My mother didn’t like to sing. Not just as she reached her upper 80s, with her vocal cords over-ripe, but even decades ago, back when her hair wasn’t even gray.
Truthfully, she wasn’t very good at it, and I can still hear her in my head, back at our old Methodist church in the 1970s. My two sisters, mom, dad and I would all rise from the pews, with the magenta velour cushions, and she would hold her hymnal in two flat palms, slightly away from her chest, and softly open her pipes. She usually couldn’t hit many notes, no matter how many times the verses repeated.
Fortunately, she sang only a few decibels above inaudible, so I never suffered embarrassment among my friends and their more talented parents.
Afterward, on the way home, I might sometimes titter about it as our car beelined toward Dunkin’ Donuts, where each week we rewarded our pious selves with a box of sugary treats. Looking back, I hope her feelings weren’t hurt.
Mostly, back then, I just ignored her singing, though it seemed all the other musical families could perform beautifully. But, sometimes, if a traditional gospel song like "How Great Thou Art" swelled to high notes, perhaps a few snickers couldn’t be helped. Though, honestly, even after years of piano and flute lessons, I was only slightly better at hitting those pitches.
That’s the amazing thing. My mother, who died a few years ago, believed in protocol and etiquette. She followed decorum and Robert’s Rules of Order; she wore nylon stockings with her sandals and nice dress suits; but still, she sang.
She knew she wasn’t Beverly Sills, the famed opera star of that era, but mom would sing along in her wavering alto, wandering the musical staff looking for a note to land on. She sang sheepishly, and without confidence, but as a churchgoer, a good common-sense Christian, she felt the imperative to sing praise with whatever instrument she had been given.
She made a good lifetime partner for my dad for more than a half-century, although he had a rumbly, deep voice that usually sang in the right key. He loved listening to his large collection of music in their TV room.
Mother, however, would rather read the recipe section of the newspaper. Dad would play the standards of Tennessee Ernie Ford and Eddy Arnold. In his later years, I’m sure my mother helped him put on the cassette tapes that lined the shelves beside his recliner chair. Then she would go do laundry or anything else.
Her speaking voice was also a warbled birdsong, and unfortunately, my dead monotone voice comes from her genetic contribution.
Unlike Mother’s timid singing voice, she was not a shy speaker. Mom spoke her mind on most subjects, sometimes things that I didn’t want to hear, such as, "Carolyn, why don’t you iron your shirts?"
However, when I recall her standing in the church, with a hymn book perched in front, I appreciate what she was saying: to do the best you can, to show humility, and to be true to your beliefs without ego, to keep your eyes lifted toward what matters, and not on the kid snickering at you in the backseat of the car afterward.
When I hear her low-volume effort in my head, I understand that she sang when she didn’t want to. She sang humbly. She sang when most others wouldn’t have.
And, even now, I can hear how beautiful that was.