[I wrote this while in Isabela, Puerto Rico on Valentine’s Day, 2017. I recommend watching the youtube clip before reading this piece.]
A Love Song for Mom and Dad
Vacationing with my wife Andrea here on the tropical Atlantic in Isabela PR, I’ve had some time to count my blessings. This is our 11th annual winter sojourn in Isabela. We first came in 2007 after Andrea received good news regarding her likely longevity after her fourth cancer occurrence in 1999. We’ve been celebrating our life together here every winter since.
Our stay often coincides with St. Valentine’s Day, and we’ve had some memorable celebrations of love here in Isabela over the years with our good friends Joyce and Freeman, who had bought a wonderful seaside condo and generously hosted us. We’ve also celebrated here with my sister Marian and her husband Bob, and our friends Cindy and Ken. We’ve also met many lovely Puerto Ricans over the years through our spiritual community, and some of these have also become lifelong friends.
For the last three visits, we’ve been renting a comfortable, open house on a cliff hundreds of feet above the beach. There’s a large balcony overlooking the ocean and we spend hours there each day, taking in the dramatic vistas of sea, sky, seabirds, rainbows, rainstorms, and the occasional whale sighting.
This weekend there was a lovely full moon rising from the ocean in the northeast. Before going to bed on Friday night, I stepped out onto the balcony and was completely mesmerized by the beauty of the silvery moonlight reflecting off the sea. Out of nowhere there came to me the melody of a popular song that my parents liked, and often sang or hummed around the house, “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”.
I found myself humming and whistling the tune to that song in the ensuing days, finally taking some time to google it, write down all the words, and listen to a number of classic recordings (you can actually take the time to do things like that on vacation!). The song dates from the early 1900’s and has been revived almost every decade since by each era’s most popular crooners. The version my parents were most likely to have encountered was that performed by Doris Day and Gordon MacRae in the 1953 movie named “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”.
My Mom, Irene Ciezak Bayerl (1923-2011) was a smart, pretty, good-natured woman who gave her life to the bearing and raising of ten post-WW2 children. This act still staggers my imagination. Her father was a Polish immigrant, her mother 2nd-generation Polish/Russian. Irene had aspirations for college but that was not the accepted scenario for the daughters of immigrants back then. Her love of reading, however, infected many of her children. Five of us siblings have formed an ongoing book group and all of us testify to our debt to Mom’s love of good books.
My Dad, Joseph John Bayerl (1914-1989) was from a large family of 12 children himself. His parents had immigrated to Buffalo, NY around the turn of the century, from Bavaria. Both Mom and Dad’s families were devout Roman Catholics. Dad joined the U.S. army in 1940, sensing that war was likely. He was among the first American GI’s to face combat against Rommel’s formidable German army in North Africa, and then participated in the invasions of Sicily and Italy. He returned home in early 1945 and spent some time in Lake Placid, NY in a facility for shell-shocked veterans prior to being shipped out to San Francisco for a planned assault on the Japanese mainland. He returned to Buffalo after VJ Day, took up his old job in a rubber factory, and became an active member of the American Legion organization.
Joe met Irene at an American Legion social event in the Lovejoy area of east Buffalo, where both their families resided. They married in 1946 and enjoyed a brief honeymoon in Quebec, visiting the shrine of St. Anne de Beau Pre. My older brother Marty was born in 1947, me in 1949, Kathy in 1951, and the seven remaining children, Larry, Marian, Tom, Joan, Bob, Anna, Meg in similar succession (sorry, sibs, for not remembering the exact years).
Looking back on it, life for our large working-class family in the 1950’s and ’60’s was challenging and hard-scrabble. We never thought of ourselves as “poor” though, and Dad’s working two full-time jobs for much of his adult life certainly helped. With both Mom’s and Dad’s extended families living within our immediate neighborhood, there were always aunts and uncles and cousins around.
Our family lived its first few years (till 1954) in a small flat in Mom’s parents’ house, right next door to Visitation RC Church. Then we got our own little house, two blocks away. Life on Longnecker Street was lively and rambunctious, and I’m just beginning to plumb those memories for a series of short stories I’ve begun writing.
“By the Light of the Silvery Moon” has opened a treasure trove of memories and feelings that have long been dormant. On this Valentine’s Day, 2017, I’m sharing it with my Facebook family and friends in celebration of the life and love of Irene and Joe, who together launched a sprawling clan, and allowed the great, mysterious unfolding of love to survive and thrive into the 21st century.
From this time forward, their love for one another will live on within me in the sweet mystery of moonlight. Happy Valentine’s Day Mom and Dad!