On a recent Friday morning, while I was shaving and performing my morning ablutions, I found myself singing “Shortenin’ Bread” in a loud and boisterous voice, while at the same time doing a little soft-shoe dance and keeping time with the obligatory foot-stomp on the accent syllables.
By the time I had finished my shower and donned the uniform of the day, we had established, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that mama’s little baby does indeed love shortenin’ bread.
Whether this was because I was channeling the spirit of my dear departed mother, or whether it was an unexpected consequence of the vindaloo curry I had for dinner the night before, I cannot say for sure.
I suspect, though, that it was a visit from my mother.
Ma loved to sing, and she sang a lot. She spent much of her time baking and keeping herself busy in the kitchen. This made her happy, so she sang.
I would not want my readers to assume that when I say Ma loved to sing that I am in some way trying to infer, intimate, or suggest that she was any good at it.
This would be a gross distortion of the facts.
If Ma knew all of the words to any one song, she did a remarkable job of concealing it.
She knew bits and pieces from a multitude of songs, and if there were words she could not remember, she simply made up her own as she went along.
The more absurd a song was, the better she liked it.
She had a song about a kookaburra (who sat in the old gum tree), and a song that asked the timeless question, “How in the heck can I wash my neck if it ain’t gonna rain no more?”
If there was ever the slightest hint that any of us going out on a date, she would sing about holding hands in the movie show (when all the lights are low).
She had a song for everything. One never knew when some innocent remark would cause her to burst into song.
This was a real treat for me and my siblings when we were growing up. Fortunately, we were not in the least bit self-conscious or embarrassed by our mother when we had friends over. No more than any other teenagers, anyway.
If her behavior did occasionally cause us the slightest discomfort, we soon learned to hide it.
Ma was like a tiger of the jungle in one respect.
Tigers of the jungle can smell fear. Parents, on the other hand, can smell embarrassment, and if Ma ever got a whiff of embarrassment when we were entertaining friends, she would sing that much louder.
It wasn’t just the singing, either. She would swing her arms and stomp her foot to keep time, as well. Sometimes, she would try to cajole us into joining her in the chorus, or suggest that we dance to the music.
“Sing!” she would cry merrily, before launching into the next verse. One learned to be quick on his feet, because there was always the danger that she would seize the nearest victim and dance him around the kitchen while she sang.
Lest any of my readers are imagining some sweet melody like that produced by contented songbirds on a balmy spring morning, I must hasten to disabuse them of this pleasant notion. Ma really belted them out.
Her singing was more like Ethel Merman on steroids, or a pirate queen on her third flagon of ale than it was like any stinking songbird I ever heard. What she lacked in tonal quality, she made up for in sheer volume and chutzpah. Hers was a pure and unbridled enthusiasm, and she didn’t care who heard it.
The crazy thing is, despite the traumatic effect Ma’s singing had on her children, our friends loved her. When I met an old pal at a school reunion, practically his first question was about my mother. He even sang one of her old songs.
As children, we swore we would never be like her, but we cannot escape our genes, and at odd times like that recent Friday morning, we sing too.
When I am not channeling my mother’s spirit, I tend to favor my own repertoire. I can deal out “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” with the best of them, and my stirring rendition of “Old Man River” is not to be missed.
On those rare occasions when there is enough whiskey in my blood for me to give forth with the haunting melody of “Danny Boy,” or “Lock Lomond,” it can leave people in tears, especially music lovers.
This sort of amateur vocalizing may not be all that rare.
I have not done any formal research on this, but I suspect that there are a lot of people out there who are clandestine shower singers. And, if one pays attention, one can often catch other drivers singing along with the radios in their cars.
When I find myself giving an impromptu concert, I think back to those days so many years ago in that tiny old house in Duluth, with Ma in her apron, wiping flour off her hands and flinging back her head and belting out some silly song fragment, and I can’t help but smile.
It is not getting what we want that measures success in life; it is learning to appreciate what we have.
If we can do that, any little thing can be a reason to sing, and why not? Life is too short to waste it taking ourselves too seriously. Ma understood that.
Sometimes, when I am singing in my own kitchen, I can feel her looking over my shoulder, and she’s laughing.
We complained about her singing for years, so perhaps it is fitting for her to have the last laugh, knowing that the music, or what passes for music, is still with us.