When I was a little girl, it annoyed me that my mother sang so often. Cooking banana bread, doing the dishes, making her way around the house: her voice floated through the freshly-painted rooms like a cloud of golden pollen. The songs she sang were ancient and full of imagery — all of them songs I’ve never heard since, with topics concerning the moon, saying grace, and royal women mistaken for swans in the forest, pierced by the hunting arrow of their lovers. She never trailed off or faded out. She didn’t falter on a single word or note.
I wondered how she could bear being loud like that, making everyone aware of her presence. As a child, I was anxiously quiet. I would close the door to my room and knit my brow, attempt to read. I worried that my friends would walk by and hear her.
As we grew up, my mother sang around the house less and less. Now I’m around the house less and less: some years only for a week or so around Christmas. This year a cousin of mine was getting married, and we were going to meet up in Little Rock for a few days instead of St. Paul: but on the day we were scheduled to leave, it wound up snowing a few inches in Boston and antagonizing everyone on the East Coast so thoroughly that all domestic flights were cancelled.
Jurvis and I got on the phone with our travel agent (because travel agents are amazing and completely worth their thirty dollar booking fee — even for part-time public radio employees). But Bob couldn’t help us on Friday. “There’s just . . . nothing,” he said. “I mean, if you want to put down another eighty bucks to guarantee you a seat on a flight tomorrow, we could arrange that, but to be honest, I think those flights are going to get cancelled too.” He looked up Amtrak schedules and Greyhounds: we briefly discussed the option of renting a car and driving the whole way. “Yeah, no, I guess that’s farther than I thought,” he sighed. “If you drove for twenty-two hours straight, with no breaks for sleeping or eating, and also taking for granted that weather conditions would be ideal — you might make it in time for the reception.”
I was standing on the Charles/MGH subway platform when we were trying to figure all of this out, a flurry of tiny snowflakes spinning around our hunched shoulders while the river hid glassily somewhere below. Cars weaved across the bridge. Every five minutes the red line roared by and I couldn’t hear a word he said. “Should we get back on the train, then?” I shouted at Bob. “Should we be heading to the airport, to arrange this in person?”
He thought this would be the best idea considering the craziness, yes. When we got off the phone, I stood there for a moment, staring into the dizzy white air. “I’m not going to make this wedding,” I realized.
Every Christmas since I’ve left home, I have stood next to my mother on Christmas Eve and sang with her. Unitarian services at first, then the family majority voted Lutheran, but I would always make sure to elbow stepbrothers, children and boyfriends out of my way so that I would be right next to her, and the confident pleasure of her voice. It presses into your palm, cues your turns, so that suddenly everything seems effortless and you’re wondering how you just did that: and then she begins harmonizing with you and you think everyone else should just quiet down for a moment so that they can appreciate the two of you, singing like that.
She called me on Christmas Eve, but I was in a used book store, hunting down old science fiction for my boyfriend, and told her I couldn’t talk right then. I called her back late on Christmas day.
“Mom, I had to sing without you last night,” I said. “It was terrible. I realized I don’t know how.”