October 28, 2008

Moonlight and Love Songs: Never Out of Date

I'm much too young to remember, but I seem to recall reading a line from Jimmy Durante. Somebody said to him "You're no Caruso!" and he responded with something like: "It's true I ain't. But sometimes I sing so pretty I could break my own heart."

I'm shy to a fault and can't carry a tune, but I've always sung to the children.

The first song I remember sharing with them was Dream a Little Dream, a good song for rocking a baby.

Sweet dreams 'til sunbeams find you
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you
But in your dreams, whatever they be
Dream a little dream of me.

Jessica has always wanted to sing, too. Before she could say her prayers, she struggled to sing Taste and See, her favorite hymn.

Years later when I walked almost daily to the library with kindergarten-aged Jessica, I turned her love of song to my advantage. She protested these trips terribly. But I would sing on the way, and she eventually stopped fussing and joined in.

I love you
For sentimental reasons
I hope you do believe me
I've given you my heart

That one must have sunk in: I once overheard her explain to a doll that there's not just one, but "sanny many reasons" for people to love each other.

Both kids also protested at having their teeth brushed, and I fought those complaints with song too, picking disco or techno dance tunes in case Camille overheard. (I like to give my love a chuckle.) Many uninspired lyrics have I sung into Jessica's gaping, foaming mouth while she rolled here eyes helplessly.

Mostly our children are growing up on the lyrics to old standards. I didn't. My earliest memories include Mom listening to soft rock and Motown while driving, but by the time I was eight or nine she had shifted to non-vocal arrangements. When I finally discovered Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart, I was enchanted. In college I worked my way through my grandparents' LPs, and though I never cared for Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra, I love the words to their songs.

Camille, on the other hand, grew up with a father who might at any moment erupt into clamorous song. His singing charms our children, too, and he introduced much older songs to them: counting songs and alphabet songs with a romantic twist.

One, two, button your shoe.
Put on your coat and hat.
I play a game like that
While I'm waiting for you.

Three, four, open the door.
Hurry for heaven's sake.
I count each breath I take
While I'm waiting for you.


A you're adorable
B you're so beautiful
C you're a cutie full of charm
D you're delightful and
E you're exciting and
F you're a feather in my arms

One December day a couple of our children's friends visited. At the piano I started my stilted renditions of some carols. The visiting girl, who could already read easily, sat on the bench with me and began singing along. Jessica, unfamiliar with the words, so young she could hardly remember an earlier Christmas, was agape with envy. Perhaps the green-eyed monster did more than picture books did to propel her to early reading.

When Nathaniel was two, I made up a Good Morning song.

Good morning! Good morning!
It's time to wake up. It's time to go downstairs!
Although it's still night, I can turn on the light
So sleepy-heads beware.

Good morning! Good morning!
It's time to wake up. Get up, get out of bed!
We can play with our toys! We can make lots of noise!
Too bad for sleepy-heads!

It has a sort of upbeat circus tempo. I'm not sure from where I stole the melody--it always reminds me of Herod's song from Jesus Christ Superstar.

An early-riser, he loved it. We sometimes used it to wake up Mommy who didn't love it so much. At night he would ask me to sing it. And instead I would sing these lovely lines from Harry Revel, softly and slowly:

Good night, my love, the tired old moon is descending.
Good night, my love, my moment with you is now ending.
It was so heavenly, holding you close to me.
It will be heavenly to hold you again in a dream.

Then Nathaniel would plead until I finally gave him the Good Morning song and put him to bed. In my heart I agree with him: we should always fall asleep to the promise of morning.

Though eager to trot out his violin in front of strangers, Nathaniel is terribly embarrassed about singing. Altar-serving appeals to him partly because it allows him to wear a silent, stoic mien while the rest of the church is in song.

On the rare occasions when he has sung, he has always been a one-trick pony. In diapers he struggled to sing Chim Chim Cheree. Then he switched to Holly Jolly Christmas, but nothing else.

Oh, by golly have a holly, jolly Christmas this year!

That last line was a tongue twister for him, and I used to love the way he plunged through it, tossing random consonants onto the words.

