Sunday, September 14, 2008

a little night music


Even before Maude was born, we knew we would have to think harder about music. Margo, Darling began regularly playing Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos in the car, and at night would beg me to sing a song to her rising abdomen. I felt silly singing to a stomach, but I tried to rack my brain for something lullaby-ish that might entertain the little fetus trapped in the dark down there. When she was born singing came more easily, especially since I quickly ran out of things to say to her when she was crying in my lap, too tired and worked up to sleep. Singing is the natural response to a crying baby. It allows you to soothe yourself while soothing her. It allows you to pick a mood and insist on it.

"There's no hysteria here," a song can say. "Nobody is at their wit's end in THIS house, oh no! THIS house is a palace of mellowness." Say it, know it, be it. Eventually it feels true.

As Maude sobbed in my arms and I bounced up and down on the exercise ball trying to soothe her, I would remember the songs I listened to as a child. My father had a big console stereo when I was little, the kind with polished wood sides and a top that lifted to reveal a turntable and radio inside. It lit up inside when it was on, and there was a little oval panel that also lit up to reveal the words "Stereophonic Sound." The radio had a slide dial and warm yellow numbers. The speakers were covered with a woven wicker-type material.

My sister and I loved to sit on the floor with our heads pressed back against the speakers, letting the sound wash over us. I think one of our heads dented the wicker material in a moment of enthusiasm, because I remember a dent in the front. We probably got spanked for the dent, because it was my father's prize possession, but it is equally possible he shrugged it off. Parents are inconsistent like that.

There was a lot of unhappiness, at least back then, so the stereo stands out for me as one of my happier childhood memories. My father played the Kingston Trio; Judy Collins; Mitch Miller; Big Band music; the Weavers; and Peter, Paul and Mary. He played Tony Bennett and Harry Belafonte. He loved early Beatles. He loved Patsy Cline. He loved Bread, the Mamas and the Papas, The Fifth Dimension.

My father was a moody man when we were little. My parents were high school sweethearts who had broken up when my father was in college and my mother in nursing school. He gave another girl his fraternity pin, but my mother still loved him. When she had to have a lower spinal fusion at 20 she waited in for him to come visit her in the hospital, where she lay trapped for weeks in a full body cast. Day after day she waited, but he never came. When she left the hospital she hopped a plane to Atlanta, where her father lived, met a handsome man in a bar, and married him on my father's birthday. She had two children with him before she realized he couldn't hold down a job.

My father's mother told him about my mother's divorce, and the two little girls she had. My mother and my grandmother had kept in touch. I am sure my mother told my grandmother that she had never stopped loving my father, which was true. My grandmother understood misfortune, having survived a tough childhood where she had been given away by her own father, who kept her brother but sent her out to work for any family that would take her in. My grandmother told my father to go get my mother and the two little girls that should have been his. He did.

Which is how my sister and I ended up with our little heads pressed against his stereo speakers, listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary and the Fifth Dimension day after day. At first my father thought that parenting meant beating us with a leather belt for every infraction. I remember having to come up with stories about bruises and handprints on my body for doctors during routine checkups or hospital visits. Later, when more children were born, he began to like us better, and he gave up the belt, and then gave up hitting us altogether. The years passed. We all grew up. I think he grew up more than any of us, grew into a kinder and more generous person over time. In the house of my childhood, all four of us and my parents and our dogs and cats, and horses in the barn, made what I like to call a tumbledy house, a house of noise and mess and lovely disorder and raucous dinnertime fellowship. I remember there was music in our house every night, filling in the cracks and seams between all of us like caulking, creating a reservoir of shared family life that took us all through the next decade together, and then, out into the world.

Eventually my father and I became friends. I borrowed his Tony Bennett and Harry Belafonte records and made tapes to listen to in my car on the drive home from college, and then, graduate school. He would growl at me if records went missing, but only half-heartedly, and if I had them in my possession, he told me to keep them as long as I liked. And when I played them, wherever I was living at the time, in whatever stage of my life, I recreated the raucous tumbledy house I missed, and celebrated my distance from it. The music of my childhood let me miss my family and feel free and separate from them at the same time. it let me revisit a feeling, feel comfortable with ambivalence, and make peace, ultimately, with all the bad things about growing up I couldn't change, and with all the good things I wouldn't trade for anyone else's life.

Before Maude was born I thought about how I would explain my parental relationship to her. I thought I could tell her that my father, the one whose last name I have, is not genetically related to me. I thought about how it may have mattered to me once, but never would now. I thought about how with my mother gone all of us try to see each other at least once a year, and nobody ever cares or seems to remember what degrees of blood kinship are or are not present for any of us. I thought about what a shared life is, what makes family, what it means to be a parent, or a daughter.

And so when Maude was born I sat night after night on the exercise ball, looking for songs that would soother her, and I found the ones from my childhood. I started with "500 miles," then went back to Peter, Paul and Mary for the songs I knew but could not remember. And then I found "Stewball."

"Stewball," of course, is a mournful song about betting everything on the wrong horse and regretting it. In fact, if you go back and listen to Peter, Paul, and Mary, most of their songs and the songs they cover are fairly sad: "Cruel War," "Lemon Tree," "500 Miles," "Leaving on a Jet Plane," and even--especially!--"Puff, the Magic Dragon," are songs about separation, loss, displacement, and disappointment. Did I know this when I sang them as a child? Did something in my sad little heart vibrate with the yearning, mournful minor found in that music? Or did I just think they were beautiful? Are those feelings all mixed together anyway, the beauty, the sadness, the yearning, and bittersweet memory?

Maude loves "Stewball". I can try several different songs, but "Stewball" always makes her happy. Sometimes I play it on my computer, through iTunes, and we slow dance together in the pink light of the nursery, Maude in my arms, her soft sticky cheek pressed against my face, both of us swaying softly to the guitars and vocal harmonies. I think about the heartache and the love and the yearning for safety and fellowship that is so much a part of the ideology of family, and I think about the sweet sad nostalgia I feel for a time when all of us were together under one roof, crowded and cross and driving each other crazy, but together, listening to the same music floating from room to room, humming the same songs. Surviving, fighting, changing, forgiving each other. And I tell Maude that I love her, and that I will probably disappoint her and drive her crazy, but I will try my best to give her a good life, and she is my family, now, for better or worse.

And I feel like our house, our little cramped apartment, is mellow, and calm, and grounded, and cheerful, and full of life and lots of love and all the good things that can be in a place where there is hope and the desire for happiness, and people who try to be their best selves, and love each other as best they can. Which is a lot.


Arial Ray said...


Leonard Cohen worked for my girls.

lilrumpus said...

so many things i could say, but I am going to stick with this one:

i totally sat in front of the same console with my head against the same (orange/brown?) weave, listening to music (the music was different...more Elvis and Willy Nelson), but the

your home is mellow calm and grounded...and

yay for Stewball

mulberry said...

(new to your blog)

wow, that console really got around. it was in our living room too... had been my grandfather's and then became my dad's. it played a LOT of peter, paul and mary, kingston treo and so many of the others. my father really gave me my love of music. we sang together all the time while he played his guitar... i spent all of high school (the 80's for me) listening to his old records - gotta love hoyt axton. singing is the thing that calms me in ANY situation. and how lovely that after all this time, that the wrong horse is turning out to be just the right horse for maude!