The Soundtrack to Your Life: Lesley Gore’s Birthday Wishes, by Marianne Lonsdale

JimandLesley

Lesley Gore with the author’s brother, Jim

The word dork may have been invented to describe my older brother Jim.  He often hated himself for being weird but at the same could not contain his quirky interests.  Like being the Northern California Vice President of the Lesley Gore Fan Club.  He drove our father nuts. “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows moved up five spaces on the Billboard charts this week,” my fourteen-year-old brother gushed. I didn’t raise my head but let my eyes sneak a look at my father.  Didn’t he care that Dad would start yelling any minute?  Jim’s inability to keep his mouth shut fascinated and horrified me. Jim reached for the mashed potatoes.  Dad didn’t look up from his newspaper.   He was clueless about to what to do with a son who preferred Lesley Gore to playing baseball. “Stop chattering about that stupid singer,” my father yelled.  “Nobody cares about her.”  He slammed his fork on the table.  “Could you at least read the first page of the sports section?  Then you’d have something to talk to guys about!” Dad stormed into the living room carrying his wineglass and jug of Red Mountain Wine.   He flopped down in his easy chair and turned on the TV.  Dad ridiculed anybody and anything he didn’t understand.  The relationship between my father and Jim remained cantankerous as we journeyed through adulthood.

****

I could hear the stereo blasting “It’s My Party” from the street, before I stepped into my brother’s front yard.   I had to hand it to my brother – he was one loyal fan.  Who would have guessed that when he was forty-four he’d still be hot for Lesley Gore? The door to Jim’s cottage stood open.  He sat on the couch, hunched over a notebook, pencil in hand.  Cigarette smoke clouded the living room. “Hey, Sis,” he said.  “Glad you could make it.  Long time since we celebrated Lesley’s birthday together.” He raised a tumbler from the coffee table.  White cream floated above a dark liquid.  His favorite drink, a White Russian – kahlua with vodka and a splash of cream.  A slight slur to his words told me Jim had already toasted Lesley more than once today. “How about I make you a drink?”  Jim winked. “Sure.” I steered clear of Jim most of the time.  His drinking depressed me.  The only time he’d admit he needed anybody’s help was on the telephone at three in the morning.  After a fight with his boyfriend.  I’d stopped answering those middle of the night calls. “What song do you want to hear?” Jim asked, handing me my drink. “How about ‘You Don’t Own Me’?” “Great choice,” Jim said. “Just let me write the title on today’s list, and I’ll play it.” “Do you still keep your music charts?” I asked. Jim used to list in a notebook the songs that he played each day.  He calculated his weekly, monthly and annual top ten.  I had no idea he was still at it. “Yeah,” he said.  He rolled his blue green eyes upwards and smiled.  “Silly, but I enjoy it.” That’s Jim, honest about so much.  He didn’t try to hide who he was.  He’d be embarrassed but he wasn’t hiding.  I loved that about him.

****

I don’t know the details of my brother getting clean and sober.  Odd, because I’d propped my brother up for so many years, but I’d backed away during his last years of speed and alcohol.  When he finally reached out for help, he was still pissed at me for abandoning him. Even odder is that he did reach out to our dad.  Dad, sober for twenty years when Jim called him, jumped right in with support. Going to AA meetings together became routine for Jim and Dad.  The change in their relationship was miraculous.

****

My brother celebrated his second year of sobriety with a trip to Las Vegas to see Lesley Gore perform.  I spoke with Dad on the phone a few days after Jim’s return. “Have you talked to your brother since he got back from Vegas?” Dad asked. “No, did he have a good time?” “You gotta talk to him,” Dad said.  “He’s so wound up. He talked to Lesley Gore after the show.  She remembered him from the fan club days.  Jim is flying like a kite.” A happy Jim is irrepressible.  His enthusiasm used to drive Dad nuts. “I’m tickled for him,” Dad finished.  “But you gotta hear the story from Jim.” I hung up the phone, stunned to hear Dad excited about a Lesley Gore sighting.  I sure had underestimated his capacity for change.

****

Jim’s fiftieth birthday was his first that he looked forward to sharing with our father.  My parents planned a birthday dinner at their home. They hit on an idea to write to Lesley Gore, to tell her of the upcoming birthday.  Lesley replied with a lovely handwritten letter to Jim, care of my parents. Her note arrived four days before Jim’s birthday.  Dad could not wait that long.  He called Jim and asked to meet at the Starbucks in downtown Oakland.  Mom and Dad rode BART for the several miles from Daly City to San Francisco, then through the underwater tube that goes under the bay, and emerged in Oakland. The three of them had just sat down at an outdoor table when my father took the letter from his coat pocket.  He handed it to Jim.  Dad’s lower lip quivered. “Oh, my god,” my brother said, spotting the return address label that read L. Gore. Jim slid the letter from the envelope, read Lesley’s birthday wishes and her thank-you for all his years of support. “I don’t believe it,” Jim shouted.  He rose to his feet.  “I got a letter from Lesley Gore.” Jim called me as soon as he returned home, shouting out every word in the letter. My seventy-two year old father had made the leap from refusing to accept a son who didn’t fit any mold he recognized to being happy that his son was happy.   He’d moved to a place of unconditional love and taken Jim with him. Mission accomplished, letter delivered, my parents finished their coffee and headed back to the BART station.   Who would have guessed that my father would end up using Lesley Gore to celebrate the life of his son?  Jim and my father hugged good-bye.  They both cried, having traveled much further than a round trip from Daly City to Oakland.   Marianne Lonsdale writes personal essays and short stories, and is developing a novel. Her work has been published in the San Francisco ChronicleLiterary MamaFiction365The Sun, and Pulse. She is a founding member of Write On Mamas, a San Francisco Bay Area writers group.

2 thoughts on “The Soundtrack to Your Life: Lesley Gore’s Birthday Wishes, by Marianne Lonsdale

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *