each other for years.
Our coach was waiting with a friendly driver named Luigi, who took the bags and got us settled inside. All at once we were off through the countryside, skirting the congestion of Rome and heading due north to the small town of Figline. Pronounced like the Italian director Fellini, but (as Donatella teased us) butchered by Yanks to sound like a line of Figs. We crossed over to Tuscany, the hills becoming more pronounced, with rolling vineyards and tiny plots of cultivated land. The trees were all in bloom, and here and there various fruit orchards were showing their colors of purple, white and a rare pink here and there. Magnolias would be interspersed among the arborvitae and pines. The whole land was awakening and for a cold Midwesterner it felt like a very good dream indeed. Here and there along the highway there were overpasses where graffitied panels would jar the idyllic surroundings, but compared to the dull Chicago gangland tags, the work was almost inspired, even whimsical.
Off the main highway we rolled to Figline. A few more miles of scenery and we arrived at the Villa Casagrande, which would be our place of stay for the next six nights. A combination of old farmhouse, modern hotel, and nobleman’s retreat, the Villa is itself a microcosm of Italy today. Modernity seamlessly blends into the ancient, and the elements embrace in old stone and brick walls and arches, a dramatic two story interior waterfall wall, and spacious tiled rooms, with each view looking out over gardens and tiled roofs covered in moss, lichens, and the occasional flower that managed to make its home among the crevices.
Áine immediately found the Italian garden and ran along the paths, picking up stones and other “treasures” like twigs, flower blooms, and colored bits of old glass. She brought them to a column in the garden’s center and laid them on the base. Then she produced a twig and waved it over her treasures, saying “magic, magic, magic.”
“Where did you learn that?” I asked her.
“From me,” she said solemnly.
I looked at her and then around the surroundings.
It was magic, magic, magic.
We had a tour of the ancient estate, getting a history of the owners and seeing the rooms of the Villa that are still preserved with original furnishings and pictures of bearded lords and demure ladies through the centuries. The Villa was technically an estate until the 1980’s when it became a place for guests. But unlike in the States, where the place would be leveled and a new six story steel and glass square would be built, the Tuscans decided to make the place part museum, part hotel, part winery.
Our group then met in the courtyard for a wine tour and tasting. The original casks from the 1400’s were still in place and Brian and I had a couple pictures taken. I couldn't get over how again things were reverentially allowed to remain and add to the over unique feel of Villa Casagrande.
The Villa has its own wine made and along with various vintages sampled, there were great portions of bruschetta and salami, tomatoes and cheese. The selections of wine, along with the great accompaniment of food, made our group rather reluctant to leave for dinner.
Dusk was deepening to evening as we proceeded across the road and up a hill to the Aqua restaurant that commands a sweeping view of the foothills that surround the town of Figline. We admired the view, but then we were enticed to head over to the outdoor rotisserie where our dinner was being prepared. The concierge beckoned us into the restaurant and we seated ourselves around several tables washed in candlelight. On the walls hung whimsical fish, sharks and sea creatures fashioned from old parts of agricultural machinery.
The dinner was salad, followed by roasted potatoes and cannellini, accompanied by a wonderful combo of roasted pork and chicken. On the rotisserie, the chef had cleverly separated the meats with thick slices of bread that soaked up the juices of the meat and became a fascinating dish in and of itself. Dessert was an elegant yellowcake, warm and browned lightly on the top, with just the thinnest dusting of powdered sugar and a hint of fresh coconut within.
By the time dinner was over, Áine was fast asleep and already it had been a full day with that odd sensation of having two days worth for every day spent. We all departed to our comfortable rooms of our new home Villa Casagrande for a well-earned night's sleep.
A Flurry of Florence
As always morning comes way too soon on tour. No matter if I had slept for two days, the excitement of the journey and our new surroundings were not enough to get my body into full gear. That was taken care of by about four cups of cappuccino, along with a full Italian breakfast of eggs, bacon, fruit, smoked swordfish, sausages, various cuts of salami, orange juice, cereal with yogurt, and toast with Nutella spread.
We assembled for the trip to Florence. I had last been to Florence around 1995, and then it was January and one of the coldest winters in Europe. That tour was with a company that taught me how not to have a group tour. I remember being in a blur as we rocket sledded around each country in about a day and a half. So I welcomed the chance to stroll with the group with time and bright sunshine.
The coach paused just outside the city in order for Luigi to get the fee to bring us into the city proper. Áine took the opportunity to pick daisies and I was very proud of her when she gave one to Donatella. Once on our way we parked next to the river that flows through the city and walked over to the cathedral where the statue of Dante (of Inferno fame) stands staring at everyone who invades his piazza, and met Sylvia, who showed us the sights of Florence.
Part of the scenery was the variety of people who grace the streets of Firenze, as the Italians call their town. Great hordes of high school and college students from the US and Europe jostled alongside Chinese seniors scurrying after a guide with a small Italian flag and merchants from North Africa, selling imitation haute couture purses, electric current adapters, and for some reason bizarre posters of the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. Then there are the artists of the streets: singers, guitarists, brass bands, and lone grizzled accordion players, as well as chalk artists, reproducing great works of the masters while delivery vans whisk alongside and tourists sidestep, weave, part and leave the prostate artist and art an island of concentrated calm in a torrent of chaos. Alongside all of this somehow existed the actual denizens, who were comprised of the gold merchants, leather merchants, businessmen in dapper suits and women dressed superbly in high fashion of leather, heels, dresses with deep cuts and impeccably done makeup. And alongside these folks, the other denizens: Gypsy beggars. Dark skinned women with careworn faces holding plastic cups and pictures of their starving families, or pregnant women sidling up while one gazes at the architecture to murmur something, while patting their bellies and thrusting empty palms. And finally, the real thieves, pickpockets and the like who, like sharks in a sea of blood, swim with their mouths open and eyes wide, taking in everything and striking when the bait is grouped in a ball of confusion. All the while, the sounds of talk in a dozen languages, the clomping of horse hooves from the tourist traps bearing the wedded Japanese couple while in the other direction comes another trap with an Asian couple and their young child, as if the future passes reality, passing the past in the form of an old woman hobbling along alone. All of it, from the Pont de Vecchio to the Domo, timeless in its repetition, as if Firenze herself is one living creature, breathing and writhing in the warmth of a Spring sun.
And one cannot truly escape this torrent of people, except to move to an eddy here and there, the coffee bar, where awnings and tables allow one to drink caffe macchiato and drink in the display of faces and light going by. The G7 was at the town hall for an important meeting on culture and terrorism and throughout the city, soldiers with guns, police with pistols on their sides and rifles at the ready. They were part of the whole event, as it were. And, where the G7 were meeting in the town hall, below, streams of people entered to take in the art collection. The act of living and enjoying art and culture is in itself now an act of defiance.
Our group wended its way along the Pont de Vecchio, the only original bridge of the city that was spared the wrath of the retreating Nazis during WWII. The Medici family, the medieval dynasty that ran Florence, had custom fitted the bridge with a private walk above to keep them from mingling with the rabble, as well as avoiding any assassin that was lying in wait. They also got rid of the butchers, who had used the bridge for centuries, and brought in goldsmiths, thus elevating the standard of the city and ridding themselves of the smell of rotting meat. The bridge still bustles with gold dealers and shops of gold jewelry. Further along, an area devoted to leather goods and further still, objects as diverse as reproduction Roman statues next to wooden copies of the town celebrity, Pinocchio.
We went to lunch with Donatella at Ristorante Paoli, which was a restaurant that was elegant and affordable at the same time. Old crests of families were along the wall and the waiters dashed among the deep walnut woodwork. It almost had the feel of dining in a chapel. The homemade pastas and sauce were served with thick crusty bread. In spite of being gluten free, I found myself giving in to the the joy of having such beautifully created food. Áine was quite the hit with the waiters and she enjoyed her meal as well, especially since we had the treat of gelato at Venchy as the final course.
Known for its chocolate waterfall (yes a rear wall of flowing chocolate that would make Willy Wonka envious), Venchy was filled with people. Donatella treated us to the gelato, queuing to pay for the ice cream first, then joining us in the next line to actually get the gelato. That is fairly standard practice in Italy for coffee, and at most places, except for restaurants, one will see people paying in one line and bringing their receipts to the second line. In some instances, it is efficient, while in others, like at the Autostrada oasis, it can be a drag on time.
Either way, the end result was worth the wait, for the gelato in Italy is one of a kind. Creamy, rich, and just the right amount of sweetness, Italian gelato easily puts American ice cream to shame. The main reason is that foods in Italy (and Europe in general) do not use the “partly hydrogenated-homogenized-ostracized” additives that we in the U.S. have grown accustomed to using. So the American taste bud is at once shocked and delighted by the sensation of real food. It happened time and again on our tour, much to our happiness.
Just when our euphoria was wearing off, we got word that one of our party had been pickpocketed. It happened quite easily. At a gelato stand, a “shark” looking for prey saw his chance and bumped one of our group as she was putting her coin purse away. Distracted for just a second, she in an instant realized she had been robbed. Ironically, her husband just snapped a picture a second before the pickpocket struck, catching his full image. That was turned over to the police, who in turn reassured our group that the thief was looking for cash, not credit cards. The cards were promptly canceled anyway and Donatella said she was ashamed that it occurred in her country. But we all told her that it could happen anywhere and to any one of us. We were all impressed with her graciousness about it.
There is the “situation” with some of the Roma people who have decided that a life of petty theft and beggary is acceptable. Perhaps from years of marginalization, they hover on the fringes, with different sorts of “acts” set up to observe and then the “sharks” who are quick and just plain ugly strike. The “acts” are old ladies, shuffling to and fro with a plastic cup, sometimes with a picture of a family taped to them. Toothless, their faces creased in supplication, they work over the tourists, with a few coins clinking in the cup. Or there are the pregnant mothers, again with a family picture, a hand on their bellies to remind you “I am pregnant here!” and staring hard at you to shame you into giving. The occasional old man sitting with a cup or even lying in a “downward dog” position, the cup alongside him. A bright spot has been the complete disappearance of Roma children begging in the streets. At one time, back in the late 1990’s, these kids were like wolves in a pack, pestering, darting in, grabbing, swarming, and leaving tourists bereft of wallets, passports, and their dignity. Hopefully, schooling and more attention to elevating this section of Italian society are occurring within the European Union. The ones left on the street seem to be of a different time. What is present at this time are the street vendors, mainly from north Africa, who operate in one big organized selling operation. I personally observed a “captain” get up from a crowd watching a performer (who I now suspect was also part of the selling operation) and rounding up his salesmen, directed them to the outskirts of the crowd. He returned and sat down, and a song later, the performer ended, the crowd dispersed into the vendors hawking imitation this and that and those ugly Joker posters.
In spite of that element, it was a part of what made Florence interesting and part of what made this a place that for centuries has collected the various strata of society and somehow, blended them together to make a magnificent city. We walked back to the coach and returned to the Villa a bit weary from walking and anticipating a glass of wine and an evening of relaxation. For Annie, Aine and myself, it was dinner at the Villa. Aine eating pasta with tomato sauce, Annie, pasta with guanciale (bacon) and for myself, wild boar with juniper berries and roast potatoes. Aine was fast asleep by dessert, so we quietly paid for our meal and walked across the flagstones and to bed.
San Gimignano, the Heart of Tuscany
How many cappuccinos does it take to get going in the morning? This morning for me it was five! Italians are kind of funny about coffee. They like espresso, and so they will order about 10 of them during the course of a day. Espresso is basically a shot of concentrated coffee and they get this in teeny tiny coffee cups that they throw back and then they get with on their day. The whole ritual of coffee in the morning is something they don’t really have much of an idea about. Cappuccino is a breakfast espresso with foamed milk. It is served in a coffee cup about a third the size of an American coffee mug. So five espressos, though it sounds impressive, is not that much really by American standards. The espresso at the hotel was made by a very lovely young lady, Alitera, who hails from Cuba and is a former dancer and crack espresso maker. Her bubbly personality was a shot of caffeine in and of itself. Aine would enter the restaurant and greet everyone with “Buongiorno!” and that would get the staff smiling even more.
Donatella had us onto the coach around 8:30 a.m. Normally I raise my eyebrows at leaving so early in the morning as it is counter to what we strive to do with our “Tourmet” types of tours. But the walled city of San Gimignano lay about 90 minutes away, and we were rewarded for our effort. This city, a UNESCO world heritage site, is amazingly preserved with towers, medieval walls, cobbled streets, and a stunning view of the Tuscan countryside. Sitting on top of a hill, it must have been one of the first “skylines” of history as it towers over the area with a feeling of authority and power. We arrived and, after some of us ponied up a euro to use the public bathrooms, proceeded to walk up to the opening of the city. Here the feeling was more like stepping back into the Middle Ages as anything remotely modern is successfully blended into the architecture. Tourism is the primary business here and aside from several kitschy torture chamber “museums,” most shops sell local meats, the area wine known as Vernaccia di San Gimignano, and souvenirs of Tuscany.
We walked up to the main church of Sant'Agostino, which by luck was available for entry as there was to be a baptism later that morning. We filed past the font, set outside the church, already set with the baptismal cloth and chrism, and into the church. I had my GoPro camera and the stick folded. I was about to take it out when a guard came to me. He gestured to the stick and shook his head “NO.” I looked at him puzzled as there was no ban on sticks for cameras on the “rules of etiquette” outside the church. I then took the camera from the stick holder and asked if that was ok. He nodded yes. So instead of taking pictures with a stick, I just raised my hand in the air. Pretty dumb in my opinion, but everyone likes to be an authority, I told myself. I soon forgot the grumpy guard and focused instead of the frescos that were inside. These were painted in the 14th century and were just magnificent. On one wall were the Old Testament displays, painted so an illiterate congregation could learn about the bible. Here was the creation, Eve coming out of Adam, the couple getting kicked out of Eden, and other themes. The paintings were resplendent in color and. though painted with a trained hand, lacked the dimensionality of later works of art. It had that one-dimensional “medieval” look, which for being a 14th century fresco is A-OK. The other wall was all New Testament. Here was an amazing depiction of Jesus rising from the dead. The Roman soldiers are all dressed in the garb of the 14th century and there is an ardent passion that just leaps out of the work, as if the painters were doing their best to convince you of the divinity of Christ.
For those illiterate 14th Century skeptics, the side wall in the rear of the church was a bit more convincing. Here was the “ya-better-believe-or-else” wall. Showing the Last Judgment, the artists painted all the sinners getting theirs for each of the wonderful seven deadly sins. The gluttons, forced to eat food by gruesome devils, the greedy forced to eat money by gruesome devils, the fornicators (who were all good looking women for some reason, at least by 14th century standards) were forced to do what fornicators do with gruesome devils. It was a rather scary depiction of Hell, so much so that Heaven was somewhat eclipsed by the hot place. It was the second most scary depiction of the Last Judgment, the first being at Our Lady of Lourdes in Chicago which pictures Jesus sending people into Hell, but at the same time turning the righteous all into Teletubbies. Hideous in its own right.
We took in the beautiful frescos for quite a while and finally headed out into the piazza in front of the church. Aine took to playing with a little Spanish boy, who decided to throw sticks at her. “That boy is a bully,” said Aine. “I don’t like him,” and proceeded to sever all diplomatic relations. The kid then decided to throw a stick at me. We moved away from the brat. Anyway, it was time to try more gelato. When one gets a stick thrown at him by a Spanish brat, one must retaliate with copious amounts of gelato. So we went to Dondoli where I ordered a chocolate, white chocolate, and Nutella cone. Aine had a strawberry cone and Annie the “kiss of Santifina” which was toasted pine nuts and saffron. Saffron is one of the things that San Gimignano is known for in its storied history and so getting a cone with the local flavor made some sense. But for me, chocolate or no cone.
We were back on the bus for our visit next to a winery. This was Torciano (their website has a nice history on San Gimignano and their winery) and it was in the middle of a beautiful valley completely surrounded by vineyards. A man was riding a horse as we drove in, and out in the fields a couple hands were looking at some of the vines. An eyebrow-raising helipad was marked out on the nicely groomed lawn and a path led to a labyrinth made of grapevines that had a nice shady gazebo with a linen top. I thought that a nice touch, easy to get into, then you try their wines, and then it’s tough to get out of. And there were guard geese hanging around the labyrinth too, a bit Mario Brothers when one thought about it. We were greeted by a cheerful woman, who asked us where we were from. She was very delighted when we told her that we were mostly from the midwest. Turns out that Torciano has a wine distribution center in Lake Forest, Illinois, which delighted us as well, especially when ordering their wine.
Aine was not up to the wine tasting and as soon as we were led into the room made of oaken casks with a linen ceiling that let the warm Tuscan sunlight the space with a honey golden glow, she asked me to head out so she could find “treasure.” Aine (like her Poppa) likes to collect rocks and these become her treasure. So while our group was being treated to generous pours of the various stocks of wine, we headed outside and over to where the horses were. Aine managed to find some rocks, including a diamond shaped rock. We also heard a helicopter landing on the pad and looking over saw a chianti-colored helicopter, its blades coming to a stop. I thought it a nice touch to have a wine-colored helicopter. Business must be good, I thought.
Laughter was coming from the wine tasting room, and I knew our crowd was getting a good experience. Aine and I continued to look for rocks and along the fenceline, we spooked about 20 little leaping lizards that ran every which way across the horse pen and along the road. We were taken a bit aback, having not seen any reptiles in Italy until that point. One of our group yelled over to me that we were about to have lasagna. Aine and I both headed quickly over to try the famous Torciano grandma’s recipe. It was made with handmade pasta and sauce and was delicious. Not drinking any wine, I gave my samples over to the table where I was sitting and Aine’s as well. She is a little under the drinking age, even for Italy. After lunch, Brian and I brought out our guitars and we proceeded to play Stellar Jay’s Wing, which made Maureen Hutchinson happy as it was hers and her late husband Tom’s song. Then Maggie joined us for In My Glory, which got some of the group and even the Italian staff dabbing their eyes. Nancy Wisniewski requested the final song, which of course was Pour Me! Everyone left the winery happy, full of wine and lasagna, and wallets a few euro lighter with crates of wine heading back to the States.
As we drove along the autostrade, Donatella pointed out a somber sight. There, nestled in a little valley not far off the roadway, was a cemetery of American dead from WWII. About the neat rows of white marble waved the American flag. Donatella told us that on a previous tour, one man asked to stop at the cemetery. There, for the first time, he walked down the rows and stood at the grave of his grandfather. Italy was a hotly contested battleground between the Axis and Allies. Some of the bloodiest fighting of the war took place in Italian towns like Monte Cassino and Anzio. We all gazed at the peaceful scene as we passed the cemetery and I felt a mixture of sadness and pride for those men who died in such a beautiful place during such a hellish time.
Back at the Villa, some of us took naps, while about 20 of our group met with the head chef Anna to do some Tuscan cooking. Aine and I took a nap and missed out on the fun, but the main part of it was that our already wined and dined group were given more wine to drink before the cooking began. Each person was given a role and even the driver Luigi showed up to help in the making of the various bruschettas, two kinds of crostini, with chicken liver pate as well as chicken breast, herbed pork loin, two different kinds of gnocchi, and for dessert biscotti. Wine was flowing and by the time Aine and I showed up, dinner was about to be served. But Anna saved some dough for Aine, who then with Anna’s help made her first Italian pizza. We sat down to a candlelit dinner and feasted on the team’s creation. Donatella and Luigi helped bring in the food and joined us for the Tuscan repast. I was especially impressed with the cooperation and ease that our guide, driver and Villa staff showed to make our experience a memorable one. Even at the end of the night, both Donatella and Luigi were clearing off plates and setting the kitchen to order. “Get to bed,” I chided her. “We don’t want to leave tomorrow without you!”
Day 5, Sunday April 2
Just Two Kids from Woodstock
It was to be a six cappuccino morning. We had already experienced a week of events in a few days with all the activities, and I was especially anticipating today’s visit. My friend Vallanna Widoff, who I grew up with in Woodstock, was going to meet up with us in Bologna. She and her husband Giorgio lived about 20 minutes outside the city, and we were going to head to a restaurant, away from the crowds and in the real “home” part of Bologna.
Bologna is a bit of a drive from the Villa, but the countryside more than made up for the travel. The weather called for rain, but luckily the overcast conditions did not ever open up into a shower. Had it done so, we would have been all right, for Bologna is a town that invented the use of porticoes. Sort of how American cities like Minneapolis would later create walkways that allow the public to stay warm and dry, especially in the winter, the Bolognese had already perfected this practice centuries before. The porticoes kept folks dry in the winter and cool in the summer. This was not the place to freeze or fry one’s brain, for Bologna was home to the world’s oldest university.
The University of Bologna. Founded in 1088, this university boasted several prestigious students, among them the famous writer Dante. Centuries ahead of its time, Bologna was truly an international city due to its educational presence. Our guide pointed out that even an “Indio” from the new world travelled over for education at the university.
A big city, Bologna has done well to preserve its ancient, medieval, and post-medieval buildings. WWII did a number on the city, but all in all, the flavor of the city is still one that was found in Florence, old and new seamlessly intertwining. However, Bologna is very much a modern town, and though it keeps its past, the new buildings, football stadium, and modern homes away from the city center point to a big city of the European Union.
