Aboutness (because we get to choose)

I turned out the light and returned to Emilia’s bedside, pulled the blanket up around her chin and asked her what song she wanted. She thought for a moment but couldn’t decide.

“How about ‘The Rose You Wore for Me’?” I suggested. She said yes, so I sang this song:

As I open my eyes I can see you still
With the sunlight so gay glinting on the quay
All buttons and bows and the bloom of the rose
You wore for me

Oh I swore I’d return as a prince one day
With a ship full of gold for the world to see
Oh I promised you then though I couldn’t say when
That day would be

Now long are the days since we lay in the fields so green
And long are the nights to consider what might have been
And the song of the geese in the wind will call your name

Ah the mountains just laughed when I turned for home
Never mountains so high or a man so small
Is it hours to the shore or ten thousand miles more
Beyond recall?

Such a fool to believe all the tales they told
Twice the fool just to kiss you and sail away
For they lied when they told of the rivers of gold
In America

Now long are the days since we lay in the fields so green
And long are the nights to consider what might have been
And the song of the geese in the wind will call your name

If a word or a wish could transport me now
I would fly to your arms like a moth to flame
But I’m chained and I’m bound to the cold foreign ground
With none to blame

But does my love warm your heart through the cold cold night
Does it twine round your heart as the rose is grown
Or has loved burned away leaving ashes as grey
And cold as stone

Now long are the days since we lay in the fields so green
And long are the nights to consider what might have been
And the song of the geese in the wind will call your name”*

I bent and kissed her forehead.



“What is that song about?”

I underwent a moment of alarm. Millie had had an emotionally trying day and several times needed to be held a long time and rocked — she feels things so deeply and expresses sadness thoroughly and outwardly — and the last thing I wanted to do was to disturb her again just before she slept. Maybe that song choice had been ill-advised, I thought, though Mara had always loved it for a lullaby. Worrying about all this caused me at first to miss the fact that Millie understood that the words of a song might not be all there is to say about the story of the song, that a song has ‘aboutness’ — which is not its meaning but its reference.

“It’s about a guy in Ireland who is very poor,” I said, “so poor that he doesn’t feel he can marry the girl he loves, so he sets out for America where he’s heard the rivers run with gold. He plans to get so much gold that he can come back and marry her, but when he gets to America he finds out that the rivers aren’t full of gold, that it was just…it was something people said but it wasn’t true. So he didn’t get a lot of gold, in fact he doesn’t even have enough money to get back to Ireland. That’s why he says he’s chained and he’s bound…he doesn’t really have chains on him, but he’s stuck in America. And he remembers back to the day he left home, how the girl he loved came to the dock to see him off, and she was wearing a rose. And that rose was like her love for him, and like his love for her. And he’s asking if…the song is a question he’s singing all the way back to her in Ireland, asking whether the rose is still alive, whether she still loves him even though they’re far away from each other.”

I stopped for just a beat. It all seemed horribly sad and suddenly hopeless. Why did I sing such a morose ballad to a kid who really just needed “Eensy Weensy Spider”?

But kids are little fountains, little aquifers of hope, and it occurred to me then that it would not take much to frack into that reservoir. I leaned close and whispered. “And what do you think the answer is? Do you think she still loves him?”

Before tonight I never thought about the answer to that question. The song wasn’t really a question in my mind, just the last outcry of disillusionment. But even in the dark with my steadily worsening vision I could see a broad smile reach across Millie’s face like a tide over shallows. And she nodded her consent.

“I think so, too,” I said, and it wasn’t a lie then, even if it might have been a minute before. “That’s what the song is about. About loving someone for a really long time. No matter what happens.” 


*The song written by Danny Carnahan was sung by Robin Petrie on their 1989 album No Regrets.

16 Responses to “Aboutness (because we get to choose)”

  1. 1 James December 2, 2015 at 17:12

    You probably think that if you post sporadically enough, people will forget to check your blog and then they won’t read your writing, and then you won’t have to face their praise. We’re on to your scheme, buster.

    This was so touching it made me want to have kids. Oh, wait, I do, don’t I? Well, it made me glad to have them. They used to cry when we sang “You Are My Sunshine” together, feeling something deeper and sadder in the lyrics than I ever did.

