Mix Tapes: The Buckle and The 8th Floor, 1997 (20 Years Later)

I am going to add to this entry now. When I first wrote it, I was thinking more about The Buckle and writing for a more general audience, even though I was already discussing really personal things. I just didn’t want to get into the details of my hospitalization that followed.

I just turned 44. It is now the twentieth anniversary of my week on the 8th floor of Toledo Hospital. The psych ward. I was there on my 24th birthday. Now, I want to write about it. It was an important part of becoming the person I am.

I recently got a 2002 RAV4 from my mother-in-law, and I have never loved a car so much. I have always wanted a small SUV, and she kept it well maintained, so even thought it has over 200,000 miles on it I feel it will continue for many more.

It also has a tape deck.

Earlier this year I bemoaned my lack of ability to play all my old mix tapes, which were like an art form for me. A friend had an extra boom box which she promptly delivered, and I imagined writing a new blog post for each new mix tape I rediscovered.  However, that never happened. The boom box sits in my room, with old dust and new dust.

A car tape deck though is a different matter. We all have to drive. I like to listen to music while I drive. I waited awhile and then, last week, I grabbed some tapes from my collection and popped the first one in, unlabeled, which turned out to be a taped-off-the-radio George Michael concert from the FAITH era and pieces of favorite albums (The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and sadly, Boston). The tape survived being flipped and re-wound, and played well, so I listened to a couple more. I posted on Facebook about them.

A friend (one of those FB friends I’ve never met in person) commented how much he was enjoying my Tape Updates, and I thought again about possible blog posts. Facebook seems much easier, less time consuming. There is also the privacy of those for whom I made the original mixes to consider. But this particular tape, which was made just for me, Mix Tape #4 according to its Facebook post order, definitely needs its own blog entry, as it represents such a personal and important crossroads for me, along with its sister mix, “The 8th Floor,” made soon afterward.

The mix is called “Buckle Songs”.


In February 1997, I quit my job at STAGE Stores Inc, which had been Uhlman’s Department Store until the sale / takeover. It was not nearly as enjoyable as Uhlman’s had been, particularly since, as an old fashioned Southern chain (one I learned during the presidential race of 2012 was owned by Mitt Romney), they told me I could no longer be manager of the Men’s Department. Because I’m a woman. And my fancy gold-plated five year badge with my full name and DEPARTMENT MANAGER on it was replaced by a cheap one with a sticker that said simply “E. Roberts.” No first names.

I’d also dated a co-worker with disastrous results (a man hired to work the Men’s Department!), and though he’d quit already, I had fallen hard for him and being back there was rough. I had graduated from college in December. I was ready to go. I spread applications to retail outlets all over BG and Toledo, because working retail was all I knew, and I liked it. Who called? The Buckle, a trendy clothing store at Franklin Park Mall, a 40 minute but very familiar drive north.

Because of my degree and experience I was hired to be a sales associate on track to become Assistant Manager. Tish, the manager, was very like other female bosses I’d had, though younger. She was sharply enthusiastic, and nerve-wracking. We were on commission. We were expected to “build on” sales, to not just help people find what they were looking for but also talk them into buying more. We were trained to look out for the types who were easiest to do this to. We got a 40% discount on clothes and could only wear what was purchased from the shop. My collection of Doc Marten boots and shoes, and Lucky Jeans, and thin, cheap, trendy tops would become monstrous. We’d all have “hold” piles and when paychecks were issued there was a long line to purchase. My sales were never high enough to begin the process of promotion to Assistant Manager, though I was a key holder, as I’d been at Uhlman’s / Stage. My migraines at this time were occasionally disruptive but I didn’t have to miss so much work that they were a real problem. I wouldn’t become chronic for ten more years, though I was definitely heavy episodic.

