What Did I Have [essay] by Lynn Kanter

On a recent weekend morning, as I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the bathtub, I felt an unexpected happiness rise up. I was blasting music, and against the yellow tile walls reverberated the bold voice of Eydie Gormé belting “What Did I Have that I Don’t Have.”

I had not heard that song in more than 40 years. My parents frequently played Gormé’s 1966 record “Don’t Go to Strangers,” and the music instantly evoked them, dancing together in the basement family room of our house in Cleveland. They were the kind of couple who throughout their 50-year marriage remained ridiculously in love: calling each other silly pet names, making up songs for one another—the kind of love goo that no one but the beloveds can bear to witness, certainly not their teenaged daughter.

My mother adored the music of her youth, the 1940s and ’50s. She taught my brother, my sister and me to sing songs from her own childhood, including one number from what she fondly recalled as her sixth grade operetta. But she had a sharp aversion to the music of all subsequent eras. As a college student home for the summer, I once invited her to listen with me to a Joni Mitchell song, certain she would enjoy the intricate harmonies and polished lyrics. She didn’t make it through the three-minute piece. With a smile, she slipped out of the room while Joni sang.

My father enjoyed a variety of music. He introduced me to folk music, blues, jazz and gospel, singers like Billie Holiday, Odetta, and Mahalia Jackson. When I was a teenager and young adult, he would accompany me to concerts, sitting on the floor in the dark hippie coffeehouses of the day. My dad was helpless before music. A good song launched him into a dorky frenzy of finger snapping, hand waving and head bobbing that, as my sister has pointed out, was mortifying when we were young, endearing once we grew up.

Eydie Gormé’s version of “What Did I Have” was a song both parents could appreciate, and now, a lifetime later, so do I. It describes a sad situation – the man who loved her no longer does, and she doesn’t know why—and some of the lyrics are poignant: “Something in me that/he could see that/beckons to him no more.” Yet only the violins voice a complaint. Eydie Gormé attacks the song with brio and brass (literally—lots of horns). She sings like a woman who knows she’s headed for heartache and knows she’ll survive it. Instead of self-pity, she brings self-mockery: “Wouldn’t I be the late, great me if I knew how?” and “I’m just a victim of time, obsolete in my prime.”

Of course, some credit for the song’s attitude must go to the songwriters, Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote it for the Broadway musical “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” The witty lyrics follow a complicated rhyme scheme, and the music has a jazzy swing that most pop music lost with the advent of rock and roll.

Gormé’s rendition of the song is shorter than the Broadway version and perhaps more bittersweet, changing it from a spunky lament about the discontents of reincarnation to a timeless question about the mystery of why love dies. The song ends big, with Gorme’s bold vibrato, the flare of horns and a fusillade of drums.

Besides being born in the same era, my parents had a few things in common with Eydie Gormé. She too had a lifelong partnership with her husband, Steve Lawrence. And like my family, Steve and Eydie were Jewish. His name was originally Sidney Liebowitz. Eydie Gormé changed her name too, but not enough to hide her ethnic identity. She used to be Edith Goremezano. She was a Sephardic Jew and the daughter of Turkish immigrants who, like so many Jewish descendants of the Spanish diaspora of 1492, continued for centuries to speak Spanish at home. (This also describes my partner’s mother who, in her 80’s, still dances in her chair at the first hint of Middle Eastern music.)

Both my parents died in December: she in 1999, he just two years ago. Eydie Gormé died this summer. Although I hadn’t thought of her in years, her death saddened me, and I downloaded some of her songs. I knew that photos can sometime vitiate memories, elbowing reality aside to stand in its place. But I had forgotten how music can make memories rear back to life.

We are all, of course, victims of time. I am now older by some decades than my parents were when they danced to Eydie Gormé’s hit. In a few years I will be older than my mother ever got to be. I no longer have my mother’s biting wit to enjoy or to evade. I don’t have my father surrendering to the rhythm by wagging his head and wiggling his fingers. I don’t even have Eydie Gormé.

But I do have the music. It’s almost enough.

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This essay put the editors in mind of this 1966 recording of Eydie Gormé singing “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have.”]

Lynn Kanter is the author of the novels On Lill Street and The Mayor of Heaven. Her new novel, Her Own Vietnam, will be published in 2014.

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