When I was 5, my mother took me to see The Music Man in my hometown of Spokane, Washington. Going to a show at the opera house put me in the big leagues. It meant that Mom trusted me to behave like a grown-up. I knew the songs because Mom sang the show's quieter numbers to my sister and me at bedtime. I didn't know that musicals about marching bands in rural Iowa are not every adult's standard of sophistication.
Three things stand out in my memory of that night at the theater: the cream-colored shawl Mom wore, the flip-down seat that I was too small to keep anchored, and balloons. During the triumphant finale of "Seventy-Six Trombones," when the fake band has miraculously turned real and Marian the Librarian has her man, they released what seemed to me like hundreds of balloons from the ceiling of the theater. I've seen a lot of plays since then — shows on Broadway, Obie and Pulitzer winners — but nothing has moved me like those balloons.
My mother grew up singing with her father and three brothers, folk songs and popular tunes like "Li'l Liza Jane," "Clementine," and "Down by the Old Mill Stream." They sang in complex harmonies, and sometimes Mom or her brother Dan accompanied them on guitar. Singing was what they did together, the way other families barbecue or go hiking.
I have no gift for music, although I hummed along with Mom's bedtime songs and could belt out tuneless Christmas carols. When I had children of my own, I scoured my memory for songs and searched online for forgotten lyrics, having discovered that singing, even off-key, can lull a baby disinclined to be soothed by any other tricks. It did no harm to my nerves either, to breathe deep and sing the words of Marian the Librarian:
Goodnight, my someone, goodnight, my love
Sleep tight, my someone, sleep tight, my love.
I've built a repertoire large enough to provide my kids with their own minor bedtime song collection, from "Angels Watching Over Me" and "All Through the Night" to Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." Use what you've got, I say, and don't get hung up about genre. Even words like "Oh, we got trouble! Right here in River City!" make a fine lullaby if you sing them softly. Children, especially tired ones, are forgiving listeners.
"Seventy-Six Trombones" may get the heart pumping, and "Till There Was You" was recorded by the Beatles, but, for my money, "Goodnight, My Someone" is the best song in The Music Man. It's a love letter, to Anonymous:
True love can be whispered from heart to heart
When lovers are parted they say.
But I must depend on a wish and a star
As long as my heart doesn't know who you are.
As a child, I was comforted by the idea that estranged sweethearts could leave bits of love floating in the ether that other people might catch, like a cold. The hope of it kept Marian plodding through spinsterhood, and, for me, it meant that love stayed, even if the loved one was missing.
In her last days, we played recordings to Mom of her family singing, and she hummed along. The day before she died, I leaned down to kiss her forehead and said, "Good night, my someone."
"Good night, my love," she answered.
In his eulogy for my grandfather, my uncle said that all their lives they'd sung with their dad, and now they would be singing to him. When I warble through The Music Man, my first objective is to get the kids to sleep, but I'm singing to my mom, too, in her cream-colored shawl while those balloons drift down. She's there, in the spaces between the words. Good night, Mom, I sing. My heart knows who you are.
Kris Willcox is a writer in Arlington. Send comments to email@example.com.
TELL YOUR STORY. E-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won't pursue.