My relationships with my co-workers were pleasant, but I felt odd and out of place. Another key holder had dubbed The Buckle “The Meat Market of the Mall” as everyone who worked there was rather astonishingly good-looking, and easily classifiable into a “type.” My favorite co-worker was Jeff, my first flamboyantly gay friend, who was funny and sweet and danced like he was in a musical whenever “It’s Oh So Quiet” by Björk came on. There was the guy I had a crush on, Jake, who looked just like a Jake and was therefore not really my type at all. There was also Vinny, I think his name was, unless I just called him that in my head. He was sort of a combination of Keanu Reeves’ Ted and Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape, in retrospect. He had long shiny dark brown hair and loved the Wu-Tang Clan and tended toward the more “urban” line of Buckle clothes like JNCO jeans. The girls  were young and beautiful, from the one with long flowing wavy blonde hair to skinny, alternative types. [As I finished writing this the first time, I began to remember a more interesting and diverse staff (see update #1) but it is still true that everyone was exceptional in the looks department.] I had no idea where I fit into this schema. Since I’d been hired into management but stalled, I suspected I fit nowhere.

The best part of this job was, oddly, the music. We had lots of CD playlists to choose from, and they were all good, introducing me to some new things and re-affirming my love for The Beastie Boys, Björk, Liz Phair, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Beck. Some of them were more club oriented and therefore totally unfamiliar, and I was able to track down my favorites for the mix: “Whoever You Are” by Geggy Tah (“All I wanna do is to thank you, even though I don’t know who you are / You let me change lanes while I was driving in my car”) and “(C’mon Ride It) The Train” by Quad City DJs. When these songs came on we would dance and sing unabashedly. There were 1980s mixes as well, both alternative and dance styles. The Buckle, not a bar or wedding, was the first place I ever saw the “YMCA” dance being acted out. Working there felt more like working at a club, but instead of drinks people bought clothes, shoes, and belts. Despite the underlying competition of being on commission, we all got along pretty well, though the social and friendly environment was not extended for me outside the store as it probably was for the others, who were mostly one to five years younger. I was about to turn 24.

This was the time period of a major self-destructiveness on my part. My life, private and professional, was a mess. I had dumped Craig, my longterm on-and-off boyfriend, the previous fall for the last time to date Hazelwood, the guy from Stage, who  in turn had dumped me over the phone right after Christmas. The relationship with Craig had been a seven year tempest of fighting, reuniting, being unofficially engaged and then breaking up and getting back together, hanging out and hooking up without commitment, though every time, it felt like coming home. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and who to do it with. I thought I wanted to be with Craig, but I always thought that when we were apart. And I knew The Buckle wasn’t the right place for me but had no motivation to do anything about that. So I did stupid stuff like driving around the parking lot during lunch breaks with Vinny, in his car, blasting music while smoking weed and menthol cigarettes like that was our actual job before returning to work the rest of our shift. I let some stranger “pick me up” at the store, and dragged my friend and her boyfriend to his house, which was a glass and white monstrosity in northern Toledo at which he turned out to just be crashing. I remember there was weed spread all over the glass table in the living room, and I suspected there were other drugs tucked elsewhere. We smoked this weed. I went back by myself next time. The guy, Derrick, was a drifter with a temporary type job, but was actually pretty clean and cute and ended up not being a crazy asshole or rapist or killer; he didn’t slip Rohypnol in my drink, didn’t poison the food he made for me or get angry at my “everything but” reticence. In fact when I declined to see him again he seemed extremely crushed. I got lucky there. I also invited a random kid into my apartment when he knocked on the door looking for someone else, and smoked his weed too. I smoked so much weed belonging to strangers and near-strangers that it is astonishing I never stumbled upon any laced with anything. 

More emotionally significant than any of those encounters, I went to visit a good friend from college whom I’d always been desperately attracted to. It was mutual, but our timing had always been off and we had never dated. We consummated the five year intense flirtation very anti-climatically, but still I foolishly thought we would be together after that since we were both finally single. Which would mean we’d have lots of opportunities to improve on that score. But no. He said he considered it a logical progression of our friendship. And those migraines, he said. I don’t know if I can handle how sick you get. I told him that as far as I was concerned our “friendship” was over for good. To this day it remains my only true one night stand, which seems ironic to me because I loved him. I was devastated. My downward spiral got deeper and deeper.

