When our firstborn child Grace was a baby, my husband Mike would pace the floor with her in his arms and sing her to sleep. Little Grace loved it. She was too young to realize that she was missing out on traditional lullabies because of Daddy’s preference for, um, alternative lullabies. Daddy, you see, liked serious songs that dealt with mature topics. Topics like death and aging (“Old Black Joe”), treachery (“Lemon Tree”), hardship (“Ol’ Man River”), and the wretched lives of coal miners (“Sixteen Tons”). Over time Grace came to favor “Ol’ Man River” for her nightly pace-and-croon. It was no surprise when Grace eventually began serenading her own dolly with “get a little drunk and you land in a ja-a-a-a-ail.”
Every song in Mike’s lullaby index was bereft of pleasant images like twinkling stars and pretty little horses. What’s more, his entire repertoire was comprised of total downers, and even the effects of loving fatherhood and the mellowing passage of time did not inspire Mike to lighten up his song list. By the time Grace was eight, Mike had settled upon the plaintive “Danny Boy” as the lullaby of choice for Grace, Ben, and Clare. Grace and Ben liked the song well enough, but Clare, once she was old enough to grasp its meaning, couldn’t hear it without bursting into tears. “No, Daddy, no! Please don’t sing!” This was a blow to Mike, who liked to have an audience when he hit the high C in the final verse.
Mike might still be unsettling his kids with ballads about battle-bound young men and their anguished fathers were it not for a fortuitous find at our local library. A borrowed copy of Hap Palmer’s “Babysong” caused Mike to literally change his tune, practically overnight. It was endearing (and admittedly, a little strange) to see a grown man so taken with happy tunes about napping, visiting Grandma, and using the potty. What was most surprising was that a bona-fide lullaby from the “Babysong” recording, the lovely “Baby’s Bed,” actually became Mike’s preferred song for tucking in the children. He would sing it to them almost every evening. He’d sing it at other times, too, even when the kids weren’t around. In fact, at any hour of the day or night Mike was liable to break into “Baby’s Bed” or some peppier ditty from “Babysong.” There was no telling when the tenured professor and highly-respected biochemist would burst forth with something like “Sittin’ in a highchair, big chair, my chair, sittin’ in a highchair, bang my spoon.” It seemed that for every song Mike had ever sung about a tragic mine collapse or a boozing gambler he intended to sing two about the joys of blankie ownership.
Not that the kids minded. They liked “Babysong” almost as much as Mike did, so when we bought Mike his very own copy of “Babysong” for Father’s Day, it was as much a gift for the children as it was for Daddy. Mike played the CD often, especially during Sunday breakfasts, when all the family was in one place and could enjoy it together. But a line was crossed on a certain Sunday when we had guests to brunch, and “Babysong” was the background music. Somewhere between the fruit cup and the shirred eggs, the sweet lyric “Baby’s bed is soft and green/For my baby’s summer dream” gave way to “Today I took my diaper off / I’ve never felt so free / My pants are not puffed out in back / What you see is me.”
At least Mike wasn’t singing along.
In time the charm of “Babysong” wore thin, and eventually Mike wearied altogether of his job as Chief Lullabyer and Baby Husher. Now I’m the one who sings lullabies to those of our children who are still young enough to enjoy it. A traditionalist in all things, I stick with the old standbys, like “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” and “Morningtown Ride.” To my delight, Helen and Gerard – loving children that they are – relish every sour note.
My older children also will occasionally listen to music before bed, but now their “lullabies” are in CD format, and sung by people who rock arenas instead of cradles. When I was recently making the rounds of beds to say “good night,” I heard Vincent playing a song with lyrics that were anything but soothing:
“Smile in my face then rip the brakes out my car.”
Mike would have loved it.
Copyright 2011 Celeste Behe