Valana and Giorgio were waiting for Annie, Aine and myself as the tour group made its way into the Piazza Maggiore, which is one of the largest piazzas in Italy. From there we hopped into two cabs and headed off to a section of town that was very middle class. Families were resting on a Sunday afternoon, visiting one another and meeting at restaurants. We went into a small restaurant and over plates of homemade pasta and salad caught up with each other. Valanna had left Woodstock after graduation from college. During school she had spent a semester in Rome and was hooked on Italy after that. Upon her graduation, she found work in Italy, eventually joining a company that creates sophisticated manufacturing equipment, meeting her husband Giorgio in the process. They live at the family house that has spanned generations. Every summer, she gets a chance to fly back to the States and Woodstock. We talked about the passing of Mom and Dad. Val Anna's mom was friend of my mom and she was very supportive of my decision to follow music. She would reassure mom that I was making the right decision and for that I was always grateful to her for her support. We talked about working over the summer detasseling corn. Valanna lived about a mile from my house as the crow flies.
Valanna is one of those people who experienced a life changing event. In this case it was a terrible car accident that injured her father and mother and killed her grandmother. After that day, life was something different to look at, an appreciation of everything one has and not to take any day for granted. We took Aine over to a nearby park and she played as we continued to talk. She loved Italy, but Valanna did not think of herself as Italian. “I always love it when customs says ‘welcome home’ to me”, she said. “I love Italy, but I consider myself still from Woodstock.” She said the best compliment Italians would pay would be when they tried to figure out her accent. Most of the time they thought her Dutch or from the north of Italy.
The time flew when we were visiting and soon it was time to leave. We sat outside the restaurant, waiting for the cab.
“Pretty neat, all the changes life hands you,” Valanna said to me. “Here we are, a couple of kids from Woodstock, sitting here in Bologna.” I nodded. It was a long way from Kishwaukee Valley Road.
Heaven in Italy
Cinque Terre are five towns that are nestled onto the coast off the Ligurian Sea. It is one of those locations that should be on everyone’s bucket list, for it combines high, terraced cliffs that drop straight down into the sea. The vertical aspect of this landscape makes for a dramatic, awe-inspiring visual feast that leaves one asking two questions: why did they build here and why can’t I live here?
The rough translation of Cinque Terre is “five lands” and the biggest of these is the port of La Spezia. This is the real town among the five, with a huge naval port that has been sought after over the years by the likes of such rulers as Napoleon. Bustling with the usual seaport cargo containers, cruise ships, and naval vessels, La Spezia would be a neat destination in and of itself. There is sort of a familiarity with the terrain, a Californian vibe with the palms, the sea, air, and smartly dressed people. Once we headed over to the next town, the hairpin turns of the mountains brought us to Riomaggiore, which is a diminutive place with three story row homes painted in bright colors, little bridges of stone that cross over the mountain stream cutting down its main path, and a tight harbor that leads to a dock accessible by squeezing through a cleft in volcanic rock. Part of the beauty is the variety of flowers, vines, palms and other vegetation that are lovingly maintained by the locals in postage stamp gardens and backyards that hang off the edge of the cliffs.
Up the sides of the hills are the vineyards and gardens that rise up to the cliff tops. The ingenuity of these people in literally clinging to the side of a cliff can be found in a series of monorail systems that bring people, grapes, and other goods up and down the cliffs, from farm to farm, in a snaking path that rises directly up and down. How they did these things 100 years ago leaves one to wonder, but the reality was that until recently the Cinque Terre was isolated from the rest of Italy, accessible primarily by boat. A rail line punched through the cliffs now offers the easiest access to the villages, but we boarded a boat and took a 15 minute mini-cruise to take in the best view, that from the sea.
We docked at Manarola, which has a great piazza/harbor and amazing views. An old man in a jaunty bright blue beret with a red pom-pom on top sat at the front of the harbor, looking like an ad for the area. The whole region is designated a National Park and an UNESCO World Heritage site, which is a good thing, for nature does reign supreme and can visit some chaos on the inhabitants. In 2011 a raging flood came tearing down the mountains and out into the harbor of Manarola, destroying much of the piazza and killing six people in its torrents. The price of clinging to a cliff was made evident and had it not been a heritage site, the necessary repairs may not have happened as quickly as they did. The scars of the damage had begun to fade with the new sections of stone dulling in the strong sunlight. We had lunch at a little “restaurant” that had bright red and blue umbrellas that cast a festive glow over the tables. Seafood was the order of the day, and Sue Arnold and Annie both ordered grilled sea dishes with local catches that had tiny lobsters propped up on the plate, waving amongst a sea of shrimp, scallops, and winkles. The artistry of the plate was as great as the taste.
After lunch we made our way to the train station and headed to Monterosso Al Mare, which actually has a beach, albeit a thin stretch of sand grudgingly left by the cliffs. Nevertheless, this was a bonus for vacationers who made this town their destination. People were all around us, dragging suitcases from the station to their hotels. We went along a seaside walk, where a jutting cliff bisected the town. Here among the old watchtowers and gardens was a WWII pillbox, its dull brown concrete making it look almost like a feature of the land. It was a reminder of the strategic importance of La Spezia and the vulnerability of maintaining a country surrounded on three sides by seas. Whether the pillbox ever fired in anger at the Allies was anybody’s guess; still it was there, a representation of money wasted in the name of war. A man sat on top of the pillbox, gazing out at the sea and I thought it ironic that 75 years earlier, an Italian or German soldier might have been doing the same thing.
We took some time to do some shopping in town. Aine was attracted to the clothes and literally surrounded herself in some of the bright cloths and beads offered. I picked up a tiny wooden owl she was liked. My mother always collected owls and I took it as a sign that Mom was close by. A necessary stop by a gelato shop rounded out our visit.
Here, as in any other tourist destination we had in Italy, was the ubiquitous street vendor. Once solely the domain of Roma, these jobs now are run by immigrants from Africa. A tall African man, sporting a red New York Yankees logo hat and red sneakers, made his way down the street. Around his neck were necklaces of little wooden beads and faux flowers and each arm was festooned with bracelets of cheap metal, leather, and other materials. He came up to me while Annie and Aine were shopping. In broken English he gestured to what he was selling.
I shook my head no, and said “no euros” which was true, as I gave them all to Annie.
He persisted, holding up a bracelet.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Senegal,” he answered.
“Why are you not doing something else?” I asked. “You are so tall, you could play basketball!”
He smiled and shook his head.
“I am here,” he said. “No life in Senegal.”
He slipped a bracelet on my wrist and fist bumped me. Was this a gift? No.
He said “Five euros.”
The bracelet was a thin string and fiber contraption that pulled tight would cling to the wrist. The perfect foil as it couldn’t be taken off easily.
“No, my friend,” I said. “I have no money on me.”
He rubbed his belly and pointed to the restaurant.
I pointed to my wedding ring. “See this?” I said. “Married. No money.”
He shook his head and slipped the bracelet off my wrist. There were easier marks for his wares and I saw one, pulling his suitcase to the train, a garish necklace of wooden beads and faux flowers thumping against his black t-shirt. The interesting thing was the meeting with this man. I was curious as to his being in a place most people would spend a great sum of money to get to. But for him, this place was nothing more than a work zone where he was working hard for very little return, at least with tourists like me. It made me wonder what life must be like in Senegal for this man to have risked such a journey in the first place.
We were out of time as we got on the train and headed back to La Spezia. The trip was quick and the perfect means of darting around the towns for visitors. I would certainly return but probably hunker down at some beautiful hotel, looking over the Ligurian and try to get a ride on one of those monorails up the cliff.
Playgrounds and Piazzas
We played hooky from the group today. One of the fun things about our tours is that you do get the option to do things on your own if you choose. For some, this is planning a trip to visit a relative or just staying put to read a book. In our case, Annie and I decided that Aine deserved a day to hang around with some kids her age. The coach left for San Marino, which is a republic that sits within the Italian state overlooking the Adriatic sea. San Marino is one of the oldest functioning (and smallest) republics in the world. It also made Abraham Lincoln an honorary citizen of its country. But for Aine, San Marino would have to wait for another tour. She was interested in finding a Figline playground. We had breakfast (a three cappuccino morning) and then, taking my hand, Aine and I headed into town. The piazza in Figline was alive with market day. Merchants had driven early in the morning to the piazza. Each one drove a van that had a contraption on the roof that held an awning that could expand and contract. Once the van was in its proper place, a motor was used to draw the awning out from the van and over a space the size of a small room. There, the merchant would either hang up clothes, stack white cardboard boxes with shoes inside, pile breads and meats, fold blue jeans and t-shirts, display purses, wallets and other curious items. It was similar to a flea market back home and the aisles of the market were jammed with mainly Italian women, flocking around the stalls and haggling with the merchants over prices. We skirted the main area, heading through an aisle crammed with pajamas, belts, watches, gym shoes, and boots and finally made it out of the piazza, turned right, and walked toward the train station.
In many ways, Figline could easily stand in for a small midwestern town. Many of the same sort of shops are there, such as florists, bakers, banks, and farm machinery salesmen. We quietly walked away from the bustle of the piazza. We crossed a street and headed toward what looked like a strip mall. There was no one around, except for a couple talking on a bench, and I figured that everyone was either working or at the market. Aine explored a stone wall and stopped to examine the sparkling trails of dried slime left by snails earlier that morning. She then would pick some flowers, find a leaf, or grab a small rock to add to her “treasure.” Another pastime of hers was chasing the pigeons that also loved to hang out in the piazzas. She saw some pigeons and decided to give chase. Once they were in flight, she came back and we resumed looking for a park. I turned a corner and entered into a walkway the opened up into a green area bordering a school. On one side a high wall of stone stood, covered in graffiti. Across the way stood a war memorial with a statue of a woman dressed as Liberty holding aloft a garland in her hand. Under that were the years for WWI and WWII. And between the wall and the statue was a park! Aine let go of my hand and immediately attached herself to a couple of kids her age.
I looked around the park. Figline, like a lot of Italian towns, has a problem with a great amount of graffiti. Unlike some of the more artistic examples we saw along the autostrada, this seemed to be graffiti for graffiti’s sake. Just bad, gangland-like style writing in Italian. Even the playground equipment was not immune to the attack. It made me curious to find out why this graffiti exists in the first place. Was it just a means to emote artistically or strike out at the “man?” Why mar the very place you live? As the old saying goes, “One doesn’t sh-- in one’s sandbox,” but here, it seemed that the taggers were hellbound to do just that. There have been several attempts to psychoanalyze this. Here is a great article about Italian graffiti.
Ironically, Italy is the birthplace of modern graffiti. The word itself is Italian: “graffiato” which refers to the act of scratching a message on a public wall. Ancient Rome is where such work became commonplace, and so perhaps it is part of the Italian DNA to feel the need for the ordinary working man to tag “I exist” in so many words. I remain a skeptic, viewing all of the tags at the playground as an insult to everyone, including the tagger. In my eyes, it wasn’t art at all, but more a plea to be noticed. Find a way to make everyone feel relevant, and perhaps you wouldn’t see graffiti. In the meantime, even Figline was not immune to its ravages. Importantly, the taggers avoided the statue of the bronze Liberty figure, so I figured they have some ethical qualms about where one can tag. And for Aine and her new Italian friends, they took no notice of it but instead ganged up on the pigeons, forcing them from scratching their own tags in the Italian dirt to seek refuge in the little pockmarks and crevices of the ancient wall along the park.
We left the park and joined up with Annie, who spent part of the day at the Villa, getting work done for her job in the States. The internet is a wonderful invention in that you can “get away” from the office, but also it is a curse in that the office is always still there for you. But we all walked out to the piazza and had a casual lunch with Marc, Pam, Jean Marie and Joe at a little cafe. The market was over, and the vans were retracting their awnings, queuing up to leave the piazza and leaving in their wake a square littered with plastic bags, boxes, wrappers and the like, blowing around in eddies and swirls. A small crew of street cleaners came in with brooms, bags and machines to start rounding up the debris. The sky was bright with clouds here and there, including some rain clouds that splashed the street occasionally with drops as they scuttled along their way. We had some sandwiches and Italian pastries including a chocolate covered horn of flaky crust, filled with a thick chocolate ganache that was perfectly matched with an afternoon espresso.
The evening was to be our full tour group farewell concert at the Villa. However, I was surprised to get a phone call from Brian.
“Marty, we are stuck on the roadway and won’t get back to the Villa for about two hours,” Fitz said.
“Get out of here,” I replied. “Stop pulling my leg.”
“I am not!”
“Get Andy Arnold on the line.” I believe Andy.
Andy Arnold got on the line. Andy is a great friend of the band and tells no lies.
“Marty, yeah, we are stuck. A truck is on fire and they blocked the autostrada.”
So I brought those who stayed behind to the room reserved at our Villa and there was the chef, talking to me in Italian. He was confused that there were only 15 people in the room, so I called Donatella and had her explain the situation. So we had dinner for our group and I occasionally texted the “Donner Party” on the coach, sending pictures of the food we were eating. Brian would text back saying that everyone was reduced to eating M&M’s on the coach.
Eventually the accident cleared on the autostrada. Had not Luigi noticed that the traffic block was opened at the last second as he was being diverted off the roadway, the coach would have had to divert to Sienna for a two hour round trip. As it was, most of us stayed up for the coach and welcomed them back as heroes. We had a nice concert in the room, which was perfect for an acoustic concert. Tomorrow was the last day of the tour. Some of us were heading home, some continuing on in Italy on their own journey, and some of us heading to Rome.
Rome Wasn’t Toured in a Day
We had to leave at 5 a.m. and there was no way around it.
Fiumicino Airport was a couple hours away and those heading home needed to be at the airport early enough to be able to leave with the least amount of stress. I looked at Aine and she was not in the least irritated by the early leaving. She snuggled down on Annie’s lap and promptly fell asleep. I took the early departure from the Villa to look across the Italian countryside, as the pinks and russets of the rising sun washed across the farm fields. I saw a wild boar along the edge of what looked to be a wheat field. Another field revealed two deer grazing not too far from a herd of cattle. A pheasant here, another boar there. For a land that had been “civilized” by man for several millennia, there was still plenty of wildlife making their home in the green fields of Italy.
We stopped at an oasis and transferred to another coach. Luigi would take the rest to the airport while we journeyed on to Rome. Rome is probably one of the most amazing cities in the world. It is layer upon layer of history. Dig a hole and you unearth a ruin. Dig under that ruin and you unearth another ruin. The jamble of humanity results in an complex jangle of former palaces, hovels, arches, schools, roadways, and basilicas. These compete with the current structures of the modern capital of Italy. Somehow it all makes sense. We made it to the heart of the city outside of the Colosseum and started into the ancient Roman forum.
Visiting Rome in a day is a stretch and a strenuous walk. And walk we did, along the arches depicting the sack of Jerusalem, the original Roman roads, the huge basilica constructed as a market and meeting place, and the palace of the Emperor. Most of the ruins require a bit of imagination, as the history of the city and rise and fall of the empire reduced the once majestic temples and columns into mere remnants of their overall greatness. For Rome was once, at its height, the center of the world and all roads did lead to it. Everything in the forum, indeed the entire city, was clad in marble. As our guide remarked, “Every day the baths were there for the citizens to bathe. By the Middle Ages, a citizen was lucky to bathe three times during his life.” And as Donatella quipped, the Roman Baths were free for all. That along with a working sewer and water system that would rival many modern models, the ancient Rome still offers amenities that modern Rome lacks. A free public bathroom in modern Rome doesn’t exist.
The greatness of Rome was in truth the security of its middle class, a pragmatic lesson for any democratic system alive today. Once the decline began, there was no stopping it until Rome became a shell of itself, an ancient Detroit with small pockets of people surrounded by returning wilderness, ruins, and reclaimed farmland. Still, walking among the ruins, the suggestion of the grandeur of what had been was enough to impress.
If I had past lives, one or more of them must have been in Rome, for the ruins played upon my emotions. I at once felt joy and sorrow at seeing them again.. Perhaps because they have survived the decline and destruction by their later residents and yet have retained a power intrigues me. Rome is at once a warning and an example for civilization today. How absolute power can corrupt absolutely. How the building of such distractions as the Colosseum can mollify a public for only so long a time before the roots of decline and corruption destroy. The frustration of seeing the broken ruins and wishing to see Rome in all of its ancient glory is powerful, for it must have been such an amazing sight to enter Rome at its heyday. Imagine coming from some remote village and here, awash in bright marble, was the center of the world. People speaking dozens of languages, bustling among the chariots, the stalls with cooking food, the color and splash of the exotic. That echo still resonates if one is still enough to take it in.
It was the third time in my life that I had been to Rome, and each visit makes me appreciate the modern city all the more. For Romans are in a quandary, how to respect the past while accommodating the present. With only two rail lines, the streets are smashed with tiny cars and scooters, the latter darting in and out of the former alongside the lumbering, elephant-like tour buses. Rome needs some sort of floating airborne transportation system, for that is truly the only area that does not have something sitting on something. In spite of it all, it works, haltingly, imperfectly, but adequately. The Colosseum is a microcosm of Rome. Here there are lines of people trying to enter into it. The crush of people is managed as best as it can be managed, especially with security measures in place to prevent would-be idiots from wrecking a treasure. Once inside, the crowds are slowly moved by their guides to a spot and there one gets to witness a portion of a building that is still being preserved, but was partly destroyed by marble recyclers to use elsewhere in Rome. ( It wasn’t until the 1740’s that it was preserved by Pope Benedict as a Christian shrine. By that time, it was half a shell of its former self, the greatest amphitheatre ever built, being used as a stone quarry to build churches and government buildings.) The Colosseum has the world swirling literally swirling around it, in the forms of tour groups, vendors, and the ever-present Roma Grandma’s begging a coin or two. And around that is the modern Rome. Indeed, Pope Francis will be walking the stations of the cross through it for Good Friday. A ruin? Yes. A part of modern Rome? Yes. A symbol? On so many levels, yes.
Back into the bright sunshine outside of the Colosseum, we boarded a coach to continue on to Vatican City. Here we spent the rest of the day, walking through St. Peter’s along a mile of the galleries and through the Sistine Chapel. To describe it is difficult. Many in our group described just feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of art, architecture, the history of Vatican City. As a dessert tour, it was fitting to just surrender to all of it and snap pictures and observe the little things. For me, that was the smell of the wood polish that was being used inside St. Peter’s, preparing the basilica for Holy Week. Or the African priest, offering confession to a young woman in a corner, while the milling crowds craned their necks to gaze at Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine. The security guard at the Sistine, uttering “Silencio” in a big booming voice as the mutters of astonishment build to an overwhelming level. The shops crammed with religious goods, pictures of Pope Francis, crucifixes, rosaries, an almost sacrilegious snowman nativity scene. And an encampment of homeless men, surrounded by old luggage, the scent of urine in the air on our way back to the coach. A Roma boy, playing the accordion, sensing we are Americans and starting into “When the Saints Go Marching In.” All of it, jarring, astounding, overwhelming. A visit to Rome is a trip unto itself, and I was quite proud of our group being resilient enough to take it on. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither should one consider a day enough to take it all in. But for our dessert tour, it was the perfect cherry on the top of our gelato.
We finished the tour at La Fraschetta Romanesca, a family run pizza ristorante, where we sat down to a dinner of fresh greens with tomatoes, quattro formaggi, salsiccia, funghi pizzas and vino. We sang our songs, took requests from our merry band of travellers, and saluted Donatella. Her husband Lucca joined us and even three year old Aine was gobsmacked at this handsome, congenial Italian man. As Jean Marie quipped, “When can I take his tour?”
Maggie stood up and sang “Here’s to the Evening,” her father’s song that has now become a traditional final toast to our tour. And of course we finished the evening with “A Simple Benediction,” which seems very fitting for our Tuscan/Roman holiday. We joined hands and we all sang along, celebrating a fantastic tour.
“See us safely on our journey,
Lighten the trials we bear,
Guide us and protect us
From every woe and fear.
We’re offering today,
A simple benediction,
God bless us
And keep us
And see us safely home.”
Testimonials from our Tuscany tour group
I thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Italy especially the gorgeous Tuscan countryside, excellent pasta and wonderful Chianti. I loved the wine tasting, cooking school and re-connecting with Switchback friends from previous Ireland trips. We've been back for a week now, and Italy still occupies my dreams! - Diane Norman
"Fabulous trip. Great mix of people - friendly and fun" - Darlene Swanson
"We just returned from the Tuscany tour and offer nothing but positive comments. The tour was great, the tour guides were greater, and greater still was our fellow travelers....And never have we ever encountered such a wonderful group of fellow travelers united by one unique strong bond namely Marty and Brian!" - Jerry Walsh
"Great trip! My wife Diane and I signed up for all of the optional activites and excursions in Tuscany. They were really fun, educational, and arranged so well by Celtic Tours. We stayed in Tuscany for several more days and Celtic Tours helped make the arrangement for additional days at the Villa Casagrande, car rental, and train to Rome and overnight accommodations there. Thanks!" - Michael Markowski
"Great group of light, bright, interested and interesting people with a wonderful thing to bind us all, Switchback! My first trip with this group and it couldn’t have been better. Go places, or not, find a group or a few different ones to spend time with, or not, be who you are and relax and enjoy." - Lexie Nevins
"I'd like to add my two-cents worth to the epilogue of the trip to Tuscany and the several other Districts of Italy that were included.
When folks ask me about the trip, I admit it was physically challenging for me. Joe and I are in pretty good shape for a couple of old dudes, but I did find myself whining about steps, always more steps! We marveled at the others who kept going and going without complaint! Like Energizer Bunnies!
