My family isn’t much for spoken expression of affection. I’ve felt terrible about it at times. One time, instead of feeling terrible about it, I sidestepped it, or tried to: my mother had asked me for a copy of some song, and this was back when I was downloading lots of music from, oh, whatever program it was that year, and since I wasn’t going to put one song alone on a whole wide disc, I went ahead and downloaded some version of every song I could remember her singing to us when we were growing up.
My mother, if I’m correct, thinks of herself as not good at certain things where the actual problem is just that she does them without conviction. Singing is one. Almost certainly she would say she’s a bad singer, but what I can recall (and I haven’t heard her sing anything perhaps since childhood) is that she sang perfectly well in tune, but off the breath, as people do when they’re uncertain of themselves, or want to make it clear they’re not pretending to be something they’re not. It’s hard to sing very musically this way but it’s fine for singing to children, which is singing without performing, singing that only means “I’m singing to you because I think you’d like to be sung to.”
I won’t say what all the songs were, both because I can’t remember all of them and because the gesture in the gift was to say “these were our songs” and telling the whole thing feels almost disloyal. But the two that spring to mind first are the one that goes
The song of love is a sad song
Hi-lili, Hi-lili, Hi-lo
The song of love is a song of woe
Don’t ask me how I know
(And this one she sang because my sister had a little wood sconce of a music box that played it, a clear piece of plastic letting you watch the pins pluck the tines of the comb. It turns out to come from a Leslie Caron movie.)
And the one that prompted me to write, when I thought of the song. It is the, yes, ok, cloying tune “You are my sunshine.” I could only find an over-produced, countryish version, but I put it on anyway. It’s a strange song to sing to a child, because it’s about the entire problem with everything. The first verse, the one she sang, goes simply
You are my sunshine
My only sunshine
You make me happy
When skies are grey
I never knew dear
How much I loved you
Until they took my sunshine away.
Love only means anything because eventually everything we love is lost. HAVE A NICE DAY AT SCHOOL. I mean, Jesus Christ.
She didn’t mean anything by singing it to us. She and my sister are the less existentially Jewish of the four of us. They don’t pass the day thinking mostly of the end. I think she maybe sang things to us her mother sang to her–as close as there is to folk transmission now? (I only heard my grandmother sing once, when I visited on short notice and she said “if I’d known you were coming I would have baked a cake” and then remembered it was a song and sang the chorus. I’ve wanted to ask her about what songs she loved, and almost did last year, but when you’re 92, “tell me about your past” has an unpleasant urgency about it.)
My mother is not yet 70 and her grandmother lived to be maybe 100–they weren’t big on birth certificates in the shtetl. But I’m aware of the passage of time. I don’t think you can suddenly become people who wear your hearts on your sleeves, and anyway the problem with telling people you love them is that, if it’s a regular habit, it might devolve into a telephone conversation closer or something like that.
Sometimes, though, when the world has gotten the best of me, I wish I could–without disturbing the order of the universe, without it being a thing, without prompting everyone to remember how warm I’m often not–hear her sing one or two of those songs again.