Today was supposed to be “LAWN MOWING DAY!” However, nature is not cooperating and my very long grass is too wet to cut. So I cast around wondering what to do and decided to re-organize my kitchen pantry and shelves. (Organizing is what I do when I am frustrated; I guess it restores some sense of control.) As I was moving boxes and cans of food, I listened to Scott Simon interview a father and son banjo-playing duo on NPR. As the show closed, he invited them to play, and I heard the melody to “Kiss me once and kiss me twice and kiss me once again.” Soon, I noticed that I was singing along.
As the song ended (and I kept singing because I couldn’t get the melody out of my head), I began reflecting on how I could possible know the words to a World War II song. I am old, of course, but I was only a baby/toddler during those years. And then a memory of my mother, sitting at the piano playing through her stacks of 40’s and 50’s era sheet music flashed through my mind. That music, I knew from a very early age was an emotional tie to my father who enlisted in the war just after I was born and was killed by friendly fire while walking to freedom from a POW camp.
When she played that music, I would sit where she could not see me and listen – beautiful voice, average piano playing, and wave after wave of emotion. Sometimes she would choose to listen to recordings rather than play the music. I would read and listen, knowing that she was crying – again. As I grew older and learned to play the piano, I pulled out the tattered sheet music, and these songs became mine as well.
My mother died several years ago, but hearing that music this morning triggered many memories of me, my mother, and music. My mother and I had a rocky relationship for our entire lives together, but we were united by a love of music that somehow transcended that relationship – as we know it can do with any relationship. Music always filled the house and my mother was constantly singing. But some memories are very personal.
For example, as a young child, I always went along with her when she was the “special music” at other church services in the area. The most wonderful times were sitting on the damp ground gazing at the pale pinks and yellows or brilliant reds and oranges of the early morning skies during Easter morning sunrise services and listening to her sing.
Then there was my mother’s fascination with Eddie Fisher (until, of course, he dumped Debbie Reynolds and ran away with Elizabeth Taylor; my mother would not tolerate that behavior). Oh, my Pa -pa and Lady of Spain filled our living room – over and over and over.
Even my most unusual experience as a 9-year-old child, appearing on the very popular TV show Beat the Clock has connections to music. We came to see the show while visiting New York City even though we didn’t own a TV. Before the show “advance men” roamed through the audience looking for contestants and chose my parents and me. When it was our turn, the host of the show interviewed us, asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I still remember him being speechless at my answer (a terrible moment for a TV host, I’m sure) when I replied, “A missionary.”
Anyway, among the three categories of questions from which we could choose was music! I remember thinking, “We’re going to win a LOT of money. Mom knows everything about music!” Unfortunately, her nerves got the better of her; we missed the fourth or fifth question and ended up with $100. My parents bought a lawn mower with that money. (Maybe that’s the reason for my dedication to getting the grass cut!)
Of course, music became a point of contention when I fell in love with the Everly Brothers and Bill Haley and the Comets, but we did have a shared love of Pat Boone and Johnny Mathis – who, unlike the others, “knew how to sing.”
My mother was a choir director, and I sang in choirs under her direction. She somehow took a ragtag group of 15-20 people and convinced us that we could sing the Hallelujah Chorus and Bach and Beethoven classics. She was a nervous wreck before every practice and every Sunday, and yet somehow she managed to introduce me to all that wonderful music when I was still in my early teens.
As I became an adult we shared other music experiences. We took the same music class at Hope College one summer. I wanted the class; she needed the credit to re-instate her teacher certification. It was a unique experience to say the least. Once she was certified she taught music at an elementary school for many year. One year she found some music about the state of Michigan and wanted to create an “operetta” for the kids to perform. I wrote the script that tied the songs together.
Last weekend as I worked in my garden among all the flowering annuals and budding perennials, I began singing “June is bustin out all over” from the musical Carousel. At work when people talked about the beauty of our city, I responded, “Yes, June is bustin out all over!” and got the strangest looks. Only one person knew what I was referring to. As I write this post, I now recognize that my mother’s influence was the reason I bought LP recordings of musicals as a teen-ager . . . and, therefore, know the all of the songs from Carousel, South Pacific, and every other Rogers and Hammerstein musical.