Go ahead, sing to her, he said, but I hesitated. We got along well, you and I, but I felt like an intruder in these nightly rituals. I am unused to the bedtime rituals of love, security and affection. I am from a different place than you. My bedroom was a place of both refuge and punishment, my bed a place to hide from the tears and the fears that, both real and imagined, chased me into uneasy sleep.
Sing to her, he insisted, I love to hear you sing. And so I found myself kneeling by the side of your bed, your face above the covers like a flower smiling up at me. How practical you were.
“What songs do you know?” you asked, seriously.
I told you the titles, and you asked for a sample of each before deciding on which you wanted to hear.
I sang from an amalgam of selections from the musicals of my high school youth, Phil Collins and Elton John singles, and oddball radio hits from my childhood. I sang:
every morning you greet me
I sang slowly, remembering the words as I sang, remembering the scene in the movie, where Captain Von Trapp sang a song as novitiate Maria listened, the song a code for the joy he felt seeing her each day:
Small and white, clean and bright,
you look happy to meet me!
I like that one, you said judiciously.
Wouldn’t you agree,
baby you and me
got a groovy kind of love.
What does groovy mean, you wanted to know, and we discussed the intricacies of cool.
Somewhere, out there, beneath the pale moonlight,
someone’s thinking of me, and loving me, tonight.
What is that from, you wanted to know, and I told you about Fievel Mouskavitch from A Mouse’s Tale, how Fievel got lost from his immigrant mouse family, and how he and his sister perched on rooftops and sang about reuniting, to comfort themselves.
Why were they separated? you wanted to know. How did he find them? You, an only child, were charmed by the idea of a brother and sister singing up at the sky,
And even though I know how very far apart we are
It helps to think we might be wishing on the same bright star!
And when the nighttime starts to sing her lonesome lullaby
It helps to think we’re sleeping underneath the same big sky….
Were they camping, you wanted to know – a recent love of yours, you accepted as calm fact the idea of English-speaking mice dressed as Russian peasants, singing and camping in New York, a place you visit courtesy of your stepdad.
The story captivated your imagination so that we were sorely disappointed to find that it is no longer in circulation, not at Blockbuster, not at Netflix, not at Amazon (and why is that, movie creator people? The Wild West sequel is stupid).
A favorite is The Onion Song, by groovy performance artist Laurie Anderson:
I don’t like snails or toads or frogs or
strange things living under logs
I love onions!
We sing it interactively, and I see your daddy’s shadow hovering at the door, listening, amused:
Me: I don’t like shoes that pinch my toes
You: or people that squirt me with the garden hose
Me: but mmmmmm
You: I love onions!
Soon it is a ritual, me singing to you, and when your daddy asked, Who do you want to put you to bed, me or Sandra? your answer rang my heart like a bell.
What new songs do you know, was now the question, and I surprised myself, how I’d wrack my brain scanning my memory, and iTunes, for something you might like.
Your tastes are sophisticated. You like Bjork, she, appreciator of the mountains you are growing to love like your daddy:
We live on a mountain, right at the top
This beautiful view from the top of the mountain
Every morning I walk towards the edge….
And throw little things off
Like car parts and bottles and cutlery
Whatever I find lying around
It’s become a habit….
…but you sniffed indifferently at the Beatles, a song I was sure a 7 year old would love:
You say yes, I say no
You say stop, I say go go go!
I know that song, you said, and I was excited at your recognition.
Shall I sing it? I asked.
No, you said in a bored voice
The ritual goes thusly:
What shall I sing? I ask.
What songs do you have? you counter.
I run through the titles.
Do you have anything new? you ask.
I do, I say.
Let’s hear it.
Where are the simple joys of maiden hood?
Where are all those adoring daring boys?
Shall two knights never tilt for me?
Shall kith not kill their kin for me?
Oh where are a maiden’s simple joys?
That’s pretty, you say. Then: what’s a kith?
There’s a sad sort of clanging from the clock in the hall
And the bells in the steeple too
And up in the nursery an absurd little bird
Keeps popping out to say cuckoo!
You liked that one. Cuckoo! Cuckoo! you sang along.
The romantic theme to Romeo and Juliet was judged nice, I think more for the melody than the words
A rose will bloom.
It then will fade
So does a youth,
So does the fairest maid….
But the song in a different context:
There once was a man
Who loved a woman
She was the one he slew a dragon for!
And there once was a woman
Who loved a man
He was the one she took the poison for!
…….left you cold. (on reflection, I’m glad.)
Other favorites include Take It Easy and Desperado, by the Eagles, and Daniel by Elton John. I sing this last because your mom is from here:
They say Spain is pretty, though I’ve never been
Daniel says it’s the best place he’s ever seen
and he should know, he’s been there enough
Lord I miss Daniel, I miss him so much
That’s sad, you say, and I agree, wondering not for the first time if Daniel was one of those early ones who died of AIDS, a death hidden and unremarked on, immortalized in the days before a befeathered, platform-shoed Sir Reginald Dwight started selling ersatz emotion to Disney.
Sing the funny song, you ask, and I comply:
It’s a little bit funny
this feeling inside
I‘m not one of those who can easily hide,
I don’t have much money but
boy if I did
I’d build a big house where
we both could live.
Should I send daddy in to kiss you? I ask, and you say yes. What if he’s gone, and I can’t find him anywhere? I tease, and you say seriously We can live together here, and I wonder if you can see the shine in my eyes and I kiss your forehead.
Early on, you surprised me with your comprehension – you are not just hearing the songs, but listening.
What shall I sing, I asked, and you said, The little white flower song, please, though I never once explained to you that that is what edelweiss is, the national flower of Austria.
Not long ago, the news was filled with the tragic story of the death of Natasha Richardson, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave, the actress who played Guinevere in Camelot, she the plaintive singer asking whereof the simple joys of maidenhood.
Natasha Richardson was exactly my age when she died. She had a skiing accident. These two facts, seemingly unrelated, have been flitting around my head like moths. Perhaps because you and I have recently discovered camaraderie in skiing – this past weekend I took you up on the mountain alone, and we had a grand time, and it was your idea and not mine to eat the peanut butter and jelly on the lift so we didn’t waste precious ski time at lunch in the chalet.
The lift to the top carries six, so we inevitably rode with others. How are you girls doing, our lift chair compadres asked. They’d lean forward to get a peek at you, small in your pink parka and pink ski pants, your black boots and mittens and gaiter making you look like a scary sweet Ninja.
They grin at us, even the brash young boarders grin at us, happy to recognize kindred spirits twenty years their senior and twenty years their junior. It’s all good! they shout into the blue sky, and you smile shyly ad kick your feet and ask me, can we ski the bowl this time?
My mind drifts to the death of the actress and I tell you again, never take your helmet off. Never, do you hear?
And you nod and say, not even when I’m going slow.
Good girl, I say, and the lift moves us steadily up the mountain, higher and higher, our feet dangling over the pines and the snow spread out below us like a cloud fallen to earth, and I am suddenly, acutely aware of the passage of time, how small you are but how soon you will be the age of the snowboarders jostling and joshing on my left, and how none of you can imagine being my age, an age when, barring accidents, there should still be much to look forward to.
Did you hear, a friend asked. Did you hear, at the end? Her mother held her hand and sang “Edelweiss” and then they unplugged the machines, and she was gone.
That night you ask me, can you sing the little white flower song? I sing it for you, perhaps more slowly than usual
Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow, forever!
My voice is steady and sweet until the end when it wavers only a little, but you are asleep and so do not know.