Music in the Air

by Ann Batchelder

My mother says I sang before I could speak. In the early morning, she’d sneak down the hall, past the room where my two older brothers slept, and hear me singing in my crib. I was formally introduced to music at age nine, when I went to camp in northern Minnesota for a month every summer. My parents would put me on an overnight train with other campers from my hometown in Illinois. The counselor on the trip always had a guitar and we’d sing till dawn. Once in Minneapolis, we rode for another four hours on a bus that deposited us just shy of Canada. It was a land of myth and mystery where Paul Bunyan once roamed with his blue ox, where springs and streams merge to form the source of the Mississippi.

On still nights, lying awake in my camp cot, I could hear the loon’s crazy song echoing across the lake. The same cold Canadian winds sent lonesome songs from Manitoba and Ontario. I learned to snatch these tunes on a ukulele and returned home as a young troubadour with something to say. Later, in boarding school, I graduated from a ukulele to a steel-string guitar and gave concerts with a folk group that performed Dylan and Joni, Peter, Paul and Mary. Singing came from my heart, not my head—it got me through the rough spots. I sang lovesick, homesick, and warsick ballads that resonated in the late 1960s. In college I quit singing. I was having too much fun.

“Name That Tune” was a game my mother made up for me when I was young. She’d play melodies from the 1930s as long as she could transpose them into the key of C. She loved “Moon Indigo,” or “Stardust,” or “Moonlight Serenade.” They reminded her of her college years, wispy and romantic, but she played all of them very loudly. I didn’t care. This game was one of the few activities we shared and I loved watching her sturdy hands tap dance up and down the keyboard. She’d throw in a minor seventh chord then experiment with other black keys, coaxing the notes to live close together and still be harmonic. If it didn’t sound right, she’d try pounding the chord into submission, as if playing the piano harder could fix things. I would patiently sit beside her on the polished, slippery piano bench and guess each song title. I got pretty good at it.

My parents frequently hosted lavish cocktail parties at our house. The men sported coats and ties and usually had both off before the end of the night. The women often wore pastel pink, buttercup yellow, or baby-blue tight dresses. One of my mother’s friends, Dottie, always went to the beauty shop before a party so she could have her hair dyed to match. One time she came dressed in lavender from her beehive hairdo to her sparkly high heels. I thought she was very glamorous.

After the guests were amply lubricated, they would all gather around the piano and encourage my mother to perform. She loved the attention, often ending these private concerts with her favorite torch song, a Billie Holliday piece from the ’30s called “I Cried for You.” But rather than sing with despair, my mother belted this song with all the Ethel Merman force she could muster, growling out the word “cried.” Then, for extra effect, she’d even yodel up an octave when she got to the end of the line: “I criiiiied for yoooo-hoo.” Everyone around the piano laughed.

Singing about letting go of a cheating man was the only time I heard my mother speak the truth about her marriage. I wondered if her friends knew what she was talking about. My father certainly seemed oblivious as he egged her on to sing another song. She’d hammer on the black and white keys through the rest of the night, her voice loud enough for me to make out every angry word as I tried to sleep on the other end of the house—upstairs in my pink wallpapered bedroom, with the door shut and a pillow over my head.

When I was confined to bed rest for six months, those North Carolina days were surreal. We were new to town and didn’t have close friends. Daytime television was horrible, I soon realized. We didn’t have personal computers or cable back then and there was no way to watch movies. I was too restless to read and got bored tracking the endless, lonely clouds drifting across our sliver of a bedroom window.

To entertain myself, I gave solo concerts to my precious offspring, imagining the muffled music he heard while submerged within me. I sang whatever came to mind, sometimes letting loose on the only opera piece I knew—a tortured aria by Puccini about the fear of separation. Like a big-chested diva, I’d fill my lungs with tenderness and longing, crying to heaven for relief as the sound reverberated off the white popcorn ceiling of our rented house.

Three and a half years after our son made it to term, I was again pregnant and in bed rest for six months with our daughter. Lying flat on my back, my already thin cervix partially dilated, I’d sing old-time mountain music to her, Scotch-Irish ballads I’d learned since moving to North Carolina—songs so raw and soulful they’d rip your heart open.

It was overcast when I arrived at her assisted living apartment that Saturday morning. My mother had died half an hour before I could get there. I found her still lying in her single bed—serenely present and not present at the same time. The sweetly Southern hospice nurse said she sang “Amazing Grace” as my mother “passed.” I was heartbroken that I couldn’t have been there, upset that I hadn’t been the one to sing to her. I also felt deeply comforted. Maybe it doesn’t matter what the song is or who is singing but that somewhere, somehow we can hear the music. I think of my mother now among a holy host of angels all singing in the key of C.

A few weeks before she left this world my mother gave me a precious gift. She knew her granddaughter had to go to a special place in Nashville for her depression. I didn’t encourage questions or discuss details about why she was there or how long she’d be gone. Plus, I figured my mother would blame me for not insisting my daughter be allowed home for Christmas. Then one day—between her strokes and hallucinations, the jokes we shared when she was lucid, the sad, long hugs, and “I love you, too” exchanges—my mother bent her head toward me and took my hand as if she was going to tell me a secret. In a rare moment of clarity and generosity, and in her firm, no-nonsense manner, she looked me straight in the eye and said, “You’re going to get through this.” I didn’t realize how many years I’d waited to hear her say that instead of telling me all the things I’d done wrong. I repeated the phrase to myself, over and over, as I walked down the stairs, out to the parking lot and into the day without her. It was a beautiful song.

On a wooden, city park footbridge, on a too-brief visit, on a cool Nashville morning, my daughter starts singing, quite out of the blue. A gesture so sweet and unexpected, so not like the past twelve months, I almost cry. Where did she learn this song? When did it call her? I tentatively join her at the chorus. We never look at each other but lean over the rough railing, side by side, softly singing out and over the shallow, rippling water. We sing to a higher power, we sing to the great blue heron quietly stalking his breakfast in the green shadows below us, deftly picking up one long leg, and then the other. We keep singing until our hearts overflow into harmony. Two voices, tender and clear, sharing the same genes, the same longing. Singing “Down to the River,” oh daughter let’s go down. Then another verse, now with “oh mother… won’t you come on down.” Verse after verse we sing, unsure when to stop but trusting each other to know. When the last note finally fades to a hush, no words are spoken, no glances exchanged. We wrap the moment in silence to savor and cherish and carry back to our respective homes. Straightening up, we continue our walk. The sun is warmer now, almost hot. She grabs my hand.

Ann Batchelder lives in Asheville, North Carolina. She has worked as an editor, curator, and arts consultant and recently decided to try her hand at creative nonfiction.

About Music in the Air—This piece was created in Catherine Reid’s class where we learned to “tell it slant.” I didn’t realize until I started writing it that the women in my family all used music to communicate and help them get through life.