Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Stepping Up.”
“Gonna take a sentimental journey
Gonna set my heart at ease
Gonna make a sentimental journey
To renew old memories”
For a lot of us, old songs are like comfort food; they take us on a journey, to younger days and pleasant memories of, perhaps, a time when we didn’t know what “social distancing” meant. At The Kenney, a retirement community in West Seattle, the residents have begun regular gatherings to sing their favorite nostalgic songs — from their balconies and windows, or standing (more than six feet apart) on the lawn. During the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a way to be together while apart.
On a recent bright Wednesday afternoon, about two dozen residents and a few staffers gathered outside the stately building; others — most of them alone, one holding a small dog — peered out from their apartment windows. Copies of an “Old-Time Favorites Songbook” were handed out, but not everyone needed to look at the lyrics. Led by resident Nancy Roberts-Brown and accompanied by music from a CD player with a long extension cord, the group sang for about half an hour, undeterred by face masks and physical distance. Birds chirped, passers-by stopped to watch, and briefly all seemed right with the world.
The community of The Kenney houses about 140 residents, aged 62 and up, and many of them love to sing. Roberts-Brown, who in non-pandemic times sings with three local choirs, moved there with her husband a year ago and started The Kenney Singers last summer with fellow resident Gundel Bowen.
“It grew from about five people to about 25 people who love singing together,” said Roberts-Brown, in a telephone interview after the Wednesday singalong.
The musical skills of the group “range from practically nonexistent to semiprofessional,” she said. “Our first goal is that people just really enjoy themselves while they’re singing.”
The Kenney Singers enjoy a variety of music — hymns, carols, old standards, folk songs — and performed for fellow residents at Christmas and Valentine’s Day parties.
Though the group can’t rehearse these days (gathering in a common room isn’t currently allowed), Danette Utley, director of life enrichment at The Kenney, saw online videos of Italians under quarantine singing from their balconies and windows and had an idea.
“She called me and said, what do you think of having a singalong from the balconies?” Roberts-Brown said.
The Ballymena, one of three buildings in the Kenney complex, has several floors of balconies arranged around a central courtyard, and a first try at a singalong there went well. But Roberts-Brown wanted to involve people from the other buildings — due to virus fears, residents are currently banned from entering buildings in which they don’t live — and singing on the front lawn became the next step.
During the Wednesday singalong, Roberts-Brown’s voice rang out loud and clear, despite the face mask she wore. Other voices joined her, chiming in unison and occasional harmony. “It’s a beautiful day and we’re happy to be here!” she enthused, encouraging fellow singers to dance between verses of “Peg O’ My Heart.” Nearby, Roberts-Brown’s husband, Steve Atit Marmer, swayed while seated on his scooter, waving his arms gracefully as if blown by a rhythmic breeze.
Under the sunshine, song after song poured out: “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” “My Blue Heaven,” “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “It Had to Be You.” For the chorus of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” — “I’m in looove with you” — Roberts-Brown turned to face the building and opened her arms toward the singers in their windows looking down.
“This is a place that thrives on community,” Roberts-Brown said later. “We love each other. When we get to see each other, we’re so happy.”
With fewer opportunities to connect with neighbors, the singalongs — at safe distance — become a way to check in, to know that friends are all right, to make something together. It’s just one example of what Roberts-Brown calls “parts of wonder” that the coronavirus restrictions have brought out: “the joy of singing in community, beautiful things emerging.”
The Kenney’s singalong will continue on a regular basis, weather permitting, as long as people there want to sing. Asked if she had a favorite song to sing with her husband and friends and neighbors, Roberts-Brown immediately named the Irving Berlin ballad “Always.” Its lyrics seem particularly appropriate — and comforting — during these days.
“I’ll be loving you always
With a love that’s true always.
When the things you’ve planned
Need a helping hand,
I will understand always.”