I know this “risky behavior” is somewhat laughable. Even in the late 1990s it was known to everyone that marijuana is spectacularly safe. The promiscuity, though emotionally damaging, wasn’t physically dangerous as I only slept with Craig when he was in town and my “friend” and I knew both their histories and used protection. I didn’t snort cocaine off the glass table, I wasn’t shooting heroin. But for relatively cautious me, these risks felt huge, and I had the tantalizing spectre of my luck running out, the possibility always on my mind. I wanted it to run out. Because I was fucking miserable. And I needed a Deus ex Machina of an overdose or severe injury to derail me. I ended up derailing myself, but it was like a quiet, tipsy drive off a foggy road into a ditch rather than a plane crash.  Oh yeah, I drove home drunk from Toledo too, but that was a couple of months later, when I was working for Family Video in Sylvania. We used to go to a nearby dive bar afterward, where my newly tattooed young body was, it seemed, tantalizing to my middle-aged average male supervisors who enjoyed buying me jello shots. There, I was in transition, trying to re-build self esteem but letting myself be objectified, my tattoos not allowed to show at work, despite the “Adult” section behind a red curtain in the back. Family Video was the final frontier of my displacement and I’m glad I didn’t have to stay there too long with its 45 minute commute for $7.50 per devastatingly demoralizing hour. But the job was a necessary stop gap and again I was lucky that my remaining destructiveness didn’t cause permanent damage before my real life could begin that fall.

First, still at The Buckle as my birthday approached and a Back To School fashion show was being organized, I had to ask Jake to attend a party with me, have him say yes and then totally blow me off when the day came, after which I drove home in a thunderstorm sobbing and ended up in the cemetery, taking some pills and quitting The Buckle by phone from a hospital bed. I also arranged an interview at Family Video from the hospital.  Jake blowing me off was a last straw, the hiring of a new Assistant Manager another last straw, the memo we all received about a company issue called “Familyocity” where you cared about your co-workers too much to compete with them or fire them was the last last straw. Oh, and the fashion show that kind, handsome Brent put together that I was supposed to participate in with all the hot youth that I couldn’t actually bear to imagine. Me? Strutting down a catwalk in the middle of Franklin Park Mall? I was realizing NOPE fast. Brent was the only one to call the hospital to make sure I was okay. Brent, thank you. Jeff had already fled to work at Sufficient Grounds with Sarah, another favorite who was also someone I could have been friends with outside the Buckle world. I sincerely wish I had stayed in touch with both of them.

I actually visited two cemeteries that night after Jake blew me off. The first was where Craig’s first grade best friend was buried, though I couldn’t find his grave in the dark, even with the lightning’s occasional illumination. I moved on to the cemetery in town where I could find my own friend’s headstone with my eyes closed. She had died of leukemia five years before. I lay down on the wet grass, six feet above her forever 19 year old bones, wishing I had died instead, wanting to take her place, lightning streaking above through the swishing tree branches. The pouring rain obliterated my hysterical tears and I imagined disintegrating like the wicked witch, melting into the earth.  

When I remained stubbornly solid and conscious and waterlogged, desperation guided me to my parents’ house rather than my apartment which no longer felt like home, occupied as it was by my former best friend and her fiancé, a recent pairing which felt like a slap in the face. I only wanted to sleep for as long as possible, but did not take enough of the Fiorinal 3 capsules (a barbiturate/ codeine / caffeine compound to treat tension headaches) to even accomplish that. Six of the blue and yellow dolls only caused tremors and increased my misery and I was a bedraggled sopping fetal mess on the couch when Mom got up to get ready for her Sunday morning choir directing gig. 

In the emergency room, I talked to the psych person who was on call. I remember saying “My birthday is in a few days,” and I guess that along with the summary of my desperate disaster of a summer (entire year, really) convinced him that an inpatient stay might be called for, and I agreed, with what must have been relief. Take me out of my own hands, I imagine thinking.  No more choices. All of my decisions have been wrong. I imagine thinking on that Sunday morning, save my soul.

I maintain that my week-long stay in Toledo Hospital’s psychiatric unit was as interesting as any of the books or movies about the topic (thinking mainly of Girl, Interrupted and It’s Kind of a Funny Story). I kept a journal, and while I’d be hard pressed to find it right now, the writing and then the re-reading of it over the years caused it to be lodged much more permanently in my sieve of a memory than many events in my life.

Starting with being in the locked PIC ward (psychiatric intensive care) on suicide watch, everything being taken away from me, a small shatter proof double paned window. A bed. I was given Ativan and I slept. When I was transferred to the regular ward I had a room mate who named Nicole was a self-harming bipolar young woman, ugly black scabs on her skinny forearms. I remember her saying “You just gonna lie there all day? Come on, come to the common room with me.” And so I began to learn the mysterious, hyper-scheduled routine of the 8th floor, a hospital where you are not allowed to be in bed. A hospital with a smoking room, arts and crafts, exercise, group and individual therapy. 

