Sunday, June 24, 2018

Growing Up with Music and Dance

After exploring with you the books of my child- and adulthood, I’d like to take another trip down memory lane and explore music. It’s been part of my life since childhood because my mother sang as she did every household chore and as she sat, playing solitaire, in the the living-room easy chair we called “Mom’s chair.”

She had an old Ouija/Weejee board that she used for solitaire. She’d place it across her lap and deal out the cards. As she moved one row to another, she’d be singing a popular song from the 1920s, ‘30s, or ‘40s. Her voice was a rich, clear soprano, and she had an instinct for phrasing the lyrics. Mom would sometimes sing along with music on the radio, but most often, she sang solo as she went about her day.

Listening to her sing, I learned all the words and melodies to Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess.” I also memorized and sang songs by Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, and many others.

(There's a lot of music before you get to the words, but it's worth the wait!)

When I was little—a toddler—my dad sang to me each night. Our favorite song was “Dream Train.” The words, as I remember them, were “Dream train, please carry me back. Dream train, stay on the right track. . . . Stop when a sweet old lady holler’s ‘Welcome, my dream train!’” I felt so safe each night with the covers tucked around me and Dad singing. I could see the train and the track that was carrying me to dreamland.

In school, also, we learned songs like “I’m a Little Teapot.” The one I remember best is from first-grade. Ms. MacMillan taught us “A Little Ducky-Duddle.” The words go: “A little ducky-duddle was wadding in a puddle. Was wading in a puddle quite small. Said he, ‘It doesn’t matter, how much I splash and splutter. I’m only a ducky after all. I’m only a ducky after all.”

Ms. MacMillan taught us words, melody, and accompanying actions. I can still—with my voice taking on the sing-song lisp of a first-grader—act out this song. My doing so has delighted all the young children whom I have loved as an adult. (I think it has also embarrassed the adults who were those children’s parents!)

Both my brother and I learned to sing by listening to Mom and Dad harmonize. They would sometimes sing songs like “Daisy! Daisy,” “Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home,” or “Casey Would Waltz with a Strawberry Blond” from the early part of the 20th century.  Sometimes they’d dance as they sang and my brother—who was three years young than I—would prance around the living room. Then the two of us would put on our own show, imitating the dance moves of our mom and dad.

As the years passed, I learned songs from Hollywood musicals like “The Bells of Saint Mary’s” and “Going My Way.” The radio and the movie theater brought us many memorable songs. Later, on TV’s “Ed Sullivan Show,” we saw the artists who had introduced a song—Elvis singing “Hound Dog,” Nat King Cole singing “When I Fall in Love,” Peggy Lee singing “It’s a Good Day.” At the movies, we saw the Broadway musicals that became Hollywood hits: “South Pacific,” “Carousel,” “Oklahoma,” “Brigadoon,” and “My Fair Lady.”

Music made my feet waltz and polka, fox-trot and tango. In the 7th grade, Sister Mary McAuley taught us how to do those dances; at the high school mixers our class danced up a storm.

So for the 22 years before I entered the convent, I sang and danced. Singing became a way of coping with my father’s alcoholism. Dancing became a way to whisk myself into another world—a dreamland.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Books from My Childhood

This is my second of a two-part posting about books I’ve read throughout my life. When I was little, Mom read to my brother and me each evening, but we did not own any of those books. They came from the library. Then, when I learned to read, my Aunt Glad and Uncle Al and their son, Tom, began to give me a book each Christmas until I was probably twelve. Those books are still part of my own personal library. They are shelved in a bookcase here in my office.

Among those books are Peter Pan, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, and several fairy tale selections. My favorite book as a child was Little Men by Louise May Alcott. As a tomboy, I much preferred it to Little Women. (The recent PBS presentation of Little Women was so enjoyable I’ve decided to reread Little Men and Jo’s Boys.)

In grade school, Sister Miriam read Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan to my eight-grade class. By 1949, when she read it to us, it had already become a classic. I’ve reread it several times as an adult, and I’ll be giving it as a Christmas gift to a ten-year-old friend this year. For those of you who haven’t read it, the book is about a group of children who, using their sleds, helped smuggle gold bullion out of Norway in 1940 after the Nazis parachuted into their country. It’s an exciting adventure!

As an adult, I’ve read a number of books written for children. I’ve read for two reasons: because a friend recommended a book for 10 to 14-year-olds or because I wanted to buy a Christmas gift for a young relative. I am always interested in learning about new books because I give a book each Christmas to each great-grand-nephew or niece—I have ten.

