I Never Sang For My Father...Oh Wait, Yes, I Did!
When I was young, my family sang everywhere, my Dad's booming bass carrying us all with him as we musically explored blue moons and harvest moons, sang the praises of sweet Adeline and Amazing Grace, and kept an eagle eye out for what was comin' round the mountain.
We sang in the car on the way home. We sang at picnics and cookouts. And, most poignantly, we sang (and continue to sing) together at the Sunday night community sings in Leland Michigan. I so look forward to attending those every Sunday night I am home in Michigan. It is something my Dad and I share in a very special way and I treasure every minute I can twine my alto around the bass line of his harmonies.
A few years back I wrote an essay about the Sing. I would like to repeat it here today in tribute to fathers everywhere who daily pass on their wisdom and love to countless generations, but most especially in honor of my Dad, who had so much to do with who I have grown to be. I love you Dad! This one's for you.
This is a love letter. It is sentimental; it is passionate; it is true. It admits no flaws (or overlooks them), it is infatuated with the beloved in all its beauty and grace, and seeks only to sit a while, reveal its wonders, and revel in its presence.
There is a place I know where time stands still, where the north wind breathes softly across the lake, and the summer never ends. It is a magical place, an enchanted peninsula, a small spit of land surrounded by water and riddled with freshwater lakes so pure and innocent that you can see clear to the bottom of their soul.
Lake Michigan whispers in the foggy dawn and sparkles in the sun at midday, when the children run shrieking with the shock of cold water on their legs. The span of beach goes on for miles, broken only by chalky bluffs and towering dunes. The white sand sifts between your toes and cradles your arches – warm and soft as the inside of a cat’s ear, as the downy head of a newborn babe, as a kind word on an angry day.
It is a place of gently rolling hills, stretching their way to the horizon or the lake - whichever comes first. It is a land of cherry orchards, ablaze with budding May promise, heavy in summer with the fruitfulness born of hard labor. Some years the land is harsh and farmers’ children go hungry to bed, praying to God for the cool days and abundant rain that make Daddy smile. But always the land is there; the land is eternal; the land is everything.
This is a place where God is found in every crooked twig and every rocky shore, every call of the great horned owl and every pulse of the land. This is a place where deer graze, and stars blaze, and children still run to catch fireflies in mayonnaise jars while their elders sit on the porch sipping something tall and cool, catching up on all the family gossip.
It is a place where parents sing their children to sleep beneath sighing pines, with the same songs their grandparents sang to them so many lifetimes ago. It is place that many visit, but few call home. It is a place where the greatest treasures to be found are not gold or silver, nor even bluestone or seagull feather. The greatest treasures of this realm lie deep within the human heart – love, peace, joy, family, and remembrance.
This is as close as I shall come to Eden during my lifetime. This is the place my parents and their parents before them bequeathed to me. This is where my grandparents rest and where my father makes his home. This is the place my children grew up. This is the place where I will grow old. This is the land my heart calls home.
It is 7:45 on a warm July evening. I sit in the old wooden clubhouse at the top of the hill. The golf course spreads out before me in the waning sunlight, golden in what my children call the “magic” hours. Every evening about 6:00, the wind drops, the lake calms, and the entire world takes on a warm glow, as if God had touched the world, put a finger to his lips and whispered “Hush.” These are the best times for water skiing (no waves), beach picnics (no wind), and long walks with your husband (no stress).
The room fills as the clock hands inch closer to 8:00. The “summer” people and the year round residents have come together for one of the most cherished traditions of the summer – the Sunday Night Sing. Grandmothers and older gentlemen get the seats nearest the open doors, along with those who have babies in tow. The elderly seek the fresh air that blows through the French doors; the new parents value the quick exit they provide in case of newborn meltdown.
The Sing is one of the only places I know where a voluntary dress code is still in current practice. I see young mothers decked out in Lily Pulitzer sundresses and strappy sandals, their blonde hair smooth and gleaming like a Clairol magazine ad. They chat with their friends about things like play dates, sandcastles, and tennis games. Men stop to visit, kibbutz, discuss how long they are staying this time before returning to the daily grind of the real world, and exchange golf scores, business tips, and fish stories