Music brings people together in an infinite number of ways. While this blog focuses on my musical heroes, my family heroes often show up in these posts too because music and family are often inextricably linked together in one way or another.
Yesterday our family lost my Aunt Lillie. She was my dad’s little sister, the love of my Uncle Steve’s life, amazing mom to my cousins Susan and Steven, and loving grandmother to my cousins Christopher and Elizabeth. Just last year, in June, in the midst of a global pandemic, my Aunt Lil and Uncle Steve celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Nothing could separate them. Even when it was time for her to go and nothing left that anyone could do about it, by the grace of God, my Uncle Steve was able to be by her side.
I have lived in South Jersey for almost my entire life, and my Aunt Lil and Uncle Steve lived in North Jersey for most of theirs. It was about a 90-minute or two-hour drive to visit, depending on traffic, but when I was growing up, the difference between North Jersey and South Jersey always seemed like the same distance between New York and Los Angeles. I visited from time to time, but not enough. Two of my fondest memories of my Aunt Lil took place during times when that distance between North Jersey and South Jersey seemed much shorter.
The first was In the summer of 1999. I was 28 years old, gainfully employed, single, had very few bills, and even had some savings in the bank. I was on the verge of purchasing my first home — the home where I still reside today with my wife and daughter— and decided that my summer vacation would consist of seeing all 15 of Bruce Springsteen’s concerts at The Meadowlands in North Jersey. The shows were scheduled to start July 15 and finish on August 12. I could afford to go, but driving back and forth to the shows — about two hours each way — was my only concern. That would be a lot of driving, and quite a bit of it in the wee hours of the early morning. I was able to get tickets at face value for all of the shows, but the tickets ate up my entire vacation budget. There was no money left for 15 nights at a hotel. And then I remembered that my Aunt Lil and Uncle Steve lived about 15 minutes from The Meadowlands arena. I called my Aunt Lil and asked if I could stay at their place on the nights of the concerts, and knowing how important Bruce’s music is to me, she instantly said yes, without hesitation. I had always been horrible about keeping in touch, and yet she and my Uncle Steve accepted me into their home that summer with open arms. Not only did I get to see the concerts, but as an added bonus, I really got to know my Aunt Lil and Uncle Steve better that summer. Now that she’s gone, I take great comfort in the fact that in addition to her living on forever in the hearts of her family and friends, every time I tell the story about my Summer of ’99 Bruce shows, my time with her and my Uncle Steve will be a beloved part of that story. People who would otherwise never have known her will hear me say her name and listen to me tell them how great she was.
The second was under different circumstances. In the fall of 2007, just a little over a year after the birth of my daughter, my employer of 11 years was sold and I was faced with potentially looking for a new job. I work in a very specialized field and didn’t want to relocate to New York or Los Angeles, where most of the jobs in my industry are based. All of our friends and family were in New Jersey and I wanted my daughter to grow up near family. Luckily, the company that bought my former employer offered me a chance to stay on in an expanded role, but the position was based in Mt. Kisco, NY, which is more than a three-hour drive from my home. Commuting daily would not be feasible, but I was offered the opportunity to work remotely provided that I go into the office once a week. Working remotely would give me the opportunity to spend less time commuting every day and give me more time to spend with my daughter, so driving 6 hours round trip once a week suddenly didn’t sound that bad to me. Still, it would not be a fun commute driving three hours up and three hours back every Tuesday. I wasn’t sure I was going to take the job. But then I had an idea. My Aunt Lil and Uncle Steve lived about an hour away from my new potential employer. If I could stay at their place on Monday nights, that would cut two hours off of my commute. If I could stay at their place on Monday nights, I could then wake up early on Tuesday mornings and only have an hour to drive to the new office. Then after work on Tuesday nights, I would drive the three-hour drive back home to my house and work remotely the rest of the week. The only problem was that I didn’t know how long this would last. It could be a few months until I found something better, but it could be longer if the job worked out well. I called my Aunt Lil to see if she would even be open to the idea, and again, without hesitation, she and my Uncle Steve welcomed me into their home with open arms. No questions asked. They saw that a family member was in a bind, and they did what they always do. They helped.
I wound up keeping that job for a little over two years. The professional experience and connections that I made in the new position led to the experience and connections that landed me where I am today, in a tremendous new role with a major player in my industry. It is quite possible that without the generosity of my Aunt Lil and Uncle Steve, I might not be where I am today. Just about every Monday night from October of 2007 through January of 2010, I would make the two-hour drive to their house shortly after dinner. My grandmother lived about five minutes from them in a senior residence, so I would often stop to visit her on the way. I’d usually arrive at my Aunt Lil and Uncle Steve’s house before 9pm, just in time to chat with them for a little while and watch some TV together before I headed to bed for what was always a long day on Tuesday. They opened their home to me as if it were my own. The weekly visits over those two years gave us the chance to catch up and spend some really nice time together, and I will always remember that fondly. Every time I tell the story about how those two years led to future opportunities for me, more and more folks will hear about how loving and generous my Aunt Lil was.
One of my happiest memories from some of those Monday night visits was when I would get to see her and my Uncle Steve come home from their church choir practice. She always seemed to have an extra glow after she had been singing in church. She loved to sing and had an amazing voice. She probably could have been an opera singer if she wanted to. I didn’t make it to church often, but on the few occasions that I had the pleasure of hearing her sing I was blown away.
I mentioned in the beginning of this post how music and family are often inextricably linked to each other. In October 2020 Bruce Springsteen released a new album, Letter to You. The closing track, “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” was about all of those we’ve lost, and how they’re never really gone because we’ll see them in our dreams. As I listened to this album over the last few months during the final days of my Aunt Lil’s fight, she was always on my mind, as were the memories I wrote about here. She will always live on in the hearts of those who loved her, and I’ll keep sharing the stories about how she changed my life for the better. Aunt Lil, I’ll see you in my dreams and will think of you every time I hear this song: