“Help Me When You’re Gone” – Americana

I know every part, every note of this song like I know the shape of the veins in my arm. It would be impossible for me to list favorite sf59 songs, but this is the song I have felt the most connected to consistently these past two decades. The melody moves the way I want it to move. The accents from the drums and the organ hit exactly where I want them to. The bass is the meditative core moves with my soul and makes me feel peace.

From the vibes in the beginning signal that this song is going to take you places you haven’t yet been on this album. Then the song opens to the sweetest melody with a sustained sense of longing. The only other song I know of that could carry those two components simultaneously is “Donna” by Ritchie Valens. That is saying something since I have been convinced since I was a child and saw La Bamba that no one has ever or could ever match what Valens accomplished in that song.

It’s hard for me to focus on the music right now even as I listen to this song on repeat on my headphones. It is because I know what is coming next. I usually do not plan ahead on what I am going to write and I do this intentionally (if you think I am trying too hard on these reviews, you should see what would happen if I actually planned them). With this song, though, I have known what I was going to write about for three weeks now because three weeks ago one of my oldest and dearest friends died.

I have known Zora Mae since I was 5 years old. My mom has a habit of picking up stray people the way that I pick up stray cats. She finds the people who need help, who are isolated, who never had a chance in this world. She finds these people, cares for them and takes them to church and the grocery store. She invites them to family gatherings and day road trips so they have the opportunity to get out of the house and have fun. Zora Mae was one of these stray people. I can barely remember a time when she was not a part of my life.

Zora Mae was from the most hillbilly of all the hillbilly counties in Kentucky. She came from a poor family. As if the deck wasn’t stacked up against her enough already, she also had severe epilepsy which left her disabled and isolated. What she missed out on in the world, she made up for with her love of country music and a vinyl collection that would be the envy of most collectors. Musical trivia was her lifeblood; she could tell you what year a song was released, who wrote it and anyone else who covered the same song. She could recite lyrics off the top of her head to thousands of songs. The music got her through her long, lonely days.

An Aquarius woman (like me), Zora Mae was complex and complicated. She spoke slowly, each word measured with intent. She was serious, her mind always on heavy matters. At the same time, she loved spending time with friends. Every year we would share a birthday celebration which always happened at the local Pizza Hut because they had a jukebox. We would spend as much time choosing a playlist at the jukebox as we would eating our food. I did not love country music the way she did but I understood her need for it. It’s possible that I was the only person in her life who did love music in the way that she did and could understand that part of her. I would stand next to her at the jukebox as she would tell me the history of each song as we flipped through the selections.

Despite her sober nature, she loved to laugh. I could always get her tickled about something. A smile would break open as she giggled showing the gaps of her missing teeth. She was adorable in those moments. It is hard for me to realize that I will never hear that giggle again.

I’ve never known anyone who was as proud of me and my accomplishments as she was. She cried at my high school and college graduation ceremonies. I think when she looked at me, she saw glimpses of what her life might have been like if she had been dealt a different hand. Or perhaps she thought that if she had a daughter, that daughter would be like me. We were similar in personality. We also had the same hair – long, thick natural hair parted in the middle, one part curl and two parts frizz. Every time I was with her, she taught me about the gratitude you should have to be around people who could understand you. I’ve never known anyone who was so happy just to be around me. It is hard for me to realize that I won’t feel that again.

Zora Mae died, we think, on a Wednesday. She lived alone and fell down her staircase. The passing was quick and brutal. We can hope that she had a seizure at the top of the staircase and that she was not conscious of the passing. When a seizure would hit her, it was hard and fast. It was two days before they found her body. My mom was one of the first people called to the scene to help make arrangements. Mom described to me some of what she saw but I know that she spared me the worst details. I mention the brutality of all of this not for shock value or anything but because death is sometimes quick and violent and I am still reckoning with this reality.

My mom was the only person who knew Zora Mae who spoke at her funeral. She hates public speaking and asked me to pray for her before walked up to the pedestal. Her words were elegant and truthful, describing a woman who was complex and mysterious and simultaneously most at peace and happy when she was out with friends having a cheeseburger and a Pepsi. The sun was shining during the funeral and afterwards as I drove home, which was a brief respite from the near constant rainfall we’ve been having. I drove through the mountains and hills of her home, seeing the sun reflect off the deep green of the trees. My eyes followed the curves of the hills and valleys that made up her memories (and make up the curvature of my own DNA) and I felt at peace.

I had dinner with my Mom later in the evening. She was surprisingly philosophical about it. She said that she was not sad because she could remember all of the times she spent with Zora Mae and she felt that Zora Mae was still with her. Without knowing it, Mom recited the lyrics of this song to me. That’s when I decided that I would write this here.

Even though Zora Mae would not have like the style of sf59’s music, she would have identified with the lyrics. She held onto memories of old times with friends and family who were gone. She ruminated over people who treated her wrong. She longed for loves who were lost. Zora Mae was never one for flowery language and if she ever tried her hand at songwriting, her lyrics would have been as minimal as JM’s lyrics.

You are the only people I know who could understand the essence of this woman – her encyclopedic knowledge of music, her vinyl collection and her propensity to ruminate. You are the ones who can understand that I need to tell these stories to help me now that she is gone. Zora Mae taught me about the gratitude you should have for people who understand you and I do thank you for being here with me. And I thank Zora Mae for all the memories of summer days of cookouts at the park and road trips. It helps me.

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