⪧ We left our life in New York City to make a new one in Provence ⪦

January 30, 2009

My Mom Sings

Standing in my grandma’s kitchen one summer afternoon, with its honey colored cabinets and florid teal wallpaper, I heard her singing a little ditty. It was a familiar ode but it wasn’t a real song. It was a little tune she was making up as she bustled about. “Emdilee – help me, come over here and get these dishes into the sink,” the song went, her voice rising and falling in funny and comical tones. The song was familiar. I had heard my Aunt Sue sing almost the same song to me at her house in Provo, UT while I lived there as a student and would go to her house for Sunday dinner. She had exactly the same singsong tone. But more than anything else, my grandma’s routine summoned up memories of my own mother. My mom had inherited the same propensity to break out in song whenever there was a task to be completed at hand. To her, it seemed that the best way to acquire help was to sing a song dedicated to the potential helper.

My mom would do this all the time. She would employ this method when she was trying to snap the house together for an incoming visitor – “Children, let’s tidy up the house. Julie – vacuuming! Stephen – straightening! Emilie – sweeping!” she’d sing out as if in a musical of her own where there is no speech – just voices in song. We’d usually be amused by the performance, but, regrettably for her sake, unaffected in our desire to pitch in and help out.

She’d use this when threatening to tidy up our stuff for us. “The gummy bag is coming out! Watch out! The gummy bag is coming out!” making use of the lovely garbage bag ploy – the “gummy bag” would guzzle up everything lying about. The lyrics of this song revolved around the threat that we would have to pay a quarter for every item that we might later want to retrieve from the sack.

She would hum little poems to herself while doing her own work. She was rarely silent – music seemed to be caged inside of her and she let it out, humming freely, head tilted while she pounded bread dough on the counter top. She would hum while doing laundry – sorting, folding, placing in kid’s drawers for them. She’d hum while she was vacuuming, the drone of the vacuum drowning out the hum in her mouth – but it was there nonetheless. She would hum while watering the plants on the porch – vessel by vessel filled with water on hot sticky days, the plants parched and waiting on her, her hum reaching them before she did. She would hum in the morning, afternoon and at night. It seemed she was born to hum. We all were. Carried along inside of her womb, our first resonance with sound was probably her humming, like purring from above.

She would even use this approach when she was angry. My mom yelled very rarely, in fact, I am hard pressed to think of an instance. She sang instead. One afternoon, one of us was demanding that my mom’s eyes watch her and only her, someone else was asking for help with a math question on his homework, another was whining that he couldn’t invite a friend over, and little fingers plunking on the piano topped off the pandemonium. Rather than shouting and ordering everyone to head to their rooms, she sang a little ditty to the situation and the little people surrounding her. “Children are very special people” it started, with emphasis on the word “special.” She sang loudly – opera style.

Sometimes she would let other people do the singing for her. One of her best tactics was in the van with everyone piled in, every kid picking at the person next to him and trying his best to shout or talk louder than everyone else. She would simply place her hand on the radio, which was playing classical music or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and turn the little black volume knob up so much it would silence us – the intense music blaring in our ears. We were stunned silent. Finally. Then she would place her fingers back on the dial and turn it in the other direction. We would hear the air escaping from her mouth in a soft sigh of relief.

For the most part, even with so much chaos surrounding her, my mom seemed to carve out her own space where she could breathe and wasn’t deafened or inundated through the songs she would sing. Unwittingly and without any overt exertion to teach us on her part, my mom passed this habit down to all of us. We are all singers. Even those of us who are not inherently gifted in this territory.

As a little boy, Stephen was a real entertainer. From his one hundred cartwheels in a row to his constant little odes to the world around him, he was incessantly giving a show. His most famous self-invented ditty was “Let your fully functions follow you!” None of us knew what he meant, I still don’t, but at 5-years old, he seemed to. When I was last in New York, I asked his roommate how she likes Stephen. She replied, “I’ve never met anyone who sings, hums and whistles so much.”

