A Big Band Drummer, an oven fire and a couple of angels

Yesterday was my father-in-law’s birthday. He would have been 94. He died nearly 11 years ago after a debilitating stroke. I remembered it was his birthday as I placed a little gift for my brother-in-law on our dinner table. This is the story of Joseph Soares Couto and how my mother-in-law convinced him to visit us yesterday through the little gift and an oven fire.

My father-in-law was born in Providence, RI, the youngest, by many years, of 4 children. An older brother had died as a child, but two sisters doted on Little Joe like he was the only child ever born. I have been told this by many, many people. As a very young child, Joe had an interest in music. He was given lessons in playing the drums, and the rest, as the story goes, is history. Joe became a legend, and by high school graduation, he had been offered a college scholarship. This was no small feat for a kid whose parents had immigrated to the Fox Point section of Providence from Portugal. But Little Joe had bigger plans. New York City. He went and he played with the best of the Big Bands, returning only to Providence to court his girlfriend, Florence.

After Flo and Joe were married, they headed off to New York City together. These would be the years that Flo would talk about with such awe for the rest of her life. The City. The nightlife. The musicians. The excitement. But the War, and responsibilities back in Providence, forced them to come home. Joe played lots of “gigs” locally, but when Flo was expecting their first baby… well, Joe was given “the lecture” by family and friends that he had to find a “real” job. He did. By day, he washed beer bottles at the Narragansett Brewery where his Dad worked. There, he was a guy who washed bottles for a paycheck. By night, Joe entertained. Flo never, ever let his dream die. She would wait up for him until 1:00 or 2:00 am each night he played, always with a bedtime snack. Joe did this for decades. Washing bottles by day in his green uniform… making his drums come alive 3 nights a week in his black tux. Even after Joe retired from the brewery, he played his music until age 80, when he couldn’t carry his drums anymore.

When I first met Joe, I was kind-of surprised. My husband is very demonstrative and very affectionate. Joe wasn’t. He was, “Hi. How are ya?” He didn’t smile easily. And Flo pretty much had to tell him what to do. “Hug her,” she’d say. Or, “Help your son carry those boxes.” Maybe all those years of being doted on just left him a bit… lost in the giving department. But the first time I saw him play his drums, I couldn’t believe he was the same man. Joe laughed. He swayed. He tossed his sticks in the air. He made the music come alive. He was born to entertain. My husband explained his Dad as, “That’s just the way he is.”

I grew to love Joe very much. We had a perfectly nice relationship. I began to hug him, and he hugged me back. He actually told me once that he loved me. It was the day Audrey was born, prematurely, and he came to see her in the Intensive Care Nursery. I will never forget that moment. This is a man who had 3 sons. A man who didn’t have girls crawling on him or combing his hair or begging for money for a prom dress. He was tough in many ways… and one thing he ALWAYS said to his children was, “Four years of college and you don’t know how to… (whatever it was at the moment).” It could be that Barry didn’t store the lawn furniture in the garage for the winter. Or that I ran out of gas. We’d always laugh out loud and say to him, “Dad, we didn’t take ‘storing lawn furniture’ or ‘filling up with gas’ (or whatever) 101 in college.” This is the one thing I remember most lovingly about Joe.

So… on to yesterday. Barry and I had found a perfect 1962 vintage label from a bottle of Narragansett Beer and had it framed for Barry’s brother, Rick. I placed the gift on the dinner table and then remembered that it was Joe’s birthday. We all had a toast to Joe. Rick remembered that whenever Dad’s birthday fell on Thanksgiving Day, Flo insisted on having a birthday party, too… separate from the Thanksgiving festivities. We toasted Flo. Jane thought it was so nice that since this was Flo’s first Thanksgiving in heaven, she had a reason for a party!

Then… as Jane’s beautiful apple crisps were tantalizing us from the oven, a burning odor took over. My sister-in-law said it smelled like burning sugar. And it was. Jane opened the oven to little flames that turned into bigger flames. Jane and her husband Steve were tossing flour on it… trying to fan it out.

Then the angels came. I heard myself say, “Ten years of college between you two and you can’t put out an oven fire,” as I doused it with water.

I know Joe made me say that. I know Flo told him to. Yes, Flo and Joe came to visit yesterday on Dad’s Thanksgiving birthday. I always knew that Flo couldn’t miss a good party!

A Big Band Drummer, an oven fire and a couple of angels was last modified: February 9th, 2010 by Sharon Couto
SHOWHIDE Comments (11)
  1. Dad was a funny guy for sure. As a drummer myself most people, when they find out that my Dad was a drummer think that he must have taught me, but that was not the case. I am sure it was in the blood but he never sat me down to show me a riff. It wasn’t until I grew up and realized that the way to relate to him was through HIS music (not mine). So in his senior years I started making him mix tapes of Ellington, Basie, Buddy Rich, Sinatra etc. and I would add in little bits of some more current jazz that I figured could get by. He liked this very much. I remember the first time I realized how good of a drummer he was, we were at a family function and he was invited to sit in with the band. While the drummer was doing a fine job when Joe took the seat man things really started to swing. I remember turning to my brother Barry and saying “Wow, Dad can really play”. The music got hotter, the dance floor filled up and it was like the party just broke into overdrive. That moment was the most influential musical moment I ever got from Joe. I will never forget it.

    Sharon thanks for being our family historian and tradition maker. Being at your home for Thanksgiving yesterday with my son (also a drummer) and my beautiful wife made my day!

    I love you dearly, Rick

    (I am a drummer who is the son of a drummer and the father of a drummer)

  2. Thanks for including my fire in your beautiful story about Papa. Funny, in all our 10 years of college combined, neither Steve nor I took Putting Out An Oven Fire 101. 😉

    I am sure Nana and Papa had a great pah-ty yesterday up there to celebrate Thanksgiving and Papa’s birthday. I bet Papa even got up on the drums and got that party going into the night.

  3. Happy Thanksgiving Sharon!

    I love Flo’s idea for a birthday celebration. My son Sam’s birthday was yesterday as well (he turned 2!) and I think that will be a tradition we will have to adopt! I am sure this won’t be the last time Sam shares his birthday with Thanksgiving. Next time, we will have a birthday party in addition to the turkey!

  4. I love your stories! I’m glad the fire wasn’t serious and you were able to put it out. I hope you had another dessert besides the apple crisps 🙂

  5. What wonderful memories to share. Telling
    about your Dad’s day job at the Narragansett
    Brewery in Providence reminded me that was my dad’s favorite beer.
    Family memories are worth sharing with family members and friends.
    I am the historian in my family and began blogging last Christmas to tell our about the goings past and present in our family, since we are scattered around the country.

  6. What a great story and I love the memories of Joe. I wish I could have heard him play the drums. I bet he was really good.

    At least Joe and Flo finally got to spend Thanksgiving together again after such a long time apart.

  7. Thanks so much for sharing that story about your father in law. I am a mom to a drummer. My husband and I have had that moment of “he really is good isn’t he”. I can imagine that moment of your fil coming “alive” at the drumset…my son does too. We are getting ready to apply to colleges and hopefully my son will continue his love and passion for the drums and music. We are proud of our drummer, as I am sure the whole Couto family is of their drummer.

A Big Band Drummer, an oven fire and a couple of angels was last modified: February 9th, 2010 by Sharon Couto