The smoking room. At scheduled times we shuffled in, lit our cigarettes on special lighter things mounted on the wall, and chatted and gossiped. This is where real therapy took place, unsupervised. My dad brought me some Marlboro Light Menthols, my slow suicide of choice at that time. We lived for the smoking room. I learned that most of the other patients were bipolar and / or had attempted suicide. 


    • In art therapy I painted a plaster dinosaur and a serenity prayer plaque. Our days started with a “morning stretch” before breakfast. I was always cold. For the first two days I had no migraine medication.

    • There was a large lady of color named Eugenia who was always concerned about the pieces of pie she hoarded in the shared fridge. She often accused “the teens” (in a separate ward) of sneaking in and taking them.  I never learned why she was there, but I loved her, and she became fond enough of me that before I left she gave me some of her clothes that she had gained too much weight to wear.

     • Group therapy was totally  ineffective. We often had counselors who were far younger than most of us, and worse, seemed to know less than we did. The condescension was hard to take. During one session, without deciding it beforehand, we all asked complicated questions in order to fluster the young man leading the session. Then, a short and funny patient named Deb jumped up and wrote two letters on the dry erase board with lines under them: P (patients) and S (staff). With a flourish, after the counselor had gotten particularly frustrated, she placed one hashmark under the P. She was keeping score! I remember it going on for far longer than you might expect. Then of course we were all sent to our rooms and threatened with some sort of punishment but we were SO proud of ourselves. That was the first time I thought This is like a movie and I’m living it. 

     • In another group session a patient fell off her chair and had a seizure. After it was clear the counselor wasn’t going to act, Deb got up and assisted the person while the counselor finally picked up the phone in a panic and dialed for help. I had begun to rely on Deb’s confident presence, which is why it was sad for me when one day she was missing. “She freaked out last night,” someone confided. “She has to get shock treatment today.” I didn’t see Deb again.

     • The day of my birthday, I received a lot of phone calls. These were announced over a paging system, and then you would go out to the phone “booth” in the common room. One call caused me to be late for a smoke break. After the attendant escorting me unlocked the door, I rushed in with my Marlboro between my fingers. I felt all eyes on me, some curious, some resentful. “YOU sure are getting a lot of calls.” Someone said. “Well…” I hadn’t wanted to make a big deal of it. I lit my cigarette from the wall and said, “It’s my birthday.” There was a beat of silence and then the room erupted. “WHAT?!”  “Happy Birthday!”  “No way!” “Why didn’t you tell us?” The next think I knew, someone had started the birthday song and everyone was singing. And their voices were surprisingly melodic. You haven’t lived until you’ve had Happy Birthday sung to you by twelve smoking nutcases. It is one of my favorite memories, not just of that week, but my entire life.

My psychiatrist decided to change my medication from Effexor to Zoloft. He listened patiently to everything I had been going through. When I mentioned something about my endometriosis (for which I’d had two surgeries and was taking a medication to put me into a false menopause), he inquired about my fertility. I told him I didn’t expect to be able to have children, that my first gynecologist had encouraged me to put off or skip college in order to have a baby as soon as possible. The psychiatrist was horrified. I felt so validated by that. He mentioned a therapist he wanted me to see, a psychologist who was also an RN named Virginia. I continued seeing her for years. She is the best therapist I have ever had and Dr. Mac (current psychologist) reminds me of her.

The mix I made right after getting out of the hospital is a nearly laughably typical late nineties depression mix with Nirvana, Soundgarden, Fiona Apple, Natalie Merchant, Depeche Mode, and the Cranberries. It took a number of months to put my shattered self back together. I found a tiny apartment in which I could live by myself with a huge skylight instead of windows; it was above a print shop which made it smell like ink. The smell didn’t bother me; in fact I loved it. Even today when I walk downtown past Wizard Graphics and the ink scent hits me, it fills me with calm. I also applied for a job at Grounds For Thought at my mother’s insistence, a coffee shop / used bookstore a block away from my new apartment, even though I didn’t feel cool enough to set foot in it, much less work there. But I was hired. The Buckle (a symbol for the more important events of graduating from college, being dumped and losing Craig) had broken me, and as the pieces started to fit back together, I became the me I would be for the rest of my life. I was poised on the edge of meeting John and all the people who would matter in the years to come. When I was promoted to full time Night Manager at Grounds in October of ’97  I was able to finally quit Family Video, where they were quietly disapproving and suspicious of my “moonlighting” at a coffee shop. I worked at Grounds for almost a decade, through meeting and dating John, getting married, getting pregnant and having X, and going chronic.