Andrew, our youngest performer, has followed his lead. His creations in song have recently taken a more somber tone: “Death is coming. Death, death, is coming for you. Death is coming today!” His performance is admirable in its range – he sings this morbid song in the same singsong fashion as my mom, and often with considerable zest.

Rebekah could one day become a Broadway performer – she belts out any song that comes on the radio with perfect recollection of the lyrics and the rise and fall of the melody. Like her personality, she always seems to sing blissful and merry tunes.

Julie’s songs when we were little were precise; she too knew all the words, but would often sing them at me, teaching me the lyrics with her knowing eyes and nodding head. Her songs later were much more free, like her. With an air of abandon, she would sing songs on her guitar with joy about christians and pagans coming together for reconciliation – embodying her spirit.

At one point during his high school career, Paul seemed to narrate his life as a sports broadcaster would – “He makes his way to the sink, pivots on one foot to make the dunk! He’s having a pretty good year.” This was Paul singing – this was Paul’s chant.

Melanie’s version takes a different form – she chants to the tune “Diamonds Are Forever” and replaces the lyrics with “Families Are Forever.” She sings this repetitively to everyone around her – loud, strong and forceful. Her performances also delve into the realm of non-human songs: she sings horse sounds – nickers and neighs in recurring form.

Marc’s singing has always been more independent. He sings confidently, beautifully, while strumming the string of his guitar – songs that he has taught himself autonomously of anyone else. No one else knows these songs.

Even my dad is a singer, probably thanks to my mom’s influence. On Sunday mornings he can be heard singing “For All the Saints,” sitting at the piano, plunking out the melody line himself. Gilbert and Sullivan top his music list and he croons the lyrics of their lighthearted burlesques all over the house.

My singing has always been joyful, relaxed and off-pitch. I also know, because I am always with myself, that it has always been present. Walking to campus or doing the dishes, like my mom, I would find myself humming or singing out loud. Nowadays, I ride my bike in the streets of Paris and sing to all the passersby. My song includes a broad smile and so, even if they are French, they give in and let me have the ephemeral stage. My first year in France was marked by trauma in this department. I stopped singing. Even humming. My life had suddenly become aberrantly quiet; I found myself alone. I only realized I had ever stopped singing when I started again, one year later. It was a quiet sort of hum – rising up from inside of me. Upon hearing it again, I looked around in the street, I opened my mouth and gasped, disbelieving that part of me had gone missing. I started to recognize myself again with the return of my song – my humor, my self-possession, my spirit are all so tied up in it that I found I had been a wilted version of myself without it.

We are all tied up in it. Our song. It is my mom coming out in all of us.


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful thing, is song. More beautiful yet is the comfort and trust that comes with knowing that it's okay to express. Thanks to your Mom for showing the precious value in making a joyful noise. My Grandfather was the artist who did so in our clan. We feel him when we open up and let loose. Thanks for sharing.

Mels said...

I remember when mom would crank up the music when we were fighting in the car, thanks for the memeriose, that is so funny and true. I have another one that Dad/mom say and I and it is:
Me: "I go, I go, I really really go.."
Dad.Mom- "but you don't go.. you are still here.."
Isn;t taht funny, Thanks for all the songs that we share with each other
I love you, see you all soon
love always,

Jill said...

Emilie, I'm so glad you found your songs once again!

Loved reading this and enjoying your talent as a writer. Everything you said is so true. I still never know what Stephen is singing about. Love you, love your whole family.

Rosie said...

Do you all remember when Stephen sang the solo in jr. high and we didn't know he was going to do it? My neighbor turned around and said "I didn't know Stephen could sing like that! He sounds like Michael Jackson." Funny thing is we didn't know either! But we do now!

Thanks for a great article Em, remember "Children are very special people!"


alisa said...

This is simply beautiful. I love your blog! This post especially.

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