It was when we reached places like the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence and seeing, not just David, but numerous sculptures, both finished and unfinished, that I forgot my aches and pains. Unbelieveably beautiful. The same goes for the fortresses, towers, churches and basilicas in the other cities. I know this sounds corny but I was almost limping from sciatic pain when we made it to the Vatican Basilica. Surrounded by all that ancient history and beauty, I completely forgot that I had ever had an ache or pain! Maybe it was the Holy Water that I dipped my fingers in!
But the scenery and art weren't the only things that were special! We were able to reconnect with many of the good people on the tour that we had met on previous Switchback trips. We also met and made friends with the new people! Laughing together, in awe together, shopping together, having snacks on the streets of Figline with random fellow tourists!
These are the things that make Switchback Tours so very special. I hope to see many of you at upcoming concerts or in the fall, Traveling Down an Irish Road." - Jean Marie Hall
Dear Switchback fans,
As a little kid growing up in Woodstock, I viewed my Grandpa Luke Patrick McCormack as sort of an exotic figure.
First of all, he was a very quiet man. He had deep set, dark eyes crowned with bushy dark eyebrows offset wonderfully by his white hair. His thick brogue stood in stark contrast with the nasal Midwestern twang of his grandchildren. His hands were big farmer's hands, though he lived most of his adult life in Chicago. Grandpa’s life was one of adventure, though talking to him never gave a clue that he took a leap of faith that would forever change his life.
When he was about 19, Grandpa left Ireland. The story was a familiar one: the farm was going to the eldest brother and he would basically be working for him there, providing for the dowry of his sisters, with no land or future of his own. Grandpa left behind the farm, the horses, his parents, and a way of life that had changed little in over 500 years.
He chose to do what a lot of Irish did: leave for America. Ireland at the time was part of Britain, and so, leaving Ireland was also leaving the war in Europe. Britain needed recruits and the Irish made for good soldiers. Grandpa clearly did not opt to serve in British uniform.
After arriving in New York, he set out for Chicago and did some odd jobs there for a time. He did a stint as an elevator operator. He volunteered to serve in the US Army, which was mobilizing; the ugly European war followed Grandpa to America. He enlisted in the Army at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri on July 26, 1917.
The earliest pictures we have of Grandpa are from 1917, with him dressed in a doughboy’s uniform. Joining the army must have been a momentous decision for Grandpa, because he pledged to lay his life down for a country he barely knew. On Grandpa’s military portrait card, his regiment/company number of the 9th Division (Regular Army) at Camp Sheridan, Alabama is visible on his collar. (My cousin Ray McCormack also found out that the great writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was part of the 9th and met his future wife, Zelda Sayre, at Camp Sheridan). Grandpa spent the war far from Ireland in the Deep South, which must have been bewildering with the heat of the summer, marching in a scratchy uniform. Did he embrace his new life? Did he miss Ireland?
The papers recording his honorable discharge give a little insight into Grandpa: he was never absent without leave (AWOL) and was “Excellent” in his character. He was a sergeant at the time he was mustered out. I got a chuckle when I saw the signature of the Captain who signed his papers “Robert E. Lee” of the 19th US Infantry at Camp Grant, Illinois.
Headquarters, Camp Grant, Illinois
April 25, 1919.
Soldiers of the United States Army, Camp Grant, Ill.,
The Army is being demobilized; you are returning to your homes and vocations of peace. If the soldiers of the American Army take up their duties as citizens, with the same zeal and devotion to duty which has characterized their military career, a bright future is assured for our nation.
You have not only contributed your share toward the winning of this war, but have built, at home, the physical and spiritual fortifications which will stand as long as you live. The sacrifice you have made in the defense of our institutions and the cause of LIBERTY shall be an enduring monument and a guide-post for future generations, to remind them of your noble deeds, and inspire them with the same spirit of patriotism, loyalty, self-sacrifice and love for Our Country. I wish you, one and all, God Speed.
W. A. Holbrook, Commanding Genera
At the war’s end, the country rewarded him with citizenship and $60 in discharge pay. Grandpa returned to Chicago to find his “vocation of peace.” First, he served the Chicago Fire Department and then became a Chicago policeman.
Grandpa made an excellent policeman. But it certainly wasn’t a “vocation of peace.” It seems that Grandpa experienced more violence and danger on the streets of Chicago than he did while in the US Army.
He would tell us stories of close calls, like the time he was chasing a burglar up some stairs. The man turned, pointed a gun at him and fired. The gun jammed; Grandpa nabbed the thief and kept his life. Then there was the time Grandpa, riding in the sidecar of a police motorcycle, went through a plate glass store window. Other stories came out later, the ones Grandpa did not tell, like when he was so beaten by National Tea strikers that his uncle did not recognize him in the hospital.
While those stories of bravery and sheer luck (and its opposite) were thrilling to us kids, it was the stories of Ireland that truly captivated us. Grandpa would talk about his youth in Ireland, creating the beds for potatoes, raising horses, and the farm, Bolinree, that was run by his brother, Martin.
Grandpa returned to Ireland twice in his life. There is a picture of Grandpa over in Ireland, working the fields with Martin. It is poignant picture for me in that it is the only picture I know of in which I see my grandfather relaxed and smiling.
Later, Grandpa brought his wife, Cecelia, over to see the family farm and visit. Considering that one took an ocean liner in those days (considered by a many a luxury for those times) meant that Grandpa still loved and missed Ireland and his family.
As Grandpa got older, he talked bit more about Ireland. He would visit our house and we would hold hands with him and dance the Irish jig. All ten of us kids, flanking him on each side in the living room.
In many ways, Grandpa became the embodiment of Ireland for me. And that desire to connect with that element, melancholy as it was, was something that drew me into Irish music and to connect with Ireland itself. One of the greatest pleasures was to be able to visit my cousins in Mayo and walk the very same land that my Grandfather walked, to hear the family stories he heard and to catch another glimpse of him. Perhaps part of that desire to connect was my own curiosity over Grandpa’s decision to leave and that the result of his decision was my own existence. At 19, Grandpa was leaving Ireland for a life of adventure and change. At 19, I was deciding if I was going to work the shift at McDonald’s.
I will always treasure the night that I was asked to sing at the Woodstock Opera House for its very first “Irish Night.” I was 12 at the time and the house was packed. The Moran family, a local Irish group, were entertaining, along with some others. At the last minute, I was asked to get up and sing for the audience. I had gone over there with Grandpa and my folks. They sat in the audience and I headed out on stage to sing “Danny Boy.” The emcee asked for the house lights to be brought up. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a real Irishman in our midst,” he said. “Martin McCormack’s grandfather, Luke Patrick McCormack, is from County Mayo, Ireland. Will he please stand?”
And there, with the audience applauding, stood Grandpa. As usual, he did not betray much emotion, or even smile. Just raised his hand to acknowledge that he was the "real Irishman” in the room. And I sang "Danny Boy" for him.
I still travel to Ireland, I still am looking for my grandfather after all these years.
Dear Switchback fans,
If there is one thing that signals the onset of middle age, it is the need for reading glasses. For myself, the one thing I always prided myself on was my eyes. As a kid, I had amazing vision and could read in the dimmest light. This super-human vision drove my family nuts on vacations, particularly while heading out to Wyoming when I would excitedly point out animals that nobody could see, especially at dusk when they would come out to feed closer to the highways.
“There’s a moose!” I would yell.
“Where?” Tony would ask.
“Over there,” I would exclaim and point. Eighteen eyes would automatically swerve to where I was pointing.
“Where?” Joe would ask, with a bit of irritation in his voice.
“Over there, by the trees!” I would say, pointing emphatically as our car sped by at 70 miles per hour.
"Too late," I'd say, as everyone slid back down into their seats.
That I could see animals no one else could see meant that I was looked upon with deep skepticism by my siblings. This led to their development of a new Zen koan: “If a moose appears by the side of the woods, and only Marty sees it, is it really there?” Eventually, I was looked upon as a raving hermit, pointing and muttering about the bear, coyote or moose as no one paid attention.
In Switchback, good eyesight comes in handy when driving with Brian, who's a dead-reckoning kind of navigator. In the old days before GPS, we would have a road atlas (yes, made of PAPER) to guide us on our journeys. A turn-off that was a mile away was easy to read for me. I can still see those far-away road signs, but the tiny print on a road atlas would be worthless to my aging eyes now.
When my wife Annie started offering to stand across the street from the restaurants where we would dine and hold up the menu just so I could read it, I knew it was time to get my eyes checked. We went to her beloved ophthalmologist in the Loop. I couldn't believe I was going to the EYE DOCTOR. I braced myself for bad news. "Yeah, let's see just how terrible your eyesight is," Annie smirked as Dr. Ortiz led me into the darkened room. "Maybe you'll need a transplant."
A few minutes later, the doctor and I emerged. "Well?" Annie asked. "His eyesight is really above average," he said. "Better than 20/20. He just needs reading glasses." Annie, near-sighted since age 12, rolled her eyes with an expression that shimmered between disgust and admiration.
I was the last of my siblings to need reading glasses and it is something that I really cannot stand. Aside from the reminder that I'm getting older, reading glasses are the latest addition to my ever-growing list of things I'm likely to lose (including gloves, toothbrushes and sunglasses; God willing, I'll at least keep my hair).
But sometimes actually finding your reading glasses is its own problem.
At my Dad’s funeral Mass, I found a pair of reading glasses in my bass case. I figured that I put them there and I congratulated myself on being prepared to take them out for a song I was not too familiar with. The time came for the song and I put on the glasses. We started playing and I squinted at the music. Why was everything was out of focus? People were starting to line up for Communion and I was mumbling what I thought were the lyrics while taking steps back and forward to refocus my eyes, all while playing the bass. The congregation, my siblings especially, looked from their hymnals to me, dancing and bobbing while muttering unintelligible half words among wrong words. “My God,” I thought. “What does my Dad think of all of this?” I could feel the heat of embarrassment seeping under my collar and that only served to fog the glasses that I couldn’t see out of anyway.
At the end of the Mass, I turned to Brian. “These glasses!” I said in disgust. “I can’t read a damn thing with them! I must be losing my mind!”
“Hey, let me see those,” he said. He held them up in front of his face and nodded. “I was wondering where these went.”
Now I know why my mother always insisted we brothers put our initials on our underwear in permanent magic marker.
It has been a period of adjustment. And in some ways, I have had to surrender to the inevitable: I am aging, my eyes just aren’t what they used to be, and that from now on, I have to embrace the fact that I will have a pair of reading glasses always somewhere nearby. That people under 30 do in fact design all labels for everything that we consume. I find myself silently thanking the people who design street signs that are big and lighted. That I will be the person who will have the glasses that are missing a lens or have an arm duct-taped to sort of work. And I will have to figure that across the world, like Johnny Appleseed, I will be leaving behind me a trail of cheap reading glasses for those who wish to follow.
