I would not have imagined that an old music box would bring such comfort to my mother in her final days.
The music box sat silently on my dresser for 15 years collecting dust. It was a gift from my husband, Mike; he bought it at the Bellmore flea market for $28. An antiques dealer told me the art deco box was a cigarette caddy from the 1930s or ’40s.
The first time I heard its melody, childhood memories rushed back to me. I had heard that song! It was the only Italian song my mother, Florence Miello, ever sang when I was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s. In my mind’s eye, I could see her standing by the kitchen sink singing as she washed dishes.
She sang many songs from World War II, including “As Time Goes By” and “You’ll Never Know,” that she had learned as a wartime bride. Yet this one Italian song was a constant. After receiving Mike’s gift, I excitedly brought it to my mother and asked her the meaning of the lyrics.
She said a man is singing about the sea and asking his lover, How can you leave me? Her response satisfied my curiosity, and I gave it no further thought.
In 2018, my mother’s health was failing, and most of her memories seemed to have been erased. On a good day, she would call my name from her bed, but nothing more.
I decided to take the music box with me on my next visit to her apartment in Staten Island; I hoped the melody would ignite a memory or bring comfort. I sat by her bed as my daughter Rachelle, her husband, John Opman, and my grandson, Nicholas Tomanelli, looked on. I held the music box to mom’s ear and watched it slowly turn and crank out its haunting melody. When I removed the box, she said, “I want to hear it.”
We could not believe her words! As the saying goes, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
“What is the name of the song?” Rachelle asked.
Sadly, no one knew, but we wanted to bring the melody with the lyrics to mom. We needed the title.
Nicholas, then 20, took up the challenge.
I told him what I could. Since my mother sang just this one Italian song, I guessed she had heard her mother sing it. Therefore, it might be more than 100 years old and Neapolitan. Nicholas recorded the melody from the music box and scoured the internet, hitting many dead ends.
Then he uploaded a video of the music box to YouTube and posted a link at a website seen by Europeans. Someone recognized it and wrote the title. Nicholas searched further and found the melody and lyrics!
He victoriously presented the song to me: “Come Back to Sorrento.” The first line in English is, “Sunlight dances on the sea.”
My mother died on Aug. 6 at age 96. But in her last days, we played her a full recording of the song, complete with Italian lyrics. She smiled slightly. I imagined that she felt the comfort and closeness of her mother.
The music box connected five generations of my family. I’m grateful that my grandson allowed me to give one final gift to my mother.
Reader Rose Warren lives in Plainedge.