  2. 2 Matt December 2, 2015 at 18:36

    You’ve found me out. Actually, I only posted to prevent rioting in East Wauwatosa, where for reasons unknown to me new JW posts are anticipated with bated communal breath and a cult has formed up around my oeuvre. Seriously, I appreciate your visits, but I think even my mother has nodded off. As you know, I’ve been blogging family history and photos elsewhere. As for this here outing, I’ve more or less corked it until I can secure what I already have against the eventual failure of the Internet and/or the unplugged and benighted Zombie apocalypse. I’ve put the first year of JW into book format and have only to supply the friendly Josh at University Bookstore with the photos and text for the cover (“what people are saying about JW, or would be if they’d heard of it”). They won’t let me order just four copies (one each for my girls, my mother and me) — their minimum run is 30 — but I wheedled them down to ten. I figure I can shim furniture with one or two and put one in each of the bathrooms. For guests.

    • 3 Matt December 2, 2015 at 18:41

      Oh, but I was going to say…I love the image of J & A sobbing while lifting their voices to that song. When I was in second or third grade they taught us “My Bonnie LIes Over the Ocean”. I didn’t know what a bonnie was, but I felt the yearning in that song and it probably messed me up and made me the melancholic sap I am today.

  3. 5 James December 2, 2015 at 19:09

    I want one. Our dining room table is looking wobbly.

  4. 6 James December 2, 2015 at 19:09

    I want one. But then again, I collect a copy of everything published in the US, much like the Library of Congress does.

  5. 7 James December 2, 2015 at 19:14

    I want one. But then again, I’m the guy who told you to put these posts between covers.

  6. 8 Matt December 2, 2015 at 21:33

    You may have one. I didn’t spring for an ISBN number, so you’ll be one up on the LOC. And yes, you do bear some responsibility. Accordingly you should write the blurb for the back. Don’t spend too much time on it — a comparison to the work of Kirkpatrick Sale perhaps, a brief lamentation that my period of prolific output trickled to such an uninteresting end. Like that.

  7. 9 marni December 2, 2015 at 23:56

    Um….hello? I want one as well please.

  8. 10 marni December 2, 2015 at 23:59

    I don’t have a wobbly table or a bookshelf that needs evening out or filling. I’m just a fan, have been for a “few” years or so. I wish so much you were still writing here with regularity, but I understand your absence.

  9. 11 leatherhead109 December 3, 2015 at 07:32

    Brother, see here…Don’t think you can just print a book and get away with it, …I’ll pinch the one being used as a table shim if it comes down to it…

  10. 12 Matt December 3, 2015 at 08:13

    You’re all covered, no worries. Ben, you should be collecting your own pieces. Seriously, you’ve got a book there that your comrades would want to read, and your descendants will want to know what you thought about stuff.

    Marni, I just think the Internet is no country for old men. I have been writing letters to people. On paper. But my penmanship (I hope that word is still in the dictionary) is abysmal and the format makes some people feel cranky because they feel they must return in kind. It’s a good way to lose friends, probably. Also, if I write something brilliant, which happens once in a while, I can’t keep going back to it over and over again in that sick way some writers do. But I could write you a letter.

  11. 13 Matt December 30, 2015 at 21:16

    It’s coming together, at least the first year’s worth:

    Click to access just-wondering-cover-12-26-15.pdf

  12. 14 aplscruf February 15, 2016 at 13:40

    Look at me, finding your blog from October in February! And so it goes…

    • 15 Matt March 22, 2016 at 20:34

      Hi aplscruf,
      I thought of you recently. Angela and I went and saw Lake Street Dive at the Neptune. They were ripping good. So full of fun and energy. I don’t know if you know/dig them, but you are so conversant in up and coming bands that I thought you might be in the crowd there. Thanks for stopping by.

      • 16 aplscruf March 25, 2016 at 07:24

        Oh! So glad you got out to see some fun music! I wasn’t at that show, but No Depression recently covered them and gave props to Rachael Price, calling her the “consummate frontwoman”. Another act to see that you might enjoy is Vaudeville Etiquette. Local band, fabulous harmonies. Time to get out again soon!

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