Dear Switchback fans,
On Wednesday, January 5, I drove out to Woodstock. Since Mom’s death, life with Dad has been quite a roller coaster ride. For the third time since her passing, Dad was back in the hospital. At the farm he was tended to by my brothers Robert, Joseph, and Peter, who stayed up through the nights with him, took him to the bathroom, fed him his meals, and changed his clothes. Occasionally some of us would relieve them, but the heavy lifting was theirs. Since July, when my Mom was admitted initially for a hip replacement she would never return from, my Dad was never alone, night or day.
Mom’s death was a major shock for all of us, but most of all for Dad. He did not expect Mom to precede him in death. Not long before Mom’s death, Dad was diagnosed with stenosis of the heart, commonly known as congestive heart failure. Two of his valves were not working properly. At the time of his diagnosis, doctors said he had anywhere from three months to two years left. His identical twin brother Jim had died of complications related to a surgery to correct the exact same problem a couple of years earlier. As my uncle lay dying, I couldn’t fathom what Dad was thinking as he looked at a reflection of himself, knowing he had the same condition. Dad decided that he would aim for quality of life and spend his remaining days with Mom.
Years before, Mom and Dad had purchased a grave plot in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, right next to Mom’s parents. When Mom died, a burial date was carefully selected according to when our far-flung family could regroup and get out to Wyoming: October 3, two months after her passing.
But as it turns out, God had other plans.
The story begins back in 1953, when Dad had over 70 percent of his stomach removed in an attempt to control ulcers. It was a very dangerous and life-threatening operation; he very nearly died. Death seemed pretty certain and Mom was worried that she would be a widow after a year of marriage.
But Dad did survive. Now, over half a century later, the warranty had run out on the operation. It turned out his stomach had shifted over time, and he could no longer keep food down or get food out. In October my Dad was hospitalized. The doctors said an operation would be needed to correct the original surgery, but that chances were high that he would die on the table as his heart valves probably couldn’t take it. But Dad was insistent to have the operation because he wanted to be there when Mom was buried. So at age 90 he went under the knife. It was a severe operation, and in recovery he called out in pain for Mom and prayed aloud for the pain to subside. As it did, he reinstated his determination to get out West and see his wife laid to rest.
My Dad did get out to Wyoming. My brothers and sister drove him out in a friend’s RV, complete with wine, a bed, and bathroom. He loved the trip, and incredibly by November 4, with a break in the weather, he did see his wife of 63 years laid to rest.
That a man over 90 could pull this off was incredible. But Dad was not your average man. He married my Mom, which was a feat in itself, and they stayed married through all the trials of 10 kids, a farm, and a career as a dentist. But backed by his Irish Catholic faith, Dad was up to the challenge.
And Dad had this way of facing Death and saying, “Not now.”
Long before we McCormack kids were born, Dad joined the Army Air Force as a tail gunner in a B29. His basic training over, he was ready to ship to the Pacific Theater. Life expectancy was about 30 seconds during battle for a tail gunner. My Dad caught pneumonia, which delayed his deployment, and by the time he was en route to his unit, the war had ended.
When he was about 60, I watched him from the front window of the farmhouse. He had just put a foot in the stirrup of our Arabian horse Arky when it bolted. Across the yard came Dad and Arky. Dad, with one foot in the stirrup, one hand on the saddle horn, and the other on the cantle. No look of fear, no thought of death, just a natural born horseman as he swung into the saddle and brought the wide-eyed, nostril-flaring horse under control.
And of course there was the time he and my brothers Joe and Fran were caught in a freak storm while on a Boundary Waters fishing expedition. Dad was in his 70’s at the time. In a canoe out on the open water, the October gale capsized them and left them treading water for over two hours. Hypothermia had set in and death looked like it was going to take three McCormack men that day.
They ended up washed up on an island with no belongings. A little butane lighter found on the beach helped them create a fire. Some packs floated in and once they were able to push back the hypothermia, they feasted on water and cake mix. A Canadian Coast Guard boat found them the next day and took Fran back to where they got the canoe. He came back with a bigger canoe and they finished the three week fishing expedition.
At age 75, Dad fell two stories while painting a house we had in town. He lay on the grass with a broken ankle, leg and other injuries. A neighbor who happened to be looking out his window when Dad fell called the paramedics. After operations to set pins, Dad was confined to a chair at home. My Mom lovingly cared for him, but mainly through “Irish Therapy.” She was so mad he was up on a ladder at his age in the first place that she would thrust a rosary at him and growl “PRAY!” After about a week of that, my Dad willed himself to walk.
My Dad was a quiet man. Mom more than filled up the airspace in the house with ideas, orders, and exclamations. Dad had a way of speaking just one line and that would be all I needed to hear.
For example, as I was agonizing over whether I should take the leap into a full-time career of music, I was out fixing fences on the farm with Dad. He had heard Mom telling me what I should do and how I should do it for a good chunk of time (mainly by finding some cast doing the Sound of Music and touring as Rolfe, the telegram delivery boy who becomes a Nazi). He could tell I was pretty frustrated. We worked silently for a while and then he said to me, “You know, there’s a guy here in town named Mario who plays accordion for a living. Has a nice house out west on South Street. Seems like he can raise a family on music.” And that was it.
Or the time we were out loading pigs for market. He was backing up the truck when I accidentally caught my hand between a steel gate post and the tailgate. Although I managed to pull it out almost in time, my left index finger was ripped by the force. I stood there holding it and bleeding. Dad looked a bit pale and said, “Oh, no, that’s your guitar fingering hand!” I was amazed that he knew and cared. It was all I needed to hear that he believed in what I was doing. We went to the ER and I was so grateful that I didn’t lose a digit that day.
All of this came back to me on January 5. I sat all day with Dad, not eating or moving from his side. Through the clouds of confusion, bits of sunshine:
We talked about Áine. “She needs a companion,” he said.
We talked about him first meeting Mom on the west side of Chicago.
“Did you like her right away?” I asked.
He grinned and purred, “Oh yeah.”
We reviewed his life. He told me his one regret was that he never flew a plane.
He was happy he traveled to the farm in Ireland. That he would love to see Wyoming again.
He wanted to get sheep back on the farm in spring.
He teased me about music.
“Good luck with that,” he said. “I’m just kidding you.”
And then, he would drift. Some nonsensical talk about buying a tractor or fixing the fence.
“Dad, we’ll get that taken care of later. Try to rest,” I would say.
I knew he was dying.
By Sunday he was not responsive. We brought him over to hospice. Annie remarked that it was like watching someone in childbirth, the idea of being surrounded by loved ones, but having to go through the process alone in some other realm to create this new life.
On Monday, Brian and I drove out to Woodstock. We brought our guitars and gave Dad a last concert of our music. Fran, Tony, and Robert joined in as we sang "Bolinree,” “Take Me Home to Mayo,” and favorite cowboy songs. I told Dad it was OK to go and be with Mom. That we would play him to the other side. I told him that if I didn’t see him the next day, I hoped to see him in heaven.
Tuesday was a blustery, Irish weather day. A perfect day. As my brother Tony said, “A Good Friday type of day.” Rain in sheets and a stiff wind from the West. Dad died around 8 a.m., quietly telling Death that they needed to get going.
Mom, I suspect, was waiting and probably mad that he was taking his time.
Dear Switchback fans,
It’s amazing to see how a box of Christmas ornaments can stir memories. I was recently in Woodstock, Illinois visiting my dad on a cold day. The sun was out, but the wind chill was around 2 degrees Fahrenheit. The open fields of McHenry County picked up the granules of snow and flung them into the air so that the back field sparkled in sun. The prismatic effect carried through the fences and over the drifts before curling around and shaking the old farm house. The house was warm and Dad was drowsing a bit and when he awakened, we would talk. I brought out his tackle boxes and together we went through all three of them (fishermen, you can relate) and I organized each one. One shelf had the plastic worms, Mr. Twisters, another shelf had the spinner baits and small spoons. The next shelf, the plugs, the Shimmy Shads, and the poppers that looked like frogs. All the while, I held them up to Dad and he peered through a magnifying glass to inspect one or another. It was fun to talk about summers past, and just looking at the tackle boxes made me anticipate the warmth of summer, the open lake and a chance to get that fish. It’s something that is hard to do as a full time musician, and it is even tougher to schedule that time with your parent.
So while Dad took a nap, I walked into the living room. My brother Robert had brought up the boxes of Christmas decorations from the basement. There was the Allied Van Lines box that contained all the glass ornaments for the tree. That cardboard box had been part of the family since 1967 or earlier. It was amazing to see that even a cardboard box would stir memories of Christmases past.
In our family, we had a lot of traditions for Christmas and they all came out of cardboard boxes. Decorating the tree took place about a week before Christmas. Dad would bring the tree and it would sit out on the porch for a day or two until we were ready to get at it. Nevermind if it snowed on it. In it would come and the snow and cold would drop off onto newspapers set on the floor. We had an old, metal tree stand that had three sockets for full sized light bulbs. The sockets had long ago burnt out, but the stand was sturdy and could take an 8 foot tall tree. We would anchor that tree into the dull, green metal stand, twisting the bolts and making sure it was secure. And then we would bring out the lights. Not these LED, dainty lights we now have, but thick cords, wrapped in cloth, with a good sized blue, red or green bulb. A wooden red ball would be around the cord near the bulb so you could get it on the branch. You always had to work from the inside of the tree out and from the bottom of the tree up. The bulbs would get hot and slowly, the glowing bulbs would help the tree fill out by their sheer weight.
Next would be the tinsel. Yes, remember tinsel? Tinsel was what separated the men from the boys when it came to Christmas trees. And you could not cheat when putting it up on the tree. Again, from the inside out, one strand at a time. Inevitably Peter or Colin would take two or three of these strands, and licking them, would put them on the front hall antique mirror. Calling Mom over, they would point and say, “Mom, David broke the front hall mirror!” And my Mom would then would scream and it would take about 15 minutes to convince her that indeed, it was only tinsel and not really a crack. She would then forget about the trick until it was repeated a year later. If you really wanted to get Mom mad, you would carelessly throw tinsel in the air and see if the branches would just catch it and have gravity do the rest. That was not allowed and tantamount to desecration of the Christmas tree.
Finally, lit and tinseled, out would come the ornaments. Beautiful German ornaments that had winter scenes hand painted on their hand blown surfaces. Delicate Italian metal ornaments of miniature nativity scenes. Wooden cut outs, again hand painted, of all the Peanuts characters from “Merry Christmas Charlie Brown” taking residence next to antique frosted pine cones. Hundreds of ornaments gathered over the years, each having a unique story.
Mom would have the Firestone Christmas album on the phonograph and in spite of its soothing tones and joyous melodies, there was always time for shenanigans to ruin another attempt at a peaceful family moment. Like the horrible day that Peter took the box that had the “piece de la resistance,” a hand blown, painted star that had been in the family for generations. Thinking the box was empty, he went over to David and cracked it over his head to shock everyone into thinking he had broken the star. He did not realize that the star had actually been placed back into the box to keep it from being broken. That was as close as we ever got to seeing Mom go thermonuclear. And of course “Joy to the World” would be playing. And for each year after that, the broken star remained in its original box, kept with the ornaments, the albatross of the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" for our family. That and the bad plastic star from Hornsby's that replaced it with intermittent Italian lights. The goal was to find another antique star, but alas, that was impossible.
Out of another old cardboard box (from Reebie Movers of Chicago and featuring a rather solemn Sphinx on the front) would come the hand-carved nativity set from Italy. This was something that one would never mess with. Each were in smaller cardboard boxes, some from old toys that had been opened and destroyed twenty Christmases earlier. Metal race cars and supersonic passenger jets stamped into metal from Japan (if you tore those toys apart, you could see Japanese characters!) that by now were antiques and the boxes themselves probably collectables on American Pickers.
We would read the story of Christ’s birth and as it unfolded, we would set up the nativity set. Shepherds in the field would bring out the carved sheep and the Italian shepherd, with his felt hat glued firmly in his one hand, a miniature shepherd’s crook in the other. A wonderfully carved cow lying down and looking like it was chewing its cud, and a tired donkey with half closed eyes looking like it was still recovering from the long journey to Bethlehem. Tall stately camels for the three wise men who were resplendent in thick, laced-trimmed cloaks, each bent low to look on in wonder at Jesus in the manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes and with the most beatific smile.
And of course Mary, looking none the worse for wear after her virgin birth, her arms outstretched in a protective pose and Joseph, standing a bit behind her and gazing at the scene with a look of “what did I get myself into?” on his carved face. Above it all an angel, beautiful in its flowing robes and wooden, delicate wings. It would bear a banner “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” that would sum up the whole miracle of Christmas.
Over the years, as a joke, one of the brothers might put the porcelain monkey that was dressed as a doctor (a gag gift from medical school), with its hands behind his back holding a big hypodermic needle, peering over the shepherd. Or the carved tarantula that was brought from Venezuela by Aunt Nancy and Uncle Jim, penned in with the donkey and cow. Just a test to see if Mom or anyone else was paying attention to the nativity scene. These would be removed by the Nativity Police, only to be replaced by other strange knick-knacks that existed in the house.
Mother had a massive Santa collection that would come out and dominate the mantelpiece over the fireplace. Soap Santas, wooden Santas, a porcelain Santa from Japan, with his hands on his hips and a smile on his Asian features. Santas taken out of more cardboard boxes, wrapped in old wrapping paper, newspaper or gauze. And each unfolding, each opening of the box would bring out memories of Christmases past. Tiny little Santas made of bone china and plastic Santas that could survive a shot from a cannon. Each would take their rightful place over the fireplace mantel.
And in these little boxes would be bits of pine needles from trees past, or a twisted piece of tinsel from when each would be taken away and placed back in the box until another Christmas.
And still more cardboard boxes, with plastic wreaths that were older than me and still would be ready to hang in each window of the house. A big plastic holly wreath for the front door. A pink frosted fiberglass wreath festooned with silver ornaments for the other.
There they all sat. In the boxes. Memories of Christmas past.
On Christmas morning, we would come into the living room (always blocked from view by a sheet from a bed) and witness what Santa had brought. When we were really little, Dad would film us with a super 8 camera and a row of bright light bulbs that would blind you as you entered the room. And all the gifts that came in boxes. All the toys. Eventually Mom got tired of boxes and changed to big plastic contractor bags. We would go around, each kid closing his or her eyes, and pull out a gift. As we grew older, we knew that the sweater vest Joseph just received would be duplicated for Tony, for Fran, for David, myself, Peter, Colin, Robby and even Celia. Or the Christmas of the Morris Flow-Ball pens. Everyone got one and it became a joke to exclaim, “Oh, a Morris Flow-Ball Pen” as each kid pulled it out of their bag.
It was amazing how my Mother could gather gifts and store them for future Christmases. It was not unusual to get a shirt from a defunct store, circa 1980, twelve years later. Such was the power of the room at the end of the hall that contained all of Mom’s purchases, and called “The Little End Bedroom Store.” Even with Mom's passing, the Little End Bedroom Store probably has enough gifts to keep going until 2035.
I suspect all of us have these memories, these cardboard boxes. I chuckle as I see the boxes I am starting to fill for Áine.
Such memories are the heart of Christmas, those wonderful time capsules, those benign ghosts of Christmases past that conjure that one moment when the earth truly seems in reach of “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.” All the memories are passed on to future generations, unless broken when smashed over the head of a sibling. Those that survive secure the bonds of love, of family, that are in our grasp at Christmas. But the important note to me is that it takes the cardboard box to keep safe the delicate memories. Each one of us is like that box, and we all have the delicate beauty of the true meaning of Christmas to hold sacred and keep safe for the next generation to treasure. In time, they too will have their cardboard boxes, their memories, and on and on it goes. So, my holiday wish to you, dear Switchback fans, is that all your memories be special, delicate, and beautiful, and may all your boxes be of sturdy cardboard.
Dear Switchback Fans,
For someone living in another solar system, perhaps it would come as news that one of the most divisive and cacophonous elections in American history just took place. For those fans outside the US, it probably seems strange, even dangerous, to see America, well, so vulnerable.
And it seemed weird to me as I sat at the Bob Evans restaurant in Kokomo, Indiana, eavesdropping on the folks at the tables around me. People were nervous with this election, and to me it sounded like winners and losers alike shared an uncertainty about tomorrow. People spoke in hushed tones, with heads bent forward and hands nervously kneaded before grabbing their cups of coffee.
I looked around thinking, "There must be some sign that things will be OK."
Then I saw it. It was silhouetted against the rising sun of the morning. And I had to smile as I realized what a reassuring sign it was. It was the American flag, slowly waving in the breeze over the parking lot of the Bob Evans restaurant. I looked at it and realized in the flag there was a poignant message to all Americans and in turn to the world.
One cannot point to a star on the flag and say, "That's the star of Illinois.” There's no way of telling which star is which. Same for the stripes. I can't tell which white stripe or which red stripe represents which original colony. Which one sits above the other.
I can't tell what percentage of the flag is made up for African-Americans or Irish Americans or Italian Americans or Jewish Americans or Mexican Americans. I can't tell if it's a flag for gays, for Catholics or Muslims. I can't tell if I'm looking at a Republican flag, a Democratic flag, or an independent flag.
The irony here is clear to me. By its anonymity, the American flag represents everybody. The marchers on the street carry this flag, carrying with them the representation of the very people they march against. The Republicans waving it at their rallies and the Democrats waving it at theirs wave a representation of the very people they campaign against.
There is a tendency to look at the world through an "us versus them" mentality. In this day and age it seems continually easier to become polarized even though we have at our disposal technology to bring people together. Perhaps it's fitting to look on our flag as a wonderful creation that reminds us that we cannot succeed through division. That our very willingness to live under the flag means that we must be willing to live as one people. And just as taking a star away or ripping a stripe renders the flag no longer the flag, so too the country.
Yes, it is a tumultuous time, and yes, we walk in uncertainty, but if we look at the flag, even one waving over a chain restaurant, there is hope. And that we as neighbors have the responsibility to continue to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Dear Switchback fans,
David Bowie’s song “We Can Be Heroes” touches on the idea that all of us have the capacity for doing something large in our lives. Some of us do that without ever realizing that we are. More than any other celebrity or notable figure of the past, I have found my own everyday heroes.
According to Wikipedia the word hero comes from the Greek ἥρως (hērōs) meaning "hero, warrior." I would like to add that I consider a hero one who obtains a doctorate degree from Adversity University. They manage to triumph, though they might not necessarily win.
The first hero that I want to laud is my father. Within a month of my mother’s death, my dad was in the hospital. It turned out that he had complications that arose from a stomach operation 62 years earlier. And, of course, just when he is reeling from the death of his partner, adversity comes to pay a visit. So my father spent over three weeks in the hospital, unable to eat solid food. His weight dwindled to 109 pounds. While I would have been an angry, whining man, my father was patiently enduring the slow process of determining just was wrong with him. Then the word came from the doctor that he had a choice to make. He could either have a surgery that had a 50-50 chance of his dying on the table or palliative care. He could have taken the easy way out and gone into hospice. He chose to fight and underwent the surgery. The recovery has been painfully slow. Our family had to go through the eerie familiarity of being in the ICU where Mom had died just weeks before. My dad, who has cheated death several times in his life, managed to succeed with the operation. He is now recovering, gaining weight and beginning to get his strength back.
Tom Hutchcroft and his wife Maureen have been long time Switchback fans. They had traveled to Ireland with us and, in fact, spent their honeymoon touring with us in Ireland! When we would come to play around Keokuk, Iowa, it was Tom and Maureen that would volunteer to come out and help sell merchandise. When we got word from Maureen that Tom had leukemia, we were worried for his health and the battle he would have to face. Maureen was right there with him through the battle and the roller coaster ride of finding a marrow donor and going through the procedure. It was heartbreaking when word came that the marrow transplant didn’t take. In spite of this he made the effort to come see us when we played at Music Under The Water Tower in Donnellson this past spring. He had to wear a mask as his immune system was weakened. It was a great honor to have him make the effort to attend the show. I thanked him and cheered him on in his fight. When word of his passing came, it was right during the death of my own mother. Maureen, who could have retreated into her own pain, decided to reach out and comfort me. I was struck by her faith and her determination to honor Tom by doing the things they both loved. Maureen will be joining us for our Songwriters Weekend and will be traveling to Tuscany with us. I consider them both heroes.
Another good friend, Cathy Osmundson, fought ovarian cancer for 20 years. We met Cathy when we played a BMW bike rally out at Money Creek, Minnesota. Cathy stood out at that event as she was the only one to come riding in on a Harley. It was obvious that Cathy was a rebel. We watched as Cathy earned her nursing degree and we played her graduation party out near Fairmont, Minnesota. Around the same time, Cathy’s long battle with cancer commenced. Through all the various treatments, Cathy stayed strong and reported through Facebook where her health was. When my friend Roger developed cancer, it was Cathy’s phone number I gave him. I knew she could encourage him and help him in his own fight. That was the sort of person Cathy was. Never retreating, she helped organize musical events and venues from Minnesota to Colorado for us. She made wreaths for the holidays and I bought one for our home last year because they were so beautifully done. Her energy was positive and always focused on reaching out to the other person. Many folks in the WayGood world came to know Cathy by her riding her bike out to shows. A couple weeks ago, I wrote her on Facebook. It seemed that the doctors had run out of treatments to assist Cathy in her long fight. She now was saying goodbye to all of us. I couldn’t think of anything other than writing “I love you, Cathy,” and her reply was “Love you more.” Cathy passed last week and we lost another hero.
