My mother, Evelyn, who died thirteen years ago today, would have turned 95 years old yesterday. I had intended to write something touching about her, and started on this yesterday, but … shoot, sorry, mom.
I found myself sitting at the piano yesterday working out a song she used to sing, a popular ditty from the 1940s called Mairzy Doats. My father would be driving the car, we’d be on a longish trip somewhere, and suddenly my mother would burst into song, with only slight self-consciousness, imposed by her husband. He was also a good singer who’d soulfully croon a handful of notes, the hook of a beautiful ballad, and cut himself off after five or six syllables. My father was well-known for singing just enough to let you know that he could actually sing, but not a note more, and he was equally famous for inhibiting my mother’s singing.
Evelyn loved to sing and my father’s side-eye as he drove was not always enough to make her stop, though it did make her a little self conscious. Nonetheless, as we drove across some bridge she’d suddenly sing “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and little lamzy divey, a kiddleedivey too, wouldn’t you?”
Now all these years later, being a proficient guitar player finally, and surprised to find a certain facility on the keyboard lately, which helps me work out songs I’m trying to learn, I find Mairsy Doats is a pretty hip little tune to play, in a nostalgic, artfully written pop tune kind of way. The singer explains in the B part, “and though the words may sound queer to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey, say ‘mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.” And this B part, if I may say, I could play the hell out of this B part on the guitar, and it works out just fine on the keyboard, thank you.
And as I played and sang the song on the piano yesterday, with the sheet music from an actual paper song book, Songs of World War Two, which also, of course, had the lyrics, I called out “Happy Birthday, Mom!”
I thought to myself what a goddamn shame I couldn’t have played this simple, jumping accompaniment thirty or forty years ago and let my mom just sing it. Same with “Do Nothing till you Hear From Me” another genius tune from the genius Duke Ellington, my father would sing just that riff, with the opening line, the riff that Ellington placed over three different sets of chord changes to such brilliant effect. I could have backed both of them on a tenor ukulele, if things had been different.
But again, as in my mother’s actual life, my love and birthday greetings for her get mixed up in a lot of bullshit that has little or nothing to do with her.
It was my mother’s love, and, as I realize now, that she never gave me reason to doubt her love, that literally saved my life in the brutal war zone my sister and I were forced to grow up in. As I emailed the day before yesterday to a genius from high school (truly, one of only two I’ve ever met in this long life of mine):
Tomorrow I’ve got to write something sensitive about my mother, who’d be 95 tomorrow. I’ve realized only very recently that in spite of [redacted] [redacted] [redacted] [redacted] she never let me doubt her love for me in that war zone I grew up in and in the end she always listened to me. Even if I couldn’t change her mind, which I sometimes did, she always eventually heard me out — which is no small thing. Probably saved my life, actually.
Thanks again, mom, for giving me life, and saving it time and again, by simply listening with an open mind and a loving heart.