Are you a Bruce Springsteen fan? So is my mother-in-law, and it saved her life.

This story was broadcast on Life Matters in 2010. Amazingly, it’s still on the ABC RN website.

https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/a-box-of-bruce/2966798

When my father-in-law died 10 years ago, my husband predicted that with Pa gone, Nana would be like a budgie and just give up and fall off her perch.  And for a while there, I feared he might be right.

On the first trip to the cemetery a few weeks after the funeral, she fumbled in her bag and began to arrange the artificial carnations with the camelias, squashing the thick stubborn stems into the narrow hole that formed a vase at the base of the newly made grave.

My daughter, then only seven, held out the pink carnations she had picked from our garden, and we watched awkwardly, as Nana arranged them in another small vase.

Then she took out a cloth and a spray can from the small gift bag and began to polish the stone. “It comes up really nicely,” she said, polishing the rose pink granite as firmly an efficiently as if she was polishing the dining-room table at home.

We stood and said how nice it was, and how peaceful the garden was, and what a lovely spot: watching as the small claw-like hand, with its rivers of purple and blue veins, worked quickly, frantically – the cluster of rings jammed tightly on her finger a reminder of a union that no longer existed.

But then suddenly she dropped the cloth and covered her face and a sob escaped. “I just can’t get used to it,” she said. “It seems so unreal. I keep thinking he’s just going to come back and walk in the room.”

The nights were the worst. She would lay awake, listening to Keith McGowen, host of the Overnighters on 3AW. It was here that she discovered that she was not alone after all.

Keith talked and people rang up and talked back.   People like her – lying awake, wondering how – after 40 years of marriage  – that they were now alone and no longer needed.

Soon she was able to lose herself in the music, so much so that she began to go to JB HiFi the next day to buy the recommended CDS.

That’s how she discovered Bruce.

First it was the Live in Dublin album.   The songs, with their raw poetry, seemed to speak to her personally.

We said we’d walk together baby – come what may
That come the twilight should we lose our way
If,  as we’re walkin, a hand should slip free
I’ll wait for you
And should I fall behind
Wait for me

She learned them all by heart and when she came to our place, she would ask me to look up the lyrics she couldn’t quite grasp or hear.

She began to read everything she could about Bruce and quickly became an expert.

“His mother was Italian,” she would tell me authoritatively. “Oh, and he does a lot for charity.” She knew about his marriage, his children, the lives of his band members, and their deaths. When Danny Federici died – the E-street band’s organ and keyboard player – she was heartbroken for him.

At a Mother’s Day lunch last year, my husband and I gave her a beautiful illustrated biography of Bruce. She wept when she opened it and poured over it while we ate, pointing to photos of the band as if they were old friends.

If I called and asked what she was doing, she’d laugh and saying “listening to Bruce” or “watching Bruce” or she’d be out looking for “something Bruce”.   Thanks to Keith, her taste in music expanded, including Mary Black, Johnny Cash, Il Divo, Amici and Emmy Lou Harris.

But Bruce was her favourite. Every time she visited, she would ask me to check the internet to see when he might be coming to Australia.

Naturally, as Christmas approached last year, I wanted to give her something Bruce.

But what? She had so much already. So I decided to spoil the surprise and ask her for a list.

It was one-and-a-half pages long and when I checked the E-Street Band website, there wasn’t much she didn’t have already, other than t-shirts or back-stage passes or tickets to various old concerts.

I bought her the smallest t-shirt, a DVD/CD of Bruce with Pete Seeger, and three or four books on Bruce, some analysing his influence on US culture and others analysing his poetry.

I wrapped each individually and put it back in the box it had come in, which I also wrapped and labelled, “A box of Bruce”.

It took her a good 15 minutes to unwrap it all and exclaim over each one. Then she put on the t-shirt and asked to put on the DVD straight away – loud.

When I rang the following week, she had already read one book and was half way through another and was able to discuss it at length.

But now, as Christmas approaches again, having exhausted all things Bruce,  I am stumped.

“I don’t know what to get you,” I said. “I prefer the days when you couldn’t afford to go to JB Hi Fi yourself.”

“I’m into Neil, too,” she replied.

“Neil who?” I asked.

“Diamond, of course,” she said.  “Did you know he’s coming to Melbourne next year?”

And next time she came she asked me to look up all things Neil.