My “Buckle Songs” mix contains mostly the happy, dancy music that made us squeal and start dancing in place no matter what we were doing when the songs came on. Some of the songs reflect my frenetic despair. There are a few songs from Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, which was important to me at the time. It started with Urge Overkill’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” from Pulp Fiction and ended with “Make It Home” by Julianna Hatfield, which had been in the Christmas My So-Called Life episode when Rickie was homeless. As I found more songs from our actual Buckle playlists I replaced throw-away songs with more authentic ones, so it was edited a few times over the next year, much like my actual evolving life. I got more tattoos. I grew up.


**Update: While listening to the Buckle mix while driving everyone to school (at three different times), a memory suddenly came back to me of another co-worker I’d totally forgotten about, a beautiful young woman of color who vividly called out the Presidents of the U.S.A. regarding the real meaning of their song “Peaches” and claimed joyfully that she was going to wear a t-shirt saying “KILL WHITEY” to get out of her impending jury duty.  I realized that the Buckle staff were much more diverse than I initially remembered, though undeniably everyone was very attractive. My friend Sarah, whom I’m recalling a little more clearly now, was a short, adorable ginger with a nose ring; not waify and blonde or heroin chic. This was the most unique group of people I ever worked with, which I sought to re-create when I began hiring at Grounds. And I still say I had the best Grounds Crew there ever was and ever will be again. 

***Update #2: The Buckle mix also seems to be telling me to hold on and be patient; that my real life, and even John, were right around the corner.

****Update #3: For one week near the end of summer, the girls attend Hogwarts camp. Last year while walking them through Diagon Alley, I heard a voice exclaim “Elizabeth?? Oh my gosh!!” She was in costume as a professor and head of house, and to be honest I still don’t really remember her, but she had been a co-worker of mine at The Buckle, 19 years before. “How ARE you? I married Todd, you know, the other keyholder? Our two kids are here. Are these yours?” Todd was the one who coined “Meat Market of the Mall.” I couldn’t believe this woman remembered me so clearly when I felt like such a lame imposter while working there. Their older son ended up being placed in X and Zo’s house. He and X got along SO WELL. They are both funny and random, and cute, and I loved watching them together last year and this year, 11 and 12 years old with no idea of their parents’ inauspicious joint past. Their friendship feels like the best kind of closure, the children being gemstones with their genesis in the summer of my rock bottom.


On Grieving, Celebrating, Writing, & Auditioning

This is a piece I wrote for the alternative local news site J created and maintains, for which I now work. It is a personal story of my experience of the celebration of life service for a beloved choral director. It is published, with additional photos, here.

What was so valuable for me in writing this piece is that after I published it and re-read, I realized that the thing with the Christmas lights wasn’t my real Mr. Brown Story. My regret over not auditioning for Madrigals actually changed the way I parented. I encouraged the girls to try out for things, to go after the dance parts and musical theatre roles and to be brave. And they did, and continue to, creating the best friendships and experiences of their young lives. Which was indirectly about Mr. Brown and is truly life altering.

From the news website BG Independent Media:

