“Sweet Old World” came on the radio when I was driving today. I’ve heard Lucinda Williams’ song a hundred times before — it’s 20 years old — and I still blinked back tears. I was thinking of someone in particular: my mother-in-law.
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world
The breath from your own lips, the touch of fingertips
The heartbreak in Lucinda’s voice and that intertwined fiddle and guitar, it gets you coming and going. But the lyrics truly soar.
A sweet and tender kiss
The sound of a midnight train, wearing someone’s ring
It’s commonly understood that the whole point of “Sweet Old World” is to enumerate all that you leave behind when you go – that, specifically, it speaks to a person who has made the mistake of choosing to leave this earth. About a loved one’s suicide.
Someone calling your name
Sad, so sad. But the song has depths of meaning besides. Emmy Lou Harris covered “Sweet Old World.” She told Lucinda in a conversation that while people think she’s singing about the death of Gram Parsons, “sometimes that enters into it, but that song has so many different levels. It’s a song that talks about our own mortality, as well as others.”
My mother-in-law, Eloise, now in her 90s, is just waiting to step off this mortal coil, confined to a bed, drifting in a hospice-administered cloud of sweet morphine. Some stern higher being decided to take her brain before her body, so she was left in a devastating irony exactly as she hadn’t planned or wished: without her sharp mind, her wit, her total independence.
Somebody so warm cradled in your arms
What makes Lucinda’s song relevant here is that in verses’ litany of things undone, not experienced, undervalued, Eloise had them all in spades. The touch of fingertips,the ring, the sound of a train, someone calling her name. She had her church, the friends she played cards with, a handsome, charming husband, a bushel basket of kids and grandkids.
Millions of us in love, promises made good
Your own flesh and blood
Eloise could hike faster than anybody I’ve ever seen. I saw her plant a quarter acre of wildflower seed, then spend hours on her hands and knees pulling weeds until the garden was perfect.
Looking for some truth, dancing with no shoes
Gil and his sisters take turns by the bedside, holding their mother’s hand. Good night Eloise. It is a sweet old world.