Should mothers sing?
As my sister-in-law began her song in a pleasing soprano, my little niece ran screaming into the room, threw herself at her mother, and clung to her skirts sobbing, ''Don't sing, Mommy, don't sing!'' I was astonished and shocked, but my good-natured sister-in-law dissolved into helpless laughter as she tried to comfort her small daughter.
Thinking about this incident later, I recalled my own mingled emotions as a child when my mother sang. She had had some vocal training, had even hoped to make a career. Her melancholy contralto had a strangely bottled sound. Perhaps it sounded bottled because it was wrongly poured into a contralto mold when it longed to float free as a lyric soprano. I was filled with a sadness I did not comprehend when hearing her sing such old songs as ''Annie Laurie'' and ''In the Gloaming.'' They seemed to hold hints of future tragedy, and I found them almost unbearable.
On the other hand, I loved to hear Mother play the piano. She had the true pianistic gift: strong, supple hands that manipulated the keyboard with a natural confidence that belied her few years of study. Sometimes she would play piano pieces of her own composing - rollicking tunes that were the opposite of her mournful songs.
A song that she sang often and which especially fascinated me was Haydn Wood's ''Roses of Picardy.'' The tune was cloying, the theme again a wistful one , and I recall vividly the large red roses on the cover of the music. Mother would sing and play it with great feeling, but I always wished for relief from the gloom. While I loved to watch her fingers pressing down the glossy keys and bringing forth such satisfying sounds, the lyrics, sung in that lamenting voice, were too much for me. I did not rebel, as did my little niece many years later, but I suffered silently.
Later I began to sing myself - songs that I learned at school. Mother was pleased and would often harmonize with me. I recall a short refrain we sometimes sang at twilight while doing the dishes together in our large white kitchen: ''Down from her garden,/Rose-covered garden,/Comes the sweet Fairy of Dreams. . . .''
When my big sister was 11, Mother decided it was time to try her out on piano lessons. Since Mother was not patient, she herself could not teach her. She found a German woman who came to the house - tall, white-haired Miss Haegler. Many were the tears my sister shed under this disciplinarian's tutelage, and many were the tears of frustration shed by Miss Haegler, until the project was finally abandoned. Mother was disappointed in Ruth for not being a better student and always said that she ''could have played very nicely if she had just had more 'stick-to-itiveness.' ''
But Mother was deeply impressed with Miss Haegler, and at times when Dad was out of town, she would invite her to stay for dinner. On these occasions Miss Haegler often brought along her accordion and would play for us.
This gave Mother an inspiration: One Halloween she dressed up as an organgrinder, borrowing Miss Haegler's accordion for the instrument. Where she got the big black mustache we never knew. But with some of Dad's clothes, the mustache, and the accordion, and by singing an Italian song in a forced, chesty voice, she put on quite a performance. Ruth and I were more embarrassed than amused.
Mother continued to dress up in outlandish costumes at Halloween for many years. Dad was not enthusiastic about her impersonations, although he laughed reluctantly, and Ruth and I felt it all rather inappropriate, though we laughed, too. Mother herself obviously got a tremendous kick out of it.
She had a great weakness for the tenor voice, and to her the famed John McCormack was the epitome of song. We had in our sizable Midwestern town an organization called the Sunday Evening Club. All its events were free to the public. One winter it was announced that John McCormack would give a concert. We were incredulous that such a celebrity was coming to our Sunday Evening Club, and Mother looked forward to this event with great eagerness. Except for her musicmaking and Halloween performances, she was never outwardly enthusiastic, but I could feel her intense, concealed excitement.
This concert took place in the latter days of the great tenor's career; unfortunately he was not in his best form. He looked bleary-eyed and bored, and several times he turned his back on the audience, took out a large handkerchief, and blew his nose loudly. Mother was disillusioned, but she bore it bravely. Afterward she said, ''Well, at least he sang 'Little Boy Blue' to perfection.''
When I eventually studied voice myself, I made an attempt to get Mother's voice unbottled, but it didn't work. The damage had been done, and her voice continued to sound like bottled tears. Mother was overjoyed that I wanted to sing, and began taking piano lessons again so that she would be able to accompany me ''in a professional manner.'' Sometimes she would practice her lessons in the evening when Dad was reading in the living room. He would always name her current piece after the book he was reading. Then when company came, he would suddenly demand, ''Fran, play 'The Years of the Locust,' '' or ''Fran, play 'The Earth Is the Lord's.' '' She of course never knew which piece he meant and would end up playing her entire repertoire till she hit it.
As well as being an ardent amateur musician, Mother was a great patriot. Every Fourth of July she would seat herself at the piano and play a thundering rendition of ''The Star-Spangled Banner.'' Ruth and I would always protest, but she would ignore us grandly and continue triumphantly to the end.
Well into her 70s Mother would occasionally sit down at the piano and toss off one of her jolly tunes, or play and sing some hymns. I began to truly appreciate her talent as I grew older and now look back on it as one of the glories of growing up: Mother singing sad songs in a dark voice, Mother playing sprightly melodies with a firm touch on the piano, and, yes, even Mother playing ''The Star-Spangled Banner'' on the Fourth of July.