There are many more heroes that I know. Being in Switchback and part of the WayGood world has put in me in touch with “ordinary” people who inspire me. Who make my everyday troubles, the sideswiped car, the popped veneer, the paying of the bills, all seem small and insignificant. Most of these heroes walk a path that constantly calls for courage and faith. They do not wear their suffering on their sleeves. To meet them you would not know you were in the presence of such heroes. But when you get to know them, you are in awe. And like Bowie’s song, they encourage me, remind me that quite possibly I can be a hero “just for one day.” I encourage you to share with the rest of us whoever you would consider a hero and write about that in the comment section below.
Annie and I wish to thank everyone who responded with beautiful notes of support and sympathy at the passing of “Mini-mom.” It has been wonderfully overwhelming, and in the course of reading cards and emails, the intention of personally responding to each has given way to this general “thank you” from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for such inspirational insights and in some cases, sage advice about the steps of dealing with the loss of a mother. It is a WayGood World that we all have created through The Music and it is deeply comforting to find that world supporting myself and my family through this sad time.
The hard part for our family has begun and that is the adjustment to life without a loved one. A long time ago, Brian and I wrote the song “Loneliest Road” which described a widow adjusting to life without her soldier husband. I am now able to watch first-hand my own father adjusting to the loss of his wife of 64 years. It is hard to see a man I hardly ever saw cry during my whole life, weep.
And it is hard to see how a two-and-a-half-year-old adjusts to losing her grandmother. The other night Annie put Áine to bed and told her about wishing on stars, a new concept. Aine looked up at the one star that can make it through the Chicago glare and said, “I wish... I wish Mimi could come back.”
And yet, in spite of all the sadness, the love and support from the WayGood World has been a mainstay in keeping my spirit afloat and focused on the triumph my mom’s life has been. My continuing mission of touching people’s souls through music is part of her legacy.
Thank you for being my musical family.
Dear Switchback fans,
I was five years old. My mother and I were sitting at the piano. The room was dark except for the light of the lamp that illuminated the music. As mother to 10 children, she didn’t have a lot of time to play, so it was a rare moment; one of the only moments, in fact, that I can recall when I alone was with her. As she played, I watched her delicate, small hands move over the keys.
Suddenly, I was moved to tears as a thought that I had never had before came into my head: I blurted out, “Mom, I don’t want you to die.” She stopped playing, surprised to see me crying and let out a little laugh. “Oh, Marty, I don’t either.” She then held me there, comforting me. That moment haunted me for years, for I knew that inevitably, like Grampy, Grammy, Uncle Frank, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Ida, Uncle Bill, Grandma and Grandpa and countless other people I loved, my mother, too, would die one day.
Two major gifts my mother gave me were the love of music and the love of the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. My siblings and I spent many summers out in Wyoming and it has placed an indelible mark on all of us McCormacks. Our family might have grown up in Woodstock, but Wyoming was the spiritual hub, the Vatican of the family soul. When I wanted to propose to Annie, I knew that the best place would be in Wyoming. When I needed to get somewhere to be grounded, there was no better place than standing on the foothills of Sheep Mountain, looking across the valley at the grandeur of the Tetons. If I was to die today, I would have to be cremated and spread part in Wyoming, part in Ireland, and probably a teaspoon sprinkled in Brian’s food when he isn’t looking. And so, Wyoming has always been part of that “inevitable.” My grandparents rest in Aspen Cemetery, the headstone in line with the Grand Tetons. This autumn, my mother will rest next to them. Someday, my father will join them.
Perhaps I should have taken note of all the signs that her passing was coming. Being Irish, I have an almost primal need to be affirmed by signs -- a year of great people exiting the world stage, a young woman in Sweden sporting a tattoo of the state of Wyoming at our last show there, followed by the appearance of a moose.
There is also synchronicity -- that my dad was hospitalized right before I left for Europe and I was able to see him recover, then return to the States to be at my mother’s side for her passing. And of course, the text message from my brother Peter right before our show in Herefordshire, England, that he was with Mom and Dad and they wanted to wish me a happy birthday. I was able to call and have a great conversation with them and thank my Mother once again for bringing me into the world. I described for them the beautiful countryside and of course, Mom threw in some advice about my music for me. In a lot of ways, things could not have progressed more perfectly in the passing of my Mom. We parted as always, with a lot of unspoken love.
The time leading up to her death was unfair. Prepping for her operation on her hip, Mom had to stay at a rehab center. It had an outbreak of the scabies and so was quarantined, which stripped us of the chance to visit her. Luckily her physician was able to get her out for appointments and we used those times so she could visit with Dad. That last time I saw Mom alive was prior to heading to Europe. I drove Dad to the Woodstock City Park and set up a chair so he could sit with Mom for a while. My sister Cecilia, driving Mom to her appointment, drove to the park. Probably one of the most tender moments was seeing my Dad, leaning on his cane, bend over and gently kiss my mother sitting there in Celia’s car. Like forbidden lovers, my parents were denied that chance to be together for the last two months of her life.
And perhaps, her final passing was also so unfair. Those who have lost a partner or a parent, and been there to witness death -- I know you know. And in spite of years of preparing for this separation, the thought that, as a traveling musician, I could easily die first in my family from a road accident, my mother's death caught me totally off guard.
My mother was a fighter and though she was scared, I knew she would fight. When I arrived with Áine last Tuesday, all seemed OK. Mom’s signs were stable. I spent the day with Dad, having Áine distract both of us. My brother Tony, a physician, arrived as word came that they had to intubate my mother. “You better get here to see Mom,” Tony said. And so, Áine and I came over. “What’s wrong with Mimi?” Áine asked. Her Aunt Cecilia and Uncle Robert, my two youngest siblings, explained. It was good for them to explain to a two-and-a-half-year-old the reality. “She may go to heaven,” Cecilia said. Áine seemed to understand. “Mimi is sick and may go to heaven,” she said. We drove home.
I was still feeling jetlagged from Europe and woke up at 5 a.m. to texts from my family urging me to head back to Woodstock. I woke up Annie. “Mom is dying,” I said. Annie hugged me and asked if she and the baby should come along. But I said I should just get out there as quickly as possible.
Miraculously, Interstate 90 was light of traffic and construction. I arrived in Woodstock in under an hour. The mood had changed. My brothers Fran, Joseph, and Peter were there. Tony was home with Dad, who had visited Mom during the night to say goodbye.
She was still hooked up to all the gadgetry to keep one alive. The fluids and medicines had swollen her, made her look not herself. She was not “herself” anymore. “Let’s try to make this beautiful.” I suggested. I reached down to her and started to sing some of the songs she taught us as children. Fran joined me and we wept as we sang.
When your hair has turned to silver,
I will love you just the same
I will only call you sweetheart
That will always be your name
Through a garden filled with roses
Down the sunset trail we’ll stray
When your hair has turned to silver
I will love you as today.
The Irish also need humor. It is a weapon we have in our arsenal, perhaps put there from all the grief that has been pounded into the DNA through the centuries. We teased Mom that we might have to bury her with Sheevra, the goat who was buried out on the back hill at the farm. It was a longstanding joke that Dad started years ago. One of us noticed that another patient was in the ICU alone in his room. “What if we all walked over and stood around his bed?” my eldest brother Joseph said. Little jabs of humor to ease the pain.
Finally, it was obvious we needed to say farewell. We all told Mom, “Go and be with Grampy, Grammy, Uncle Frank, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Ida and all your friends. We are OK. We will take care of Dad.” I said, “Mom, if you wish to stay, that’s fine too. But the decision is yours. We will miss you.”
At 7:40, the nurse said to my brother Fran, “Her eyes are not reacting to light.” Fran took out his doctor penlight and flashed it by Mom’s eyes. I pulled back her lids and looked as well. Empty. Gone.
“This is not Mom,” I said. “This is now just her shell.” We all joined hands around her and took her hands as well and prayed. We wept. We apologized that she had to die this way, when everything looked like it was going well just two days ago. The “would’ve, should’ve, could’ve” talk started. We stepped out of the room and allowed the nurses to take the tubes and needles and gadgetry away. Finally, we stepped back in as more family arrived. It still wasn’t Mom. It was just what was left of Mom. That wonderful shell that had carried us and still had those delicate little fingers, the elfin ears, the grey curling hair with bits of black that she would never go to the hairdresser for. We cut some of the locks. Joined hands again and prayed. Good solid Catholic prayers that are like salvos out of a battleship.
It was time to head back to the farmhouse and to see Dad. I looked one last time at Mom and walked out firmly believing that Mom made her choice and left.
From there, it has been a walk in pain, remembrance, laughter, meetings on the funeral, obituaries, taking in flowers, taking calls from friends, trying to reach the extended family and the flurry of activity that helps bury the loss. The house was filled at Rose Farm with grandkids running around, in-laws and the sort of activity Mom would have reveled in and would have ruled over. “It’s as if she’s in the next room,” Annie said. And she is.
Now, 48 years from that evening at the piano, I think about my mother and myself. In life, she was dubious at best when it came to her approval of my career. “If only” would be the preface to a lot her conversations with me. In many ways, her familiarity with me, (for she was responsible for starting my path in music), clouded her ability to accept that perhaps when one is acting to the best of his ability, the rest is up to a higher power to decide on what being successful looks like.
There is no sure-fire path to “the top” in music. And I personally reject what society considers “the top” in the music business. Mom could have been a performer and she had the goods to be one. Her mother and she were both models at points in their lives. She could have pursued the path. But her calling was to be a mother and for that she succeeded wonderfully.
But music, unlike all of the other arts, is not a business, after all. It is a calling. Success in music means a complete surrender to music. Although we both loved music, we didn’t share a common language of the practice of being a musician. So, Mom didn’t want me to be Bono, but the blonde haired “Rolf” from the Sound of Music Stage Tour? Yes, that would have been OK for Mary McCormack.
If I have any regret over our relationship, it would be that she could have seen that in so many ways, I did meet her expectations. Her own doubts about herself, I had to subdue and not claim as my own. My own embracing of the calling and surrender was reward in and of itself. Still, it would have meant the world to have heard that she understood and approved.
My mother was the inspiration behind the Switchback song "The Fire that Burns." The refrain goes, “The fire that keeps me warm, is the fire that burns.” And in the end, I was able to let go of that burning and embrace the warmth. And that is the part of my mother that truly shined, not only for us kids, but for so many people as well. And that is why she is and will continue to be an amazing, living, guiding force.
Two days after Mom died, Brian and I had to play an outreach performance in Evanston. At the end, I asked if there were any requests. A man waved his hand, stood up and waved frantically. “Wyoming!” he said. “Play something from Wyoming.”
Immediately, Brian said, "That's a sign from your mom." We played "Why Oh Why Did I Ever Leave Wyoming" for the gentleman, who hailed from that great state that my mother so loved. A sign indeed. Mom, your requests from the audience will always go straight to the top of the list.
American Roots & Celtic Soul