My mother is an encyclopedia of songs—songs of her parents’ generation, songs of her own youth, show tunes spanning multiple generations, and the rock and roll of her children’s day, albeit the more melodic tunes. She will break out in these songs without warning—some phrase, sight, or smell accessing the library. Sometimes the connection is obvious, sometimes subtle, sometimes a clear window into her subconscious.
My mother’s proclivity toward singing no matter the setting used to cause me and my siblings great embarrassment, particularly on those occasions when her subconscious led her to a selection that we found totally inopportune. But sometimes the embarrassment was just over her singing in public—not that her voice was poor, but, well, spontaneous public performance, particularly by mothers, was appropriate only in musicals.
A self-described culture-vulture, my mother grew up in small-town New Jersey but was happy to escape to New York City. At 91 she still frequents concerts and some smaller music venues, including an “open mic” organized by the widow of one of the well-known New York Ash brothers.
On a recent visit to see her, she told me that “it all goes downhill after 90.” This is my mother’s humor and her worry. The infirmities are accumulating, including the memory lapses.
During my visit she sang me songs she remembers and would like to hear played again. She’s been searching for the sheet music of one particular song—the very talented pianist at open mic has promised to accompany her. She tells me she doesn’t usually sing at these events because she has lost her singing voice. I ask her if she plays her piano at all, and she says she hasn’t in a long time.
More than once over the course of my visit she brings up an article I sent her about the history of a song made famous by the Andrew Sisters, Bei Mir Bist Du Shein. She tells me the article misspelled the title; that her sister told her a different history of the song, which she prefers to believe; and that when her brother-in-law, returning from the Yiddish theater, first sang the song to her sister, her sister didn’t appreciate it because he mistakenly sang it in C major instead of the minor key.
My mother is a songbook. Each song is full of memories. I am no longer embarrassed.