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Drema Ellen Slack, 85: John Denver's 'Sunshine On My Shoulders'

Updated June 15, 2021 at 1:21 PM ET

More than 600,000 people have died in the U.S. from COVID-19 since the pandemic hit this country and the world just over a year ago. NPR is remembering some of those who lost their lives by listening to the music they loved and hearing their stories. We're calling our tribute Songs Of Remembrance.

Since she fell in love with it in the 1970s, John Denver's "Sunshine On My Shoulders" was one of a handful of cheerful, heartfelt songs Gran constantly sang to loved ones. The '70s were an especially tumultuous period for her; one of significant loss that had a profound impact on her life. This song was a gift. Though she never said it, I believe the lyrics reminded her to appreciate life's small joys. She chose to be grateful for something as simple as the sunshine "on my shoulders" or "in my eyes" or "on the water," and she invited the people she loved to do the same. For her, I believe the sunshine of which Denver sings is a metaphor for the small joys she cherished: reading books to her granddaughters, skiing with her son, dancing with her husband, sharing a meal with friends. For the rest of her life, she listened to John Denver. A coal miner's daughter born and raised "up Cabin Creek," she also treasured Denver's song about her beloved West Virginia, where she experienced her many sunshines.

Gran sang this song to me on numerous occasions: while planting flowers in the spring; eating Ellen's ice cream on Capitol Street; riding bikes on a Saturday afternoon. Beyond nostalgia, when I hear this song, I can picture the hours and days we shared, and I feel close to her. Also, simply the word "sunshine" makes me think of her. As I wrote in her obituary: "Our grandmother was sunshine. If you had the pleasure of knowing her, you know that she was a vibrant, generous woman full of life, smiles, and unconditional love. A humble person who wisely valued the 'precious present.'" Regardless of life's trials, she seized every opportunity for happiness, constantly whistling and singing her favorite songs. Perhaps you heard her sing, "Have I told you lately that I love you?" ... "You are my sunshine" ... "Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy" ... "The sun will come out tomorrow." Now, the song makes me think of the gift of being by her side during her final week, when we had not been permitted to touch for nearly one year because of the pandemic. The first evening we spent with her, she asked to listen to music. When we played Denver's song, she swayed her hand to the melody and joyfully sang the words "makes me happy." Despite feeling badly, she knew little time remained and she chose to enjoy it. She repeatedly told us "I'm so lucky," "I'm so fortunate," and "I couldn't have been happier in my life." When I hear "Sunshine On My Shoulders" or sing it to the great-granddaughter she could not meet because of COVID-19, I think of my Gran and smile, for she was my sunshine with whom I shared countless small joys, and I am grateful we had each one of them. —Marissa Yingling, granddaughter

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