There were two positive constants in my childhood: Laughter and Music.
My father loved music and it may be a reason he was so enamored with my mother. She was a beautiful woman with a voice like an angel and he adored her. Memories serenade of late lazy afternoons, listening to my mother sing and play the piano while her face radiated notes of joy.
Though my father couldn’t really sing worth beans, he trained his five daughters to sing in unison while we cleaned the kitchen after chaotic wild dinners that fed nine.
Sister Cathy had the strongest voice, followed by Joan and Meg with Sheila, the youngest of the girls, and myself predictably lagging behind. But when the five of us sang together, our voices sounded sweet, pure and crisp and harmony hugged us all.
My father led a hectic life as he worked hard to provide for his large family. The sound of the train on his daily commute from the countryside of Connecticut to the skyscraper zoos of New York City was the only music he heard most days.
But evenings brought the music and the laughter to my father’s weary ears as we sang our way through chores and sensed the broad beam of a smile that we knew, without looking, was ornament to his face.
The pinnacle of our singing, the time my father looked forward to most, was Christmas caroling on Christmas Eve. My father would transform from harried businessman to aspiring choir director. He would pile his five daughters into the family station wagon and down the road we would go, stopping at every neighbor’s house to sing carols and visit with tea and cookies by firesides bathed in Christmas light.
My father would shush us up their sidewalks and make sure we were positioned perfectly, in chronological order of our births. He would pick the same songs we sang every year and motion to us gently as he pressed awaiting doorbells.
Front doors would open quickly and wide, and we would be greeted with the merry faces of our neighbors, parish priests and scattered nuns.
My father had a harmonica and he would prompt us with the opening note. As if programmed to do so, we would open our mouths on cue, transfixed on his shining face and waving arms, and sing the carols that had made their way from times long gone right up to our friends’ doorsteps on snowy magical nights.
My father reveled in music to celebrate his life.
And my father immersed himself in music to help him face the dark and scary road when Death groaned its ugly dirge.
We sang to our father during life and we sang to him during death.
The year before he died, we thought his malignant brain tumor was going to play Scrooge and withhold Christmas from him, so we, now parents ourselves, arrived at my parents’ home, some by plane and some by car, so the five of us could sing to him once again.
He sat in his favorite chair, a quizzical look on his face. The tumor had swallowed up the father we knew and he wasn’t quite sure why we were all assembled. But when we broke into the familiar refrains of one of his favorite songs, “Sing, Sing A Song”, his stranger of a face turned into my father. There he was! That broad beaming beautiful smile, the proud misty eyes, the nodding head, the waving arms.
A year later, my mother was with him in those last final moments. And as he slipped reluctantly away from her, she sang to him of angels waiting and watched him close his eyes and smile.
Every Christmas Eve, I thank my father for his gift of the love of music. I close my eyes and it’s like yesterday. Standing on the porches of family friends, snow falling gently all around us, and the light surrounding my father as he mentored us to sing our way to Christmas…and into the deepest sanctuaries of our hearts.