Sing like your parents. No … wait! Not the racist songs.

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In tune, for so many years -- song helped these two through a long life together
In tune, for so many years — song helped these two through a long life together.

Dishwashers suck.

Rather than help families, they have hurt them. Cleaning those dinner dishes by hand used to bring families together. Somebody washed; somebody dried; somebody put the stuff away.

Bonding time, you know.

I was reminded of this the other day when I blindly grabbed a CD and popped it into the player. To my surprise, a very old song played: “Oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’ Clementine.”

Neil Young had refashioned the mining ballad as part of a collection called Americana.

But I didn’t hear Young’s voice. I heard my late father’s.

He stood at the kitchen sink, dish towel and frying pan in hand, crooning. Mom was there, too, rosy cheeked from the steam rising from the faucet, taking a break from her part of the duet to grab some more pots from the stove.

As soon as dad’s song ended, she started right up.

Or, she probably interrupted him. She was the always the main event. He was backup.

The scene, of course coming back to me only through nostalgia, was certainly not an everyday occurrence in our household. We were not that lucky. But, the sink-side performance happened often enough to create a peaceful pigeonhole in my memory that opens with the right trigger.

Like Neil Young’s Clementine.

My dad, who grew up in a mining town in Pennsylvania, liked the tongue-in-cheek song about the big-footed miner’s daughter, and other ballads that seemed to try to make sense of the struggle of life, or poke fun at it.

Mom entertained us kids with some goofy kids songs like you would expect but she seemed to most enjoy songs celebrating love or romance. She got very serious, her whole persona would change, while gearing up for a song like “Some Enchanted Evening” or “Unchained Melody” or “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song.”

She had the extra lyrical drive that came with being Irish, I believe. As a teenager, she wanted to be a nightclub singer and even performed at least once in a club. I think she could have been successful.

Others with more musical savvy saw her talent, too. She could captivate a room. Beer often flowed — and spilled — at the kitchen table in her parents’ home. And if you were there and couldn’t come up with a lyric or two, you were worse than a failure. You were boring.

She was anything but.

For many years, her zest for music and life itself kept her family from predictability and malaise.

We needed distractions like those after-dinner song fests; life could be tough, and very confusing.

My parents, neither of whom had grown up with money, went on to raise six kids of their own with very little financial help from relatives. This was also the ’60s with its complicated upheavals and almost constant clashes of culture, protest and race.

As an urban Irish girl, mom had been exposed to bigotry young, so she had a jump start at dealing with bias. She taught us not to judge people by their skin color.

Dad, who grew up in the country and went on to serve in the Navy, had little youthful exposure to non-whites of any kind so he harbored prejudice against blacks, until mom harangued it out of him. He also distrusted Asians, maybe because he served when Japan was an enemy.

Neither of them could avoid the era’s overriding prejudice and ham-handed attempts to deal with bias against minorities. TV shows were racist; commercials were racist; songs were racist and sexist, and most people didn’t realize they were keeping bigotry alive.

Of course, ditties making fun of blacks at the time were commonplace. But it took me until much older to realize how many songs of that era also ridiculed Hispanics, Indians, Native Americans and Asians alike.

Not only did our relatives sing these, but they taught them to us, even acting some out with  vaudevillian flair. One of my middle-aged uncles with a penchant for lots of beer for some strange reason pretended to be a big-lipped black girl nearly every time he saw me and my younger brother. He told us he – she? – was our girlfriend and slobbered all over our necks asking how many nappy headed pickaninies we were going to raise.

So, while TV played real-life, deadly, gritty clashes between blacks and whites, and assassinations dominated the news, Americans across the country were still two-steppin’ and shuckin’ and jivin’ to lampoon blacks, talking like the cartoon character Speedy Gonzales to ridicule Mexicans and pulling their eyes into slits and deliberately saying R’s instead of L’s to poke fun at yellow people.

You know, like “I rive in America. I am rucky rittle china man.”

Did I mention these were confusing times?

Nothing seemed to get much clearer as the years passed, or get much easier.

Adding to my our family’s struggles were needy relatives who seemed to pop up out of the blue, the decline of the neighborhood where we lived, the jobless ’80s and some pure unadulterated bad luck. When dad finally started making a little more money, illness struck and mom and dad spent their latter years fending off disease, both physical and mental.

Again, mom tried to turn to music for solace. She and song remained entwined like a g-clef wrapped with flowery Con-Tact paper.

She joined a choir. My sisters helped her document old Irish songs. She made a CD for her kids.

 

Beer, usually Iron City in Pittsburgh, tended to loosen the vocal cords.

But, it didn’t last long enough. As she aged, mom’s mind faltered — eventually becoming pocked and loose, and unpredictable. She meandered between reality, a film noir version of what had been her life and loops of the past.

My dad stuck with her, though, until he couldn’t walk or very well, or control her. He struggled to keep her from hurting herself, or him.

Some of the saddest moments came as my sisters and father tried to use music to calm my mom. It would work for a bit, as the angry lines in her face softened to mouth lyrics, only to harden again as she lashed out with even more venom in surprise attacks on dad.

Dave and Peggy Iseman in their latter years

My sisters tried to keep my parents together but we had to convince my father he was too feeble to be with mom all the time. He suffered strokes and a big heart attack, which left him near death, a pump like a pulsating bratwurst keeping his life-blood moving, a tube down his throat that he clawed at while opening and closing his mouth like a baby bird trying to be fed.

This was in a crowded intensive care unit, with little space and nurses and doctors and technicians moving about officiously, some stopping to reassure his red-eyed, adult children that dad wasn’t really feeling the pain, or the dry mouth, or the bruising that seemed to be everywhere.

Some of us wondered whether he would want to live like this. His doctor said he could survive, though, so we tried to do what we thought he might like, presuming he could hear or feel anything around him.

We wheeled mom in, and she held his hand tethered by IV tubes and tape. One of my sisters said he might enjoy hearing her sing. Mom didn’t really seem to realize how bad he was, but she kissed him, told him not to worry, asked if a priest had been to visit and started singing an old love song.

She seemed happy to perform.

Doctors and others in scrubs bustled about. A dark-skinned Indian man adjusted dials on a machine that looked like a vacuum at a car wash. A sharp-featured Chinese nurse used two fingers to flick one of the clear bags above dad’s head.

A brown woman who spoke like she was from the West Indies reassured me dad wasn’t going to remember pawing at that dry throat – or those moans.

Mom finished one song and launched right into: “May I Sleep in Your Barn Tonight Mister?” a ballad of betrayal and heartbreak that my dad learned young and could sing without pause despite numerous verses.

My sister and I took in the moment – our gray parents, a husband and wife of decades, hands entwined, her singing and him seeming to calm into some semblance of peace.

It soothed us. My mom saw we were pleased and smiled like she was still 35, deftly dealing with six kids, a couple vagabond relatives and a hard-working husband who just got home from a hard day’s work.

As the long ballad ended, mom seemed confused about what to sing next. My sister suggested she try an old hymn, but my mom’s eyes lit up as she recalled one of my dad’s favorites.

She launched into it with gusto.

“Oh, once there was a China man. His name was Chinka Challu Chapan. His nose was short and his feet were long and this is how he walked along …”

Uh-oh.

I knew that song well. It not only included every possible racist lampoon for Asians you could imagine, it also usually included a little dance that was a bad combination of Bruce Lee moves and waddling like Penguin from Batman cartoons.

“Danny Boy, what about Danny Boy?” my sister said excitedly, walking over to mom to try to drown out the racist lyrics. Though a dirge, and certainly not the best song for an intensive care unit, Danny Boy had always been one that mom could remember and sing with great emotion, and pride.

Anything would be better, at this point, than letting those caregivers hear, really hear, what she was singing.

“His nose was short and his feet were long and this is the way he walked along. All-apee, all-apee, chinka chal-lall-a-pee …” Mom was stuck on that bizarre China man song we had all sung as kids, after my father taught us it on some long drive somewhere. Though highly insulting, those lyrics were catchy, and fun to sing, difficult to stop.

It took some quick talking but, before any sort of mutiny by the caregivers, we got mom to move onto Danny Boy.

 

Dad survived that bout but suffered major repercussions and died months later.

We played charades with him on his death bed.

Mom outlived him but deteriorated quickly. She died with my sisters encouraging her to sing. She could barely speak. At one point, though, with one sister prompting her with a song made popular by Frank Sinatra, mom piped up, surprisingly, with some of her final words:

Sister: “Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you ….”

Mom: “If you’re young at heart.”

Got a heart? Got a mom? Got a family?

Got a dishwasher?

Shut it down, at least one night a week. Consider trying something for fun that we did out of necessity. Call it “Sing at the Sink Tuesday.”

Trust me. Time is shorter than you think. Try it this week.

Do it before the music dies.

 

 

Author: David Iseman

Longtime newsguy. Retired. Tinkering with words. Lemme know what you think.

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