Here's the story of something that happened a couple years ago, after my first extended stay in France. As life back in Memphis for the summer might not be quite as exciting as life abroad, I figured it might be time for a nice little flashback. It also won me first prize at a Spillit Slam, so that’s nice too.
For some background, I come from a musical family, particularly on my mom’s side. This has involved attending marriages where the wedding party is the reception band, singing I Love the Mountains in rounds on road trips, and watching every reunion transform into a jam session. It’s absolutely delightful. Such an upbringing has taught me that a celebration’s not a celebration if there’s no live music going on. Having been too undisciplined to learn much of any instrument other than some campfire chords on the ukulele, I’m typically on the appreciating side of things rather than an active participant, but that’s no problem for me. I like sitting back and experiencing the joy of it, the fun of dancing and singing along with no pressure to perform. It's just a nice little bonus when the music happens to be celebrating me, even if it is in a totally inappropriate setting.
In August of 2016, I was flying home after 9 months studying in France, the longest I’d ever been away from home. Before leaving, I'd posted your basic last-day-of-study-abroad post about how life changing it was and how I'd keep in touch with every single new fried I haven't talked to since. My brother John left a comment saying, "We can't wait to welcome you home!" This seemed to me to just be a sweet thing to say, knowing he and some other members of my family would be waiting for me at the airport. What I didn't know is that to prepare for this "welcome," they had a whole plan cooking.
I landed in Memphis and walked off the plane, reeking of 20+ hours of travel stink on my way to baggage claim. There was a flurry of activity at the end of the hall, where I saw a glimpse of one of my brothers, and I felt the relief of knowing my family was near. And then I heard it. There was a saxophone ringing out in the close quarters of the Memphis International Airport. As I approached, it got louder and louder until I realized that my family was welcoming me home to the tune of George Michael’s Careless Whisper. Now, it wasn’t only my brother Ben on the saxophone, but also John on a conga drum he had strapped to his chest, and my cousin Redmon playing the accordion. You may notice if you listen to the original recording I linked above that there is no accordion in George Michael’s original version, but that certainly didn’t stop the Polk/Hamilton family trio.
As I hugged everyone there who wasn’t busy with an instrument amidst a crowd of strangers staring, the music barreled bravely on. This is about the moment that I realized this song, which I'd previously thought was just a sensual saxophone instrumental, actually does have lyrics, as my family was belting them out for all to hear. To be honest, their first rendition was a touch cacophonous, since they’d had one scant practice session using instruments they hadn’t played in years. Not to worry, though, they went through several renditions.
We got to the baggage claim area and waited for my suitcase.
SO I’M NEVER GONNA DANCE AGAIN,
I caught up with my parents about the flight.
THESE GUILTY FEET HAVE GOT NO RHYTHM,
Innocent bystanders stood agape.
THOUGH IT'S EASY TO PRETEND,
We got my bag and walked to the parking garage.
I KNOW YOU’RE NOT A FOOL.
The acoustics of the parking garage were actually quite nice, and by the time we got there we were on the third or fourth replay, so the tune was the best yet. Accordion, saxophone, conga, and human voices reverberated off concrete walls. I was full to bursting with joy and embarrassment.
I found out later about some circumstances of that evening that were hidden behind happy confusion of the moment. For one, the tears in my grandmother’s eyes when she hugged me home were tears of both happiness and grief. Her dog Little Bear had passed away that morning, having kept her company for years after having outlived two husbands, and she knew she'd have to go on to bury her after we got home from the airport. My mom and dad were sitting on the knowledge that Mom had a mass on her breast that could be cancerous. They'd be getting the test results that week and had yet to tell the rest of the family. So there were some dark clouds brewing. Despite that, everyone was there, silly and happy and making fools of themselves to welcome me home.
Since then, Mammy's gotten a new blind, crippled dog named Cassie that she loves. Mom's cancer came and, thankfully, went. I’ve been to France and back, and I'll be doing it all over again soon. I have yet to receive such a reception for any of my more recent returns to the Memphis airport, but that is absolutely fine with me. Nothing will ever be able to top the original 2016 family rendition of Careless Whisper. George Michael would've been quaking in his boots. These days, even if I have to go to baggage claim all alone and take a taxi cab to an empty house, I'll be just fine. There'll always be a special lil warmth in my heart thanks to that memory of my family being there, despite some dark clouds hanging over their heads, to celebrate me with open arms, loving hearts, and the sexiest song that’s ever been written.