Thus, the books I’ve read as an adult are those by Gary Paulsen, whose five-part” Hatchet Adventure Series” is widely appreciated by young people. I’ve read the first of the series—Hatchet—several times. It’s a survival story of a young boy—Brian—lost in the northern Canadian woods.

Just this past year, on the recommendation of a friend, I read Redwall, by Brian Jacques. I now plan to give it to my great-grand-nephew Beau (who’s 10) for Christmas. It’s the story of a group of peace-loving mice who are threatened by Cluny and his gang of bloodthirsty rats. This book reminded me of the adult book Watership Down, which is a favorite of mine.

Another book I recently read on a friend’s recommendation is a World War II story for young readers, just as Snow Treasure is. The book—The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley—is the story of a ten-year-old child kept almost secret by her mother in one room in London. It is the sending of children to the countryside that saves Ada. Both this book and its sequel—The War I Finally Won—are immensely enjoyable.

Of course, I read all of Harry Potter as a sixty- and seventy-year-old reader. Except for the Narnia series, they were the first fantasy adventures I ever read and they totally enthralled me. I have all seven books as well as the audio cassettes and the DVDs. Under the influence of J. K. Rowling, I became a Potter junkie!

What books do you remember from childhood?

Or what books written for young people have you’ve enjoyed as an adult? Please share!


Illustration from Wikipedia

Sunday, June 3, 2018

A Lifetime of Reading

In high school and college, I read historical novels in my spare time. I remember Dear and Glorious Physician about St. Luke and Look to the Mountain, which takes place during the American Revolution. It’s one of the finest historical novels I’ve ever read. Taylor Caldwell wrote of Luke; LeGrand Cannon, Jr., of the Revolution.

Of course, in the convent, I read only theologians. Afterward, however, I returned to historical novels. In the late sixties and early seventies, I read the three authors that some literary critics consider the finest historical novelists of the 20th century: Robert Graves (Ancient Rome), Mary Renault (Ancient and Classical Greece), and Michael Shaara (the Civil War)

In college and later in graduate school, I read the classic novels by English and American authors such as Melville, Steinbeck, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, George Eliot, Evelyn Waugh. However, by the time I left the University of Minnesota with a graduate degree in American Studies plus a strong minor in Black History, I was weary of “great” literature—of deep and abiding themes that run like dark and golden threads through the tapestry of time. I wanted to read books I didn’t need to ponder for symbolism and character and plot development. I wanted simpler things to read.

Since then, I’ve discovered several women writers who explore the dynamics of families: Anne Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Anne Quindlen, Elizabeth Strout, Alice Walker. I’ve also come to enjoy memoirs such as those by Frank McCourt, Rick Bragg, and James McBride.

In the 1990s, I discovered that some of the best novels being written were by mystery writers. In the past twenty-five years, I’ve begun to read mainly mysteries by such well-known authors as Louise Penny, Chris Nickson, Julia Spenser-Fleming, Deborah Crombie, Anne Perry, Charles Todd, Margaret Coel, William Kent Krueger, Laurie R. King, Martin Walker, Alan Bradley, P. J. Tracy, Daniel Silva, Donna Leon, Alex Grecian, Tony and Anne Hillerman, Paul Doiron, Jane Cleland.

I enjoy the puzzles that mysteries offer and delight in solving them before the last chapter.  In addition, some of these authors write historical mysteries. So that’s a Win-Win for me!

Through the years, when health issues have dragged down my spirits, I’ve tended to look for writers who offer a world that is not as complex as the one in which we all now live. Not as complex or frightening or dark. Back in the 1970s, I found that James Herriot’s books about a group of Yorkshire veterinarians lightened my spirits.  

His books spoke to me of simplicity, goodness, the power of laughter. Some would call them “feel-good” books. That is, they don’t deal with the major issues of our time like racism, injustice, sexism, inequality, terrorism, abortion, war. They end happily. That’s what I sometimes crave—a happy ending.

Three writers who fit the bill for me now are Patrick Taylor (the Irish Country Doctor series), Jan Karon (the Mitford series), and Effie Leland Wilder (a retirement village series introduced to me by blogger Arkansas Patti).

In one of Karon’s books, her main character, an Episcopal priest, looked at the countryside and thought, “nothing terribly dramatic ever seemed to happen. Life appeared to flow sweetly, without many surprises or obstacles to overcome.” That appeals to me when life becomes overwhelming.

The truth is that besides my writing, I mostly laze through the days and evenings, reading for pure enjoyment. When I want to challenge my brain, I read non-fiction about history or politics. Both give me grist for the mill of my mind.

What about you? Any authors to recommend?