For I have loved and I know

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.

For Dave.

11 responses to “For I have loved and I know”

  1. AWB says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, how weird it is for me to talk about feelings when it seems so much easier to do the semaphore of gesture or reference. Like, I can do a kind action, or invest myself in someone’s thought pattern, or be physically affectionate, but it’s really hard for me to say how I feel about people in words. I think I have a long bad history of doing it wrong–saying something that gets taken for a (wanted) promise of something I’m not promising, or saying something clear and specific that the listener interprets as the tip of some unwanted iceberg of feeling. So I make dinner, or sing a song, or offer a caress, because I’m afraid words will be misunderstood.

    I’m trying to get over it, and have a few dear friends right now with whom I’m practicing having explicit feelings in words. Sometimes we have to clarify, or repeat. Did you really mean that you feel this way and not that way? Did you expect me to respond like A instead of B? Are we really on the same page or does it just feel that way? It would be awful if it didn’t also feel somewhat like an exciting dare. Here I am, and I want you to tell me how you love me.

  2. swells says:

    please, please, even if you have to ask it in some fakely nonchalant way, please ask for this. even if it turns into a thing. a momentary thing will be so much less regret-inducing in the end, and less memorable, than your wish that you had asked but never did.

  3. josh k-sky says:

    I didn’t want to be the first person to say what 2 said, but what 2 said. Also, this is a gorgeous piece of heartcraft.

  4. Mister Smearcase says:

    I think maybe I’d have to be a kid again for it to do what it did then.

    (Thank you for commenting. This is one of those things you write and then are like “have I blown my cover as a creepy weirdo?”)

  5. Mr. F says:

    Thanks for this, Smearcase.

  6. Bryan says:

    What a lovely thing to read. Thanks, Mr. S.

  7. Bryan says:

    PS Happy birthday, Dave.

  8. Bryan says:

    Ok, while I’m racking up your comment numbers, I’ll side w/ #2 and say you really should ask. One of the best things I did before my grandparents died is watch Words and Music with them. The surprise was that my grandpa was a bigger Rodgers and Hart fan than my grandma, and he sang along to every tune, sometimes with her. It was pretty wonderful. Also, whenever I hear “If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake” I can’t help but think of this.

  9. T-Mo says:

    This is quite lovely. Thank you, Mr. S!

    The funny thing for me of late is that , in recently returning to teaching, I have become quite emotional in the classroom. I express to my students my feelings about events and people in my life as examples to illustrate ideas I’m trying to explain. I rave, I thrum, and get choked up. I’m really not sure how these teenagers feel about having a teacher who regularly enthuses In front of them, but it feels honest and cathartic for me, even if it’s a part of performing as a teacher.

    I somehow ended up the most expressive member of my family. Emotion often comes hard among my people, but “I love you” was always easy for us to say to each other. I’m not entirely sure how that developed, but (at least verbal) affection was always abundant. Tears and anger were always suppressed, even when completely appropriate. When I broke down in front of my parents when my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, they rushed to quell my tears because of the embarrassment. They weren’t comforting me so much as trying to get me to stop crying.

    Perhaps I can only cry when performing in front of my students and then only just tear up a bit. Every now and then I wish I could have a good, long sob, but I get too self-conscious, like it’s a performance or something.

  10. GF says:

    I cry for just a second all the time. Like one sob, a tear but not enough to paint the cheek. It’s a convenience cry–an office cry. The last one was for Leonard Nimoy! But then if I’m in need of a weep I need some time set aside and some solitude and sometimes a trigger to get things going (the best ones are the most godawful corny, like the end of It’s a Wonderful Life or the fucking lion reuniting with its former owners.) It’s nice your students see your emotion, though. Probably some of them are like “what a sap” and the others are like “thank god adults are not always out to bullshit me.” This seems good, on balance, for them and for you.

  11. Bryan says:

    9 and 10 made me go back and look at this. I’ve also been known to choke up while reading the final lines of Angels in America in lecture. I’ve learned that I need to have a decent amount of sleep before such situations: lack of sleep is part of the trigger for sure. But I’m also a sap.