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Bowling Green was nearly full for Jim Brown’s Celebration of Life service Saturday morning. I scanned the crowd as people filed in, looking mostly for those I remembered from high school. We sat in the section to the right of the pulpit with other members of the Memorial Choir. Stacey (Timmons) Higgins from the Class of 1990 was sitting on my left; Amanda Gullufsen, a fellow graduate of the Class of 1991, was on my right. Both had been Madrigal Singers with Mr. Brown in High School and had traveled with him to the former Soviet Union as it was crumbling. I had been in regular Choir my 10th – 12th grade years, singing such memorable pieces as “I Sing The Body Electric” (from FAME) and the Rutter Requiem. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Brown had known John Rutter personally.
My husband, John Zibbel, had graduated from BGHS some years after me and had been fortunate enough to be a student in the first Humanities Class co-taught by Mrs. Dianne Klein (Former English / Creative Writing) and Mr. Brown in their last years teaching before retirement. John’s class in the 98-99 school year was themed “Making The Midwest Home.” They traveled by bus to Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. In speaking about the Humanities class, Mrs. Klein stated that due to the closeness that the groups experienced from traveling around the country together, the students became family to Mr. Brown as much as his own blood relatives. John’s classmate Jessica Snyder Ruffner commented, “The humanities class had a major impact on me and I am forever thankful to her [Klein] and Mr. Brown for choosing me to participate.” I know John felt similarly.
As I continued watching, I spotted Class of 91 alumna and friend Michelle (Whitacre) Crites. I saw Dr. Eric Myers, former principal of BGHS and school board member, and Mayor Dick Edwards and his wife Nadine. And Andy Halleck. “Did you know he was a Madrigal my senior year?” Amanda whispered to Stacey. “He had chops!”

I was happy to hear this, because as well as being his student, I had also been Mr. Brown’s neighbor, living with my parents and brother diagonally across the street on North Prospect. Mom had told me Mr. Brown’s stately Victorian had been purchased by The Hallecks, and being reminded that Andy had been a Madrigal made me feel pleased that he would be honoring the memory of Mr. Brown which surely infused the house. The positive impact Mr. Brown had on those elite, beautifully-voiced Madrigal Singers through the years was always very evident to me. They were the best of the best, braving auditions I was never able to face.

“I was trying to think of a ‘Mr. Brown Story’ to share, and I couldn’t think of any at first,” Amanda confided in a low voice while we waited for the service to start. Her mother, Linda Gullufsen, was the director of the Memorial Choir and a former colleague and dear friend of Mr. Brown’s. At the first rehearsal, she had stated, Everyone has a Jim Brown story, and she had shared a few of her own through tears. Amanda continued, “I finally thought of one. He gave me the only B I ever got. And it was a B minus! In Choir! When I went to him to ask why, he looked at me and replied simply, ‘Just shut up!’” She grinned. The admonition had been spoken in a direct, but light hearted way. “And oh, I knew he was right. I was a talker for sure. But what was I supposed to do? I was in the back next to… oh you know, Alex DePue. And Dave McCutcheon. But he was right, and I learned so much from that.”

While the organ prelude rang out through the church, I thought about my own Mr. Brown Story. What could I say about him? He hadn’t changed the course of my life. I hadn’t traveled with him the way Stacey, Amanda, and even my own husband had. But, I was his neighbor. And I thought about how beautiful his house always looked decorated for Christmas, and how sad it was the first Christmas after he’d passed away to see it dark and bare. My friend and neighbor Geoff Howes had even written a haiku about it. But during my junior high, high school, and college years that house had been the beacon of holiday cheer, and when Mr. Brown’s white lights and garland went up, we truly knew the Christmas Season had arrived. That, then, was my story.

The service started and the congregation sang a hymn. Then there was a prayer, and Mr. Brown’s younger brother, Bob, got up to speak. He thanked Mrs. Klein and others for taking care of his older brother’s health when he hadn’t been able to; and thanked Mrs. Gullufsen, Mrs. VanBlaricom (former BGHS German teacher) and others for putting together the Memorial Choir, a group of former students, colleagues, and friends of Jim Brown’s spanning fifty years who had been moved to travel from near and far to sing and remember him. Bob then told stories about Jim as a child; talked about Jim’s love of music and theatre and directing and how a severe illness his senior year of high school got him started on piano; talked about his travels, and all the famous people he’d met. Bob became too choked up to speak at least once, and made everyone laugh several times. He then leaned over, looked at Reverend Spicer almost impishly, and apologized to him in advance before telling the final story. He talked about going to visit his brother, whose name just happened to be James Brown, a common name he shared with another, rather more well known musician. Bob said that he would do the James Brown yell for his brother, and he did it right there. “AAAOOOWW! James Brown! I feel good!” And he said his brother Jim would be always be embarrassed, and afterward would whisper an affectionate, brotherly “Stop it.”

Then Bob told us all to stand, and to yell it with him. So we did. “AAAOOOWW! James Brown! I feel good!” Do it again, he said, and we obliged. Then he paused and whispered into the microphone “Stop it.” The church erupted into spontaneous applause, which felt only natural at a celebration of life for a consummate showman.

