Musical memories with MomMay 03, 2022 02:32PM ● By Denise Thiery
“Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak.”
– William Congreve
I’d say that would depend on whether the music was good or bad. My father’s mellow baritone could soothe a savage breast. Mom’s caterwauling could certainly soften rocks or bend a knotted oak, as well as cause the wallpaper to fall off the walls in strips, and coyotes in the distant woods to howl in unison. What mom lacked in musical talent, she made up for in enthusiasm and volume.
Their music reverberated through my youth; both his and hers. Dad was musically gifted. He often sang in the house. He taught himself to play several musical instruments. Sometimes he would invite several of his musically gifted friends over and they would gather in our living room and jam until late into the evening.
His favorite genre was country music. When he heard his teenaged children playing the times’ current rock hits, he would bellow, “You call that music?” or “Loud is not the same as good!”
Dad passed away in 1977. When I hear some of his favorite tunes—such as Hank Williams’ 1950s hit, “Jambalaya”—waves of nostalgia and fresh grief sweep over me. When he sang “Amazing Grace,” it would bring tears to the listener’s eyes.
Hearing one of my late mother’s favorite tunes also brings waves of nostalgia and grief, but it’s eased by laughter. She knew how painfully bad her singing was—she just didn’t care. Maybe we should all joyfully throw our tone-deaf voices to the sky like Mom did.
Mom’s favorite tune was “Misty” by Ella Fitzgerald. When she reached the line, “Look at me, I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree,” the syllable “less” in the word “helpless” was shrieked at a decibel level that threatened to cause all the glasses in the cupboard to shatter. For some reason, she often sang that one when I had friends over, which I found mortifying.
Dad worked 60 hours a week and Mom stayed busy caring for her five children. It was obvious she missed Dad a lot. Often when he got home from work, she would sidle up to him with a twinkle in her eye, and loudly sing, “I’m in the mood for love simply because you’re near me,” which always prompted a grin from him and groans of embarrassment from us.
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At the end of a busy day, as Mom cleared the dinner table, she would sing to Dad, “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me.” Then the two of them would grab a couple of lawn chairs and sit together under the apple tree by the creek in our yard and talk, their lit cigarettes flickering in the dark.
I inherited my lack of musical talent from my mother. When I was in middle school, all students were required to take choir. After the choir director heard my pathetic attempts to sing a tune, he said, “Well, I guess I’ll identify you as an alto, but it’s all right if you want to just mouth the words.”
In high school I was forced to participate when all the seniors sang at the graduation ceremony. I just mouthed the lyrics. My friend Mary, who was standing next to me on the bleachers, said, “I didn’t hear you singing anything.”
I replied, “Believe me, it’s for the best.”
Years later, when I was pregnant with my son, I read an article that said exposing babies to music in the womb helped build brain function. So, like my mom, I sang—loudly and badly—to my developing child. I failed to recognize that he couldn’t escape my caterwauling for nine months.
When he was a toddler, I tried singing to him. He covered his ears and cried, “Mommy, no! Stop!” I hope his mom shrieking tone-deaf tunes will bring him happy memories of me and his childhood as my musical memories have to me.
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