NOTE BY NANCY: MUSIC IS MAGIC and manifests in myriad ways. Here is a story of how music created magic between a granddaughter and her beloved grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s and did not recognize her “Little B.”
Tying The Leaves and The Miracle
By Kay Johnson-Gentile, Ph.D.
I was a WW II baby born in February of 1943 in the small Midwestern town of Moberly, Missouri. My earliest years were spent in the home of my namesake Grandmother Mabel and Grandfather Rex Burgher, my father’s parents. I was little Baby Kay, nicknamed “Little B” for the books I loved to look at and have read to me.
My Grandmother, a charismatic, outgoing woman, loved reading me stories. I remember curling up in her lap as she rocked back and forth in her black wooden rocker. The back and forth rhythm was always so soothing to me, and if I had previously been upset by something or someone, Gram’s rocking therapy helped calm me down, preparing me for what was to happen next — my entry into that magical world of imagination provided by stories and books.
I always thought Grandma should have been an actress. She seemed to be magnetically attracted to the dramatic. She was the ultimate performer, so much so that after many of her stories I spontaneously burst into applause. I couldn’t help myself. She was that good.
As Grandmother read to me she would include me in the story saying, “Now, my dear “Little B”, what do you think happens next in our tale?” I loved being able to use my imagination and concoct possible next steps to the narrative.
I will never forget one story Grandma told me. After all these years, just thinking about the plot still brings tears to my eyes. The story centered on a sweet little girl, Nellie, about four years of age, who had a serious illness and was dying. Her young male playmate, who lived next door, came over to see her regularly. One day during his visit he overheard the doctor telling Nellie’s mom that Nellie would pass away soon, sometime in the fall – when the leaves on the trees fell to the ground.
The little boy simply could not bear losing his sweet friend, and came up with a unique plan. Gathering lots of string, he began tying all the leaves to the branches they were attached to, making it impossible for them to fall to the ground.
Grandma had a dramatic sense of timing and her rocking seemed to get faster as she came to my favorite part of the story. She continued, “And as he was tying all the leaves to the tree, Nellie’s little friend was singing;” then breaking into song she’d continue, “I’m tying the leaves so they won’t come down, so Nellie won’t go away.”(1)
When the story ended I always cried. I could feel the love between the two children so deeply. Grandma would then say, “Now my dear little B, shall we put this book away?”
I always responded, “Oh no, grandma, please read this story one more time— just one more time.”
Grandma told stories to grandchildren and great-grandchildren in that old black rocker until she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and needed to move to Las Cruces, New Mexico to be with her daughter, my aunt. The Alzheimer’s had come upon her suddenly, and her condition deteriorated rapidly. When my husband and I flew from New York to Las Cruces to visit her, I could not believe how this horrible disease had effected this once vivacious woman. She did not even know who I was.
It was heartbreaking to see her. She was so confused and wondered why I was in her room. I had this overwhelming urge to find an old, black rocking chair so I could take this now small, frail woman into my lap and rock her, telling magical stories I just knew she would love.
Instead my husband and I wheeled Grandma out into the big activity room and put on a half hour musical presentation for the nursing home residents and staff. I thought Grandma just might recognize me when I began solo singing, but this did not happen. She just stared into space as if she did not even know a concert was taking place. I felt my throat start to close and my voice quiver, but I regained my composure. I knew I must.
When the concert ended the staff brought out light refreshments for us to enjoy. With cookies and lemonade in hand I walked over to my grandma and sat down right beside her. She did not say a word. She just kept looking at me quite intently, as if trying to figure out who I was.
Suddenly I had an idea. I looked deep into her eyes and slowly, yet dramatically, told grandma the story she so often had told me when I was small. And, at the appropriate moment, just like she used to do, I broke into song, “I’m tying the leaves so they won’t come down, so Nellie won’t go away.”
Her expressionless face suddenly changed and a big smile appeared. And my grandma finished singing this familiar song with me. Everyone watching this scene was deeply moved. Tears welled up in my eyes and I said to this precious lady, “I love you so much, Grandma.”
She stared at me for a long moment, and suddenly a look of amazement and recognition spread over her face. She quickly reached out to me and said, “Why you are Little B.” At that moment glorious sunshine filled the spacious room
- I’m Tying the Leaves so They Won’t Come Down: is a song written by E.S.S. Huntingdon / J. Fred Helf. Recorded in 1907 by Byron Harlan. Also recorded by Grandpa Jones.
Playmates were they, girl and lad.
She’s home today, lad feels sad.
Doctor, he called, whispered low:
“When the first autumn leaves fall, then she must go.”
Lad, with a tear, climbs a tree.
“I’ll keep her here.” murmurs he.
Big man in blue sternly cries:
“What are you doing there?” Lad replies:
“I’m tying the leaves so they won’t come down,
So the wind won’t blow them away,
For the best little girl in the whole wide world,
Is lying so ill today.
Her young life must go when the first leaves fall.
I’m fixing them tight so they’ll stay.
I’m tying the leaves so they won’t come down,
So Nellie won’t go away.”
Sad mother grieves, day by day,
Watching the leaves, hears boy say:
“You mustn’t cry, for, you see,
I’ve tied all the leaves fast up on the tree.”
Doctor brings joy one sad day.
Mother tells boy: “Nell will stay.”
Lad at girl’s side, cries with glee:
“That’s what I said one day in the tree.”