In my family, I like to tell people, my sister and I were singing harmony before we knew what melody was. That wasn’t strictly true, but I do know that having two parents who came from musical people and who sang barbershop harmony meant that my sister and I were assigned tenor and lead parts early on so Mom could practice her baritone and Dad could sit in as bass. We did this with classic barbershop tags, the ends of songs that lead—if you’re doing it right—to a ringing chord at the end. Each singer has to sing his or her own part, which requires serious concentration not to mirror the voice next to you. This led to some memorable tags like:
When it’s sleepy time down south
I have no idea what the rest of that song sounds like, but I can sing both the lead and tenor parts of that tag in my sleep.
My mother, who this year celebrated her 53rd year as a Sweet Adeline (the international association of women barbershoppers), has been quietly disappointed that neither my sister nor I followed her into one of the choruses she’s been in. She’s never said so directly, though there was a period when she strongly suggested that my niece Lauren, who was in the high school jazz choir, migrate over to barbershop. Lauren didn’t, and Donna and I have steadfastly remained audience members for Mom’s performances over the years. Since our father died in 2004, we figure it’s our job to applaud for all of us, and besides, we owe her for, among other things, all those elementary and high school band concerts she had to sit through.
I doubt that my mother—or most people for that matter—knows how much I sing: in the car, in the shower, around the house. I can still do a wicked harmony (a fifth up is my favorite) with a variety of recordings, though, as I get older and my breath is not as steady, I wobble a little more than I used to. (My mother, incidentally, continues to take voice lessons in her 86th year. Go, Ma!) I’m a closeted singer. I generally don’t sing in front of people, though the cats hear me plenty. Sometimes they stick around to listen.
And I do love Christmas carols, though I seem to have adopted the family trait that now makes me cry when I hear them, much less sing them. I can’t get through the first line of “Silent Night” without emotion bubbling up. I hear my father and mother. I remember my late Grandpa Haag crying as my aunt played “Ave Maria” on the organ at family gatherings. We young’uns thought that was sweet, if a little silly, but I can so relate to my grandfather now. I cry at tissue commercials on TV. James Taylor singing “You’ve Got a Friend” does me in. So does “Sunrise, Sunset.” I blame it on menopause.
So when my friend Holly Holt, who is both a yoga teacher and fine writer/writing facilitator, put out the word that her yoga teacher friend Michelle Marlahan was gathering together a group of volunteers to sing at some skilled nursing facilities 11 days before Christmas, I was intrigued. Holly did gigs as a folk singer for a time and even put out her original songs on a CD, which I sing along with in the car. I do one-on-one yoga with Holly partly because she sings to me in her lovely voice as I lie on my mat at the end of the practice. I call her the Blonde Yoga Goddess with the Voice of an Angel. So yeah, to stand near Holly as she sings carols in something called the Holiday Hope Choir? I’m in, I emailed Michelle.
The problem is that teary thing. But after Michelle sent me a nice note of thanks, I decided to buck up and practice a bit. In the shower, in the car, around the house. If I sing the songs enough times, concentrate on breathing deeply from my diaphragm, think about the lyrics, I can get through them, I told myself. Heck, I sang a solo at my eighth grade graduation wearing a yellow polyester mini dress because my homeroom teacher asked me to. I was in no way a super singer—in fact, I was about to become the only girl drummer in the high school band—but because Mr. Rolicheck requested it, I practiced the snot out of “Bless the Beasts and the Children” and wobbled my way through it in front of a multi-purpose room full of parents and teachers and my peers. It was not my best performance of the song, but Mr. Rolicheck beamed like the headlights on my dad’s Chevy.
“Fine job, Miss Haag,” he said when I was done, and I flew on that praise all summer.
So every day for the past week I’ve taken to the shower (my mother taught me that we all sound better in the bathroom; all that tile makes for a nicely resonating room) and run through the classics: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World,” “Jingle Bells,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Holly Jolly Christmas.” I even attempted “O, Holy Night” with its wicked high and low notes. My favorite Christmas songs are stupid hard for me to sing: “The Wexford Carol,” “Some Children See Him,” “Love Came Down at Christmas.” But I do those anyway.
Still, every time I started “Silent Night,” I felt the familiar catch in my throat and the hiccup that would work its way into a sob. I decided to tough it out and sing anyway, even though it sounded, well, awful, even in the tile shower. But I figured if it came up on the list of songs Michelle was going to provide, I could lip-synch or look down at the words so my tears weren’t obvious.
Even the morning of the carol singing, I gave it another try in the bathroom after warming up on “Joy to the World,” the Three Dog Night version. (It’s so much fun to sing at the top of your lungs, “joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea/joy to you and me.”) “We Three Kings” got me.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” I said aloud. “What is this already?”
Well, I know very well what it is. “Stille Nacht” really gets me. It’s hearing my father’s voice, and his father’s and his mother’s voices singing it in German. It’s my mother’s father playing it on his organ in their Santa Monica apartment. It’s standing on the steps of the Methodist church down the street with candles lit and flames wavering in the December cold listening to a small congregation descended from German immigrants sing all three verses in German.
It’s a wish for peace and light in the darkest time of the year. It’s the song sung by its composer who sang it in a church one Christmas, accompanying himself on guitar. It’s combatants who put down their arms on a Christmas Eve of World War I and, for a brief moment in 1914, stopped trying to kill each other. They ventured into no man’s land to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. They played soccer with men they considered their enemies in the days before and the days after.
It’s my dead loved ones, my companion spirits, reaching out from wherever they are to tug at my heart, to say, “We’re here. We’ve never left. Sleep in heavenly peace.”
So I went to two skilled nursing facilities and joined the unrehearsed choir of people like me who like to sing carols. One woman, Tara, brought Louie, her Great Dane, a great schmoozer who stole the show, but we didn’t mind. I stood next to the Blonde Yoga Goddess and listened to her harmonize her way through some Christmas songs before people in wheelchairs. (Our best number: “Jingle Bell Rock.” Note to self: Don’t attempt “Twelve Days of Christmas… too many verses makes for a ragged throat.) Each person in our audience must have his or her own memories, their own catches in their throats remembering past Christmases, their loved ones with whom they sang. And I actually got through “Silent Night” at the first place relatively dry-eyed by concentrating on my breath, supporting it with my diaphragm. I gave myself a mental pat on the back.
But at the second place, a facility where a college friend of mine had lived and recently died, something very sweet happened. We had assembled in a big living room area just off the front lobby. Louie immediately gravitated to one woman sitting on a sofa who reached out for his big, slobbery self.
After our troop of 10 now semi-warmed up singers ran through about eight numbers, someone requested “Silent Night.” I realized that it was the sweet-faced woman on the sofa. A walker sat next to her with a sign that said, “Hi, my name is Helene. What’s your name?” Without prompting, all by herself, Helene began in German, “Stille nacht, helige nacht.”
There I went. But I smiled through my tears as Helene warbled through a song she must have learned as a girl. I don’t know if she was German, Austrian, Swiss—maybe Dutch—where she came from or what memories she has, but her quavery voice carried the song through to its last lines:
Schlafe in himmlischer ruh
Schlafe in himmlischer ruh
Sleep in heavenly peace, indeed, with all our companion spirits there in the room with us, swirling around our heads and hearts. They’re here, with us always, and they make themselves known at sweet times like this when the sounds of an old melody beckon them. No wonder we cry when they make an appearance.
And through my tears, I sang my gratitude: thankyouthankyouthankyou.