I first understood the meaning of love through music. I realized that recently as my husband and I left a concert of barbershop music performed by four different quartets. Our friend Marty had been singing barbershop for years and convinced us that we'd enjoy hearing some old-fashioned music that's not often heard nowadays.
"Hard to believe," my husband said after the concert, "that amid all the rap and heavy metal and pop you have this."
I nodded, humming "Peg of My Heart" as we walked toward the car. I remembered that song well, and knew all the words. I could also sing other barbershop favorites that predated me by at least two generations, including some we had just heard: "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen," "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," and "My Wild Irish Rose."
It was my grandmother - plump, bespectacled, and already old in my childlike eyes - who first taught me the joy of singing. Perhaps that joy could have come only from her, a wise woman who somehow knew that a little music might calm the turbulence of a young heart, ill-equipped to deal with the aftermath of war.
When World War II ended, Mother and I moved in with my grandparents until Mother had time to decide what our next step in life would be. In this home, as in so many others then, we dealt with loss as best we could. I had no memories of my father, who had gone overseas three years earlier. Too young to understand the concept of loss, I knew only that it was connected to tears and the heavy silence that often pervaded the house. I wanted smiles and laughter again.
But at night, my grandmother's arms comforted me.
"Climb into bed with me, Elaine," she'd say. Stout, with a head full of soft white hair that made me think of cotton candy, she nestled me in her arms for a while before bedtime and sang to me. "I'm forever blowing bubbles," she hummed into my ear. "Sing, Elaine," she said, "you know the words." Comfortable and warm in her fleshy arms I finished the song in childlike notes, whispering the words into the sheet.
Night after night I snuggled with my grandmother and sang whatever I absorbed from her, often continuing the songs once I went to my own bed. "I'm looking over a four leaf clover," I sang, "that I overlooked before." I didn't know what a clover was, or why some had four leaves, but I liked the rhythm and melody and felt proud to know the words.
Even my mother smiled one afternoon when I called her "a cutie full of charm."
"A, you're 'adorable,' " she sang back. I was impressed that she, too, knew my grandmother's lyrics. It had to be a good song, since it made my mother smile.
On many nights, Grandma put on the radio by her bed and we listened to professional singers. If they sang "our" songs, we sang along; if they sang other music of the day, we hummed and giggled as the lilting rhythms wafted across our blanket like a soft breeze.
Eventually Mother and I took that next step: a new father, a baby sister and a new life in Florida. But I continued to spend summers with my grandparents, and Grandma and I continued to sing. Since I had outgrown snuggling in bed, we sang in the kitchen as we baked rugelach, the cookie from the old country rich with sour cream, cinnamon, sugar, raisins, and nuts. Often, as we rolled and twisted the soft dough into elongated shapes, we hummed our old favorites as background music.
We also hummed and sang while I watched Grandma iron in the kitchen or sat by her as she crocheted on the couch in front of the television. It didn't matter what we did - music always went with us.
My grandmother taught me to love singing - not to perform, not to keep up with musical trends, but to find a measure of joy in the act itself.
She didn't live long enough to hear Elvis, the Beatles, or any modern popular music. I can't imagine what she would have thought of rap. I came of age with rock and roll and Elvis, and sat spellbound when the Beatles first appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
But songs for grandmothers and grandchildren are of a different genre. Those songs require melodic tunes and words whose meanings are readily apparent to a child.
As we left the barbershop concert, I realized I had learned more than lyrics from my grandmother. I felt nurtured and safe wrapped in her soft arms. And as we sang together quietly, I began to understand a little of the nature of love.
Confusion and sadness dissipated in lilting lyrics, and my child's heart filled with joy. I think she knew it would. My adult self now understands a little more about love - that it anticipates another's needs and, as my grandmother showed me long ago through songs, unstintingly reaches out to fulfill them.