Friday, October 22, 2010

Soulful Singing

The weekend is soon - and thankfully - approaching. While most of its time already has been scheduled, I have an open window tomorrow night that may be spent listening to the vocal stylings of a promising new singer in Chelsea.

She's self-taught and very "raw" with respect to the polished performer she may someday become, but when she sings, she exudes a confidence and happiness that transcends the simple process of making music. She performs an inner music, one deeply rooted in her soul. Music - and singing - is intrinsic to who she is, an undeniable aspect of her personality and one that brings her great joy.

How do I know all this? Perhaps because I've been fortunate to listen to her create and sing her own songs for the past eight years. Sometimes, in the early years, it wasn't exactly "fortune" that shined upon me from the toddler carrier tethered in the seat behind me during a two-hour drive to Grammy's house in Lincoln. Back then, her songs sometimes consisted of one line sung over and over...and over...again for miles on aural form of Chinese water torture.

As she grew, however, and her vocabulary and imagination broadened considerably, Grace's songs began to be far more comprehensive, full of meaning - and emotion - sung in a deep, husky voice that resounded, surprisingly, from the tiny body making it. But regardless of her varying talent during the past eight years, one constant has held forth - a love of music and singing that springs from Grace's soul. It is a gift shared by cousins Amanda, Marissa and Katie, by me and by the person who instilled that same love in me and the woman Grace Dorothy Begin is named mother Dot.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my mother singing to me as she rocked me to sleep, her warm, soprano voice comforting me, making me feel safe, secure and loved. Many people may remember my mother singing in the choir at St. John the Baptist Church in Winslow. Never desiring to be a soloist, Mom gladly chose to be a member of the ensemble, a "team player" who sang her part and enjoyed being part of the process of making music. That was her only "public" singing.

Much more lasting, in my opinion, was her "private singing." She sang while making dinner, while washing dishes or laundry, while raising her family. She sang impromptu duets with my father - songs by Patsy Cline or other classic country performers - in our childhood home. She sang to her grandchildren when they were little, rocking and loving them the same way she did with me and my siblings.

When she sang, the joy that was in my mother's heart - in her soul - was displayed for all to see. And it was a glorious sight.

Looking back, I remember only one time my mother didn't sing. It spanned a period of time, perhaps six months or more. A period following my long-term hospitalization at age 16 and the death of her mother and my Dad's father. During that time, the early-morning sounds rising to my bedroom from the kitchen below were markedly different. Snatches of familiar songs were displaced by the sobbing of a woman in grief, and the sounds of her loving husband trying to ease her pain. Days became weeks, weeks turned into months, and I questioned whether I would ever hear my mother's beautiful singing again.

But time has a way of healing hearts, particularly in a woman of solid faith. In time, my mother's song returned...slow and inconsistent at first, but then growing stronger and steadier as she worked to repair the part of her soul that had been damaged. In time, her private singing became public again and she returned to singing in the choir she loved.

She learned how to sing again after losing her husband of nearly 40 years. And after her recovery from a debilitating stroke that left her forever changed.

Even in her final years of life, when the dual effects of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's had taken their toll - when she could not remember words to songs she had sung for decades - she learned to sing. Sometimes the songs were a mix of words and music, other times just a randomly hummed verse. It didn't matter to those listening. What mattered was that this wonderful, beautiful piece of my mother's personality, of her being, could not be defeated by the challenges of life or the finality of death.

The gift of music that she so cherished lives on in the grateful children and grandchildren who survive her. And when Grace fires up the karaoke machine for her next performance, I know her Memere will be listening...and singing in harmony.


  1. John, this story brought tears to my eyes! Your Mom was such a special lady, and I'm so glad to have known her. She raised a family full of beautiful people who change the world every day with their generosity. Thanks so much for sharing a story full of such love.

    Love you!

  2. Oh John, you have such a gift with words. You have captured Mom so perfectly in your memories and writing. I know personally how proud she was of your talents and treasured your visits!

  3. Grace looks so happy in that picture - an angelic face with a devilish grin!!