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Songs, yes; faces, no

Not so great with faces

A chance meet-up reminds John Donehower of the power of memories embedded in music.

He smiled at me, then greeted me by name, and said that despite the years, he would have known me anywhere. I, on the other hand, had no idea who he was. Never having been blessed with a great memory for names and faces, I apologized, and asked him to remind me of his name. Then after he told me his name, Mark, I apologized again, when it didn’t ring any bells.

He didn’t seem upset that I didn’t recognize him and instead offered to give me a few hints. He said we were from the same hometown. That didn’t help. Next, he told me where he worked. Still no help. Finally, he took an exaggerated breath, and to my surprise, sang,

“My little Mandy,
There's a minister handy,
and it sure would be dandy...”
and I found myself joining in with him on,
“If we let him make a fee.”

After the impromptu duet, I knew exactly who Mark was.

Back in the early 1980s, I had joined the local barbershop chorus. I was in college and despite my youth had already been singing barbershop for close to ten years. I think that by my second chorus visit, I was in a pick-up quartet that was going to sing “Mandy” in an upcoming Irving Berlin show. Mark was the tenor in that quartet.

I was flooded by memories of the song. I remembered how corny it was. I remembered the patter. And, of course, I remembered the tag. But more than that, I now remembered Mark. I remembered his kids. I remembered his wife. I remembered his fondness for gospel. I remembered how his voice sometimes cracked on the high notes, and I especially remembered his smile when we got the song... just right. It all came back. Once I had the context of the song, I knew exactly who he was.

We talked for a while and he caught me up on his life. He hadn’t barbershopped since the local chorus went under in the early ’90s but he still sang in church. He had recently retired and was now a grandpa. When I asked him about the “Old Gang on the Corner,” another song we had sung together, Mark ran me through the disturbingly long list of men whom we had sung with all those years ago, who had since passed. I found it interesting, as he rattled off the names, how often my brain associated a particular song with each individual. I remembered who I sang what with. I could remember rehearsals. I could even remember how we always screwed up this song or that song. As Mark and I spoke, I realized that my fondness for a particular song often had more to do with whom I was singing it with than the song itself.

As our chat wound down, I apologized again for not remembering him when he approached me, and he replied, “It’s okay, it’s been 30 years. I guess I never forget a face, and you never forget a song.” We laughed at that, but the more I thought about it, the more I think he was right. Music and friendship in my life are completely intertwined.

Quite often, my fondest memory of people in my life is what we sang together. I like to think we're all at our best when we are singing. And I hope that is the how people remember me. I can think of no better eulogy than having someone say, “I used to sing with John....”

John Donehower is a Society Board Member and sings in the Good Ol’ Boys quartet.