That was displaced by the theme song from the Mighty Machines videos (low-budget tapes of construction trucks at work). Nathaniel did a yeoman imitation of the singer's guttural voice, but I don't think he ever made it all the way to my favorite line:

Liftin' and pullin' and flyin' so high. Building a building up to the sky.
You can watch them all day and never know why. They're Mighty Machines!

I recall a brief period when the only thing he sang was from the Muppet musical of Treasure Island.

Shiver my timbers, shiver my soul.
Yo, ho heave ho
There are men whose hearts are as black as coal.
Yo, ho heave ho

It's as dark a tale as was ever told
Of the lust for treasure and the love of gold
Shiver my timbers, shiver my sides
Yo, ho heave ho

After pirates lost their attraction he prided himself on his public performances of the theme from Star Wars. It has no lyrics so, with charming earnestness, he hummed it.

It occurs to me that my memories of our children's music must differ from theirs. When I was small, my brother and I played a handful of albums hundreds of times in the basement. My parents were busy upstairs, and today they would probably be surprised that I recall all the lyrics to Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. These were etched into my developing brain alongside Mr. Rogers' piano melodies, Joe Raposo numbers from Sesame Street, and even some awful tunes from a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang record.

My children still fall asleep to CDs every night, and I bet those lullabies, Disney ballads, Mozart sonatas, Raffi songs, and Taizé chants that repeat endlessly in the dark sit deeper in their memories than the songs we sing together. But as a parent, I treasure the songs that unite us, the ones that bridge a generation.

Last summer I picked up a songbook from an antique store. Camille's parents, in their nineties, recognized songs from their own youth like these lines Alfred Bryan wrote seven years after the Wright brothers took off:

"Oh! Say! Let us fly, dear."
"Where, kid?" "To the sky, dear."
"Oh, you flying machine!"
"Jump in, Miss Josephine."

"Oh! Joy! What a feeling!"
"Where, boy?" "In the ceiling! . . . "
"Whoa! dear. Don't hit the moon!"
"No, dear, not yet--but soon!"

Last night I was alone banging out very old tunes like that one, songs from my parents' and grandparents' times, when I sensed someone at my shoulder. Jessica peered to find my place in the music. I pointed, and she picked up the melody and started to carry it forward:

If you knew Susie like I know Susie
Oh! Oh! Oh, what a girl!

There's none so classy as this fair lassie
Oh! Oh! Holy Moses! What a chassis!

Out in public how she can yawn,
But in a parlor, you would think the war was on!

If you knew Susie like I know Susie
Oh! Oh, what a girl!

I bet you're smiling, Mr. Durante. Wherever you are.

October 21, 2008

Bossing and Begging

Me, from the driver's seat, engine running, car in reverse, foot still down on the brake: "Are you belted in yet?"

Jessica, from the back seat: "So where are we going to meet Mom and Nathaniel? What time are we meeting them? How far is it?"

Me: "Could you please just get strapped in?"

Jessica, reaching idly for the seat belt: "I'm just asking what time we're going to meet them."

Me, handing her a coupon: "And hold this for me. Don't lose it."

Jessica clicking the belt at last: "Well, I guess that's the way it is. The parents get to boss the kids."

Me: "I'm not bossing you."

Jessica, indignant: "Yes, Dad. You're bossing me. That was a command." In her deepest voice: "'Hold this for me! Hold this for me!' That was a command, and it ended in an implorative period!"

I think she meant "imperative." On the other hand, bossing the kids can sure feel like imploring.

October 09, 2008

A Chip Off the Old Block

From my lovely spouse:

As we were doing our writing exercise this morning Jessica asked how to spell the word pretty. This was about her fifteenth spelling inquiry, and it was really slowing us down. (Also, she's an excellent speller and was doing this for dramatic effect. But I digress.)

I told her we'd make all corrections after we read what we'd written and she said, "But I can't. I'd just die if I don't spell it right." I retorted, "Well, we'll give you a lovely funeral and on your headstone we'll inscribe, 'If only she knew how to spell pretty.'"

At this point Nathaniel popped up and said, "Yeah and we'll spell the word wrong just as a joke."