This is us, creating a sense of time and place for our children.
Last night at bedtime, after the teeth were flossed and brushed, the pajamas put on, the stories read, the lights turned out, the starlight night light set to cover the ceiling with stars in their cozy bunk room, I lay down with first Jasper, then Mica, then Reid, then Cabot.
“What song do you choose?”
Old Cape Cod (Patti Page) for Jasper, then Only You (Yaz) for Mica and lastly Thunder Road (Bruce Springsteen) for Reid. And while my mother will insist I have a lovely tenor (?!) voice just like my grandmother’s, and I was in an a cappella chamber choir in high school, my husband will shoot straight with you. My voice is not the thing that lullabies are made of.
But there’s a selection of songs that I sing, and these are the lullabies for my children. By the time I hit Thunder Road everyone was drowsing. After I finished, Reid asked me what the song was about, then why Mary was on the porch, then why I liked Bruce Springsteen.
Somehow we ended up with me telling them about New Jersey, about hard-working people, people who maybe didn’t go to college, who live in or near their hometown, sometimes marry their high school sweetheart, then raise a family.
I told them about the house I grew up in, how my childhood best friend’s mother just now moved out of the house across the street from where I grew up, how the baby boy next door I babysat growing up still lives in the same house I watched him in and owns the bar that I drew the menu cover for in high school, the menu cover that was still in use two years ago when I went home for my brother’s funeral. Our murmuring voices continued in the dark. “The screen door slams…” indeed.
Somewhere in suburban New Jersey 1968
Then Jas asked why Mom-Mom sold the house I grew up in, and I talked about when my father died. I told them about how alone she must have felt without him to need her, only Uncle Butchie left, and his requiring so much care.
I told them how after my father died my mother moved down the Jersey shore to the house they had bought there together and planned to retire to, but it was too lonely, so she moved back to my hometown. Then the stairs in the condo were too much for Uncle Butchie in the condo across the street from the bar that my neighbor owns, so she moved into another house nearby but in the boonies, and then moved back.
When Jasper asked why she’d moved so much I told him she was looking for something I guessed. All this conversation in the darkness, with only the stars on the ceiling and the sound of Cabot’s snoring.
Today is the 17 year anniversary of my father’s death. Seventeen years ago he died bit-by-bit and all of a sudden, on St. Patrick’s day, allowing us the opportunity to toast him in our neighbor’s bar (with my drawing on the cover of the menu), in the Irish-style wake he’d always wanted.
Sister, brother, my father, Jennie On the dunes, Cape Cod 1978
The night before last, midway through my concert of lullabies, as I lay with Mica after singing One Tin Soldier (Coven- it’s an anti-war song from 1970), Mica asked, “Where do we go when we die?”
I asked if he remembered what he was doing before he was born.
After a pause, he answered, “Yes.” Which knowing him, might be true.
“Because I think wherever we were before we were born, that’s where we go, I’d guess. Some people call it heaven, some don’t.” I held his little face and listened as the other three mulled it over. It sounded sad. Their collective silence sounded sad to me.
“And if that makes you sad, remember that the stories we tell about those who have left us early, and the things we write, the art we make, the people we befriend, or heal, or teach, even our own children, they all carry us. Pieces of us still live on in all these things.”
By the time I finished singing to Reid, Cabot had again fallen asleep without choosing a song.
I thought about how my father had never met my children, how I later found out how sad he was knowing that he probably wouldn’t be at my wedding to give me away. I thought about how he never met my husband. My father would have loved my four scraggly, wild, thoughtful, affectionate, silly children, and he would have loved my husband for loving me so well.
My father Chatham, Cape Cod 1985
I stopped by Cabot, asleep in her crib, and I sang Old Cape Cod, because Cape Cod is where I picture my father, sitting on a beach next to my brother Butchie, smoking Marlboros and watching the boats and the pretty women walk by.
I blew them all a kiss goodnight, and I said, “I love you.”
When I finally headed downstairs, my husband looked up from his computer, “What? Did they ask you to sing Thunder Road and then ask what the song meant?”
Mother, artist, daughter, wife, and friend: with four children in three years things get pretty crazy. Finding time to reflect on motherhood, identity and making art, brings me back to sanity (or as close as I’ll get in this lifetime.)