Daniel Boyle, also from the class of 91, accompanied the choir on piano and had composed a gorgeous original piece called “Thank You, Mr. Brown” which he played beautifully. Next to me, Amanda dabbed at tears with one of the tissues Stacey had thoughtfully given us before the service. Dan also played the postlude on organ, the Widor Toccata, which he later said he had just played for the congregation at his own church for Easter.

Soon we were standing up and joining the other choir members on the risers for “Breathe On Me, Breath Of God.” The story about this song is that the Madrigals sang it in Estonia, in a building so cold they actually could see the white plumes of their own breath. Having attended only one of the rehearsals I was sight reading, but I was proud of the way I had no trouble keeping up and blending my rusty alto with the voices of the rest of the choir, one eye on Linda’s flying hands. As I had many times before, I regretted not having had the courage in high school to audition to be a Madrigal myself. And was proud, thinking about my own young daughters and how I taught them to start auditioning for theatre and dance parts early, to never be afraid to go after what they want and to believe in themselves in a way I never had.

We stayed on the risers through a reading, then sang “Alleluia.” When we were finished, the congregation was once again moved to applaud. We sat down.

Mr. Brown’s nephew Kevin read the Gospel with the familiar words “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” and singing the Rutter Requiem came back to me, with the flute and the timpani and harp which accompanied us, and those same words. “And whosoever liveth and believeth in me… shall never die.” I was wiping my own tears then.

The Meditation by Reverend Spicer was very nice, and a smaller group sang “Sing Me To Heaven,” which Mr. Brown had chosen for both his parents’ funerals. Then it was nearly over and time for the Hallelujah Chorus. Michelle, from the congregation (I keep wanting to say “audience”), posted a video of it later and wrote “The Hallelujah Chorus was sung at the end of every Jim Brown Christmas concert. He invited all previous singers that had sung it in years past to join his current choir on stage to sing as one large choir and it was always beautiful. Today’s memorial service ended the same way. Very touching tribute to a wonderful man.”

After the service, I felt the familiar flush and drone of a migraine coming on, so I didn’t stay for the catered luncheon. I later asked Stacey to describe it for me. She said there was a presentation made by Dr. Myers and Linda VanBlaricom to Francis Scruci, current superintendent of BG Schools, of a plaque commemorating Mr. Brown to be hung in the lobby of the Performing Arts Center, inscribed with the lyrics of “Sing Me To Heaven.” Brother and nephew Bob and Kevin Brown shared touching and humorous stories about his life, and were followed by loving tributes from former students Andy Newlove, Molly Ogden, and former colleagues Jan Woodend (German teacher) and Linda Gullufsen. The event ended with the serving of Mr. Brown’s favorite dessert, ice cream, which was enjoyed in the camaraderie of those whose lives he touched.

I’d like to end with the comments of two Madrigals who are friends of mine from high school and could not attend, made on Facebook after viewing J.D. Pooley’s lovely video of the Memorial Choir’s first two pieces, and shared here with their permission.

Jeremy Smith, Class of 92, wrote “I just sang w/ the basses in my living room. God bless you, Jim.”
Chris Hutchinson, Class of 91, said “I was fortunate enough to be part of the Madrigals that sang Breathe on Me Breath of God in the Soviet Union. To hear it again sung by this group as a tribute to Mr. Brown really caught me off guard…in a good way. It sounds amazing and really brings back a lot of incredible memories.”
And finally, some last thoughts from Linda Gullufsen on her way back home to Tennessee with her husband Rex this morning. “The Memorial Choir came together, not for a choral performance, but as 70+ individuals wanting to pay tribute to their teacher, colleague, mentor, and friend. A community of singers was thus created from 15 states, 2 centuries, and a dozen different choral ensembles that spanned 5 decades. We came together for one brief moment to celebrate Jim’s life. I told the singers that this experience would grow sweeter and more precious to them over time, that it would become one of their cherished memories. And I believe it will. In the words of a song from the musical Wicked, ‘Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.’”

Thank you, Mr. Brown.

“I look back on Venus, look back on Mars / And I burn with the fire / Of ten million stars / And in time, and in time / We will all be stars”

-I Sing The Body Electric