It was the Christmas season, and I was 10 years old. With 3 full years of piano lessons under my belt, I knew everything there was to know about music. Or so I thought. I was also in the junior choir, and I knew everything there was to know about singing. I could do it right. Wasn’t that the point? You had to do it right.
I was a lucky child, for I had two nurturing women raising me: my mother and my grandmother. Grandma had been born in England, and was a gentle, wise soul. She was an integral part of my life since the day of my birth, and taught me how to waltz in her bedroom as soon as I could walk. She taught me what colors went together properly, and to color within the lines in my coloring book. She read me stories, never raised her voice in anger, always loved me. And I knew it. She always loved me.
At age 4 or 5, when I misbehaved and my mother scolded me for it, I would run crying to Grandma. She would gently take me to the bathroom, wet a washcloth with warm water, and wash my hands and face. And all the while, she would tell me how “You mustn’t disobey your mother.” She knew how to comfort me without rewarding my bratty behavior.
Somewhere along the way I discovered a part of my personality I still struggle with: speaking with a forked tongue. I learned how to cut with it as well. It helped numb me when I learned that children could be cruel. It helped me lash back when I felt insulted or slighted. I used it whenever I was jealous, or feeling superior. Oh yes, what a friend that forked tongue became.
So there came a time when I brought that forked tongue into the house, and began to use it here and there with the people who loved me.
We had a piano in our hallway, and I practiced there daily. My favorite songs to play were Christmas Carols, and this particular day I was playing “Silent Night.” My grandmother shuffled into the room in her slippers, stopped by the piano, and in her shaky, 80 year old voice, began to sing this beautiful song.
To this day I struggle to remember what I got so annoyed with. The shakiness of her voice made me cringe, and I only wanted to hear perfect, clear notes. So I stopped playing, looked at her, and angrily said: “You can’t sing!” I got off the piano stool and walked out of the room.
Funny what you can’t remember. There was no punishment for me that day. Just a silence in the house that was palpable. I don’t recall apologizing. But I do remember knowing I had said a terrible thing, and feeling deeply remorseful.
Years later, well into adulthood and after Grandma passed away, my mother told me a story. When my grandmother’s mother died, Grandma had 3 young children of her own. Her relationship with her mother had been of the same caliber as she had with my mother: a close, loving bond. She was grieving deeply, and was finding it hard to carry out the chores of the day. She had always sung lullabies to her children, but after her mother died, she fell silent. Days and weeks passed. Finally, my grandfather came up to her and put his arms around her, saying: “Sing to the babies, Susie.” Grandma realized she needed to start singing to her children again, and she did.
A few years after my Christmas Carol retort, I was a young adolescent singing in my choir at the Christmas concert. We had been invited to sing on the radio at New York City Port Authority. At home in NJ, my mother and grandmother gathered by the radio at the appointed time to hear my choir sing over the air waves. Grandma was so proud and thrilled that her granddaughter was actually going to be on the radio. The microphone was close to me, yet I wasn’t aware until I came home that my voice had been identifiable, at least to Mom and Grandma. Mom told me later that she looked over at my grandmother as my choir sang, and Grandma had her head down on the table, overcome with emotion and crying with pride.
Sometimes forgiving one’s self is the most difficult. . Over the years I’ve learned to put away the sharp tongue, have tried to mellow. And knowing how Grandma’s love never waivered, she wouldn’t want me to be so hard on myself. I was a child then, and hopefully I am a different person today.
Now that Grandma is gone, I hear her singing in my heart, and I will never silence her again.