Part six in a series of essays by guest Gero-punk
Mama Sings to Us
Mama had a beautiful singing voice and was often asked to sing at funerals. She sang to us as she worked around the house. She sang World War I songs like “Tipperary,” “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding,” “Over There,” “Red Wing,” and lots of hymns from the Cokesbury Hymnal. We loved the funny songs: “A Frog Went A-courting,” “Mr. Dunderbach’s Machine” but our very favorite was a mournful song called, “The Baggage Coach Ahead” that always made us cry.
The words of that song seem sad to me still:
Twas a dark, stormy night, the train rattled on; all the passengers had gone to bed
Except a young man with a child in his arms who sat with a bowed down head.
The innocent one began crying just then as though its poor heart would break
‘Make that child stop its noise’ an angry man said. ‘It’s keeping us all awake!’
‘Put it out,’ said another. ‘Don’t keep it in here. We’ve paid for our berths and want rest.’
But still not a word said the man with the child as he fondled it close to his breast.
‘Where is its mother? Go take it to her,’ a woman then softly said.
‘I wish that I could,’ was the young man’s reply. ‘She’s dead in the coach ahead.’
Every woman arose to assist with the child, there were mothers and wives on that train.
They soon had the little one sleeping in peace with no thought of sorrow or pain.
As the train rattled onward a husband sat in tears, thinking of the happiness of just a few
short years. Baby’s face brings pictures of a cherished hope that’s dead.
Baby’s cries can’t wake her in the baggage coach ahead.
We would beg for the song and Mama would refuse mentioning that we cried when she sang it but we would protest that we were older now and this time we wouldn’t; but cry we did. Grandpa Gray had an even sadder song about a little boy who was dying and “what would the robins do then, poor things” that Marjy often requested. I didn’t know how she and Donna could keep back their tears when Grandpa sang that song! I pushed the leather footstool behind a chair and hid my face on that; no handkerchief and a non-absorbent surface made it hard to hide my messy snuffles. Could it be possible that Marjy who was always so good asked Grandpa to sing that song because I always cried?
Singing around the piano was a frequent Sunday afternoon entertainment, the pianist changing as cousins learned to play and became skilled. Mama and her sisters harmonized with hymns and show tunes. Mama was a soprano and Aunt Mabel an alto. With no radio, television not invented, singing, reciting, and games were our entertainment. I memorized “Out to Old Aunt Mary’s” by James Whitcomb Riley and tied for first place at an elocution contest in town when I was in second grade. I got second place, as the other contestant was a high school senior and wouldn’t have another chance the judges said, while I, being so young, could compete another year and win. However, the elocution contest was never held again.
Two tall locust trees grew one at each side of Aunt Goldie and Uncle Elmer’s front yard gate. They were perfect to climb with limbs set in just the right spaces for hands and feet. We were forbidden to climb those trees, however, as the tops of the trees were slender and swayed in the wind causing us to panic and shout for Aunt Goldie to stop whatever she was doing at the moment to guide us down to a level where we felt safe. My attitude was, and Marjy thought so, too: “True, we had been scared last time but today we were older and more able than we had been last time, away last month, so it would be ridiculous for the old rule to still apply. It must be obvious to all that we girls were far more mature.” Climbing was so much fun, stepping lightly from limb to limb, lithe, nimble – until that last paralyzing moment when an unlucky current of wind bent the trees and both Marjy and I holding on with feet and fist began to call for assistance in desperate voices. Aunt Goldie would come, exasperated but patient, and tell us, “Left foot down, now right foot down” until we could breathe again.
Don’t Attract Attention
Not attracting notice as we played was a primary concern for all of us first cousins on the Gray side. We could be together all day without a single quarrel or loud voice and with nobody crying. Any minor fracas, any unhappy voices at all, and Aunt Gertie or Aunt Goldie would erupt into our group and shunt the girls into the kitchen for the rest of the day. We did a far better job of genial association than the grownups did – almost every time there was a family gathering attended by Aunt Eva some kind of row developed. We would hear our parents talking about it later – how ‘Pa’ had stepped in and decisively settled it. Uncle Bunt and Aunt Eva lived in California so they were not present often and missed most of the gatherings at Christmas, Easter, or on Sundays. Grandma was so sorry to see her beloved son drive off with his wife that she would follow them down the lane crying out in loud sobs and tossing her apron over her face. I think she could have loved Aunt Eva devotedly had that been allowed. At least, she would have thought it her Christian duty to do so. Who would want to be loved for Christian duty?
Grandma Gray believed that playing cards were wicked. Clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades from the ace to the king were tainted by association with gambling and were not allowed in her house. Mama defined sin differently when it came to cards, though she did not aggravate Grandma by leaving playing cards in view when she came to visit. There must have been something suspicious about cards in the book called Methodist Discipline because the grown-ups had laughed guiltily after the minister left because a deck was lying in plain sight when he came.
The Saunders side of the family stood around the piano and sang when they were together or played any kind of cards they wanted to without a qualm of conscience – and they were Methodists, too. It was at Grandma Saunders the great rummy tournament took place that determined who had to do the dishes and who got to cook. The losers did the dishes, all right, but they left the glasses and silverware and pots and pans so another big game had to determine who did those. We kids were free from dish duties and could hang over the shoulders of the grown-ups or join in the games. We’d voluntarily dry dishes and help out because we didn’t want to miss out on the fun.
The place where the path dipped and rose to cross the bridge was the spot on the path where I tested each day to see if it were a day I could fly, or one I could not. Sometimes I’d float over the path, touching a toe down whenever I wished but other days I had to walk in the ordinary way. Flying days always interspersed with others until the day I explained this ability to Grandpa Gray. He was nice enough about it but firmly negative; he said I could not fly. I’d climbed the apple tree he was pruning and since I had flown that very morning, I stepped confidently off the branch to prove my ability but tumbled to the ground. That surprised me. Grandpa’s words were magic too powerful to overcome and from then on I never could fly again, except when dreaming.
My earliest memory of Sunday school was when Aunt Mabel was my teacher. She wore her long black hair in two flat coils on each side of her head and when she picked me up I often stuck my nose in those coils; I liked her smell. One Sunday morning after a trip to Richland, I offered to sing a song learned in the church over there. Aunt Mabel smiled and told me to stand in the front. I sang, “I washed my hands this morning so very clean and bright and gave them both to Jesus to work for him til night. Little feet be careful, where you take me to, anything for Jesus, I will gladly do.” The children must have liked it, as they laughed and clapped. But when Aunt Mabel carried me to Mama and told her I had sung, Mama said, “She can’t carry a tune in a basket.”
Sunday school was our only contact with other children outside the family until we were in school and dressing up in our best clothes and being in town where there were stores and sidewalks had its own reward. Sundays were never spent alone: we went to a relative’s house or they came to ours.
After Aunt Mabel stopped being my teacher, my feelings about Sunday school were mixed, veering more to the south of boredom than to the north of interest. Gwendolyn, who taught the youngest class, made me squirm with her sweaty hugs and cloyingly sweet affection; in her class we did nothing but play in the sand tray and hear a simplified Bible story. Grandma Gray’s heavy black leather Bible lay open on its own special stand. That was different – with pictures of naked men and women, with long hair, leaves and snakes winding about. It made me feel almost wicked to look at those pictures but they were more exciting than the glossy, colored lesson leaflets.
Grandpa listed every birth, death, and marriage in the front of that Bible, and I could see my own name there – and eventually would see the date of my marriage, the name of my husband, and each of our children as they appeared. Sunday school was inevitably followed by church. I understood the Bible verse, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled.” to mean that by sitting still and not swinging my feet, I should wait, hungry and thirsty, through the pious sermon for the delicious and filling Sunday dinner that was sure to follow.
“Give said the little stream give oh give, give oh give,” we sang as we marched to our classes from our seats in the assembly room of Sunday school. I had a little red purse I was proud of and carried it each Sunday morning. Daddy gave me money each week so I would have a contribution to make to the collection. I remember with happiness the generous feeling of largesse I had as I put my contribution into that basket. I didn’t give all the money but a fair share of it until the day my parents were looking for change with the hope of going to a movie. I offered all I had in my red purse (85 cents) but my parents were shocked that I had any money at all. It seems I had done wrong in not giving the entire amount. Of course, I gave all of it after that but never with any sense of my own generosity. The contribution was no longer mine but my father’s.
Velda Metelmann is a student in the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program at Marylhurst University. She’ll be commencing her thesis work on “a good old age” this autumn.