The day Sinatra saved Christmas

Ol' Blue Eyes, or Jerry Cardone, sings at the River House holiday party Dec. 23. (Melissa White)

The morning fog is so thick I can hardly see the windshield wipers as I drive Vickie down Valley Road along the Mianus River to the River House Adult Day Care Center. River House sits like a brave canoe next to a waterfall that rushes down into the mouth of Long Island Sound. It was a dark and stormy night. I'll take Vickie in and come back at 1 p.m. for the Christmas party.

I'll have four hours to get a jump on my "Soul Seeing" column. Last year, I wrote a joyful report on the party. "We took our seats for the caroling," I wrote. "Vickie sat at my right and Vito, who comes twice a week, on my left. Vito leaned over and asked Vickie her name. 'Happy,' she said."

It's a year later and the fog of Alzheimer's is so thick in Vickie's brain that sometimes she looks like a sleepwalker. I still get her to smile and even laugh in the morning, but as the day goes on, her brain gets tired and her face goes blank. I have to put my face close to hers -- "Sweetheart, sweetheart, look at me!" -- and smile and rub her nose with my nose and kiss her and warm her being with love from a tabernacle deep in my soul. It doesn't always work. The best medicine for Alzheimer's is a hug.

I've got to start this column. I look out the window at chipmunks running from the rain and darting in between the throne of rocks that support our little Buddha under the cherry tree. The bowl in front of him fills with water for the nation of chipmunks and squirrels and birds of many colors that visit us on a bright day. Our backyard is a Disney movie but my spirit is a lump of coal. I slump at my desk and begin: "It was a dark and stormy night."

I enter River House at 1 p.m. with a lobbyist's smile. I've learned that even if you don't feel it, when you smile at someone they will smile back and your smile will turn real and before long a whole group will be smiling and blessed.

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The room is decorated with poinsettias and garlands and rosy Christmas lights that twinkle along the railings. Liz Minott, the cheerful senior health aide from Jamaica gives me reindeer antlers and leads me through a maze of old folks and their relatives who sit in a makeshift theater in the round.

We pass a short man in front of the group in a windbreaker and baseball cap who is running a cable to a speaker by a lady in a black dress and white scarf behind a karaoke console. The man reminds me of Mel Brooks.

I huddle next to Vickie under a wreath by the window. She puts her head on my shoulder. She doesn't speak.

Lyndsay DeMatteo, the angel-faced director of therapeutic recreation, leads us through a carol as I watch the man in a windbreaker slouch across the room carrying a suitcase into the bathroom. Not unlike Superman, he reappears immediately with tightly cropped white hair in a dapper tuxedo and prances across the room. It's not Mel Brooks; it's himself, the Chairman of the Board!

He grabs a mic from the lady in black and tells the crowd, "Ladies and gentlemen, Frank Sinatra sang the most beautiful songs the world has ever known or will know. He was a poor boy from Hoboken who didn't have two nickels to rub together. He came from a tough place but he sang for kings and queens, and gangsters and presidents. He met many challenges in his life and influenced me as no other singer could. I am here to keep his music alive."

And he began to sing: "That old black magic ... has me ... in its spell."

"Sweetheart!" I whisper. "It's Ol' Blue Eyes. He's here!" Her head remains on my shoulder, looking away.

"The way you wear your hat ... the way you sip your tea ... the memory of all that ... no, no, they can't take that away from me."

It's wonderful. The man who changed in a flash isn't imitating the Chairman, isn't impersonating him -- he is inhabiting him. No Joe Piscopo mannerisms here, no snapping of the mic cord like a whip; no, no, this is pure Sinatra, coming from a man who can sing and who loves him.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Frank Sinatra would have been 100 years old this month. Let us celebrate: And now ... the end is near ... and so I face ... the final curtain."

"Sweetheart, Frank came all the way from Palm Springs to sing to us." She is listening. She hears.

After the concert, I ask the man who wears a tuxedo if he will take a picture with Vickie. He looks at her and understands. He holds Vickie's shoulders, looks her in the eyes, and sings: "Come fly with me, come fly, fly, fly away." She looks away, scratches her chin. "I took one look at you ... that's all I meant to do ... and then my heart ... stood still." She still looks away, a little shy now; maybe she knows. "The very thought of you ... and I forget to do ... the ordinary things that everyone ought to do."

Vickie speaks.

"I couldn't hear," Frank says. "What did you say, honey?"

I tell him. "She said, 'Mmmm.' She likes your songs, Frank."

He smiles. We take a picture. Vickie and I leave River House to go home. It's a bright and sunny day.

 

[Michael Leach shepherds the Soul Seeing columns for NCR and is editor at large of Orbis Books. Jerry Cardone has performed his Sinatra tribute at the Waldorf Astoria, the Plaza and the Lincoln Center; has sung before mayors, senators and movie stars; and has sung to ordinary folks in public libraries and parks on summer nights and in wonderful places like River House. He can be reached for engagements in the New York City area at jerrycardone@hotmail.com or at 516-735-8408.]

This story appeared in the Jan 29-Feb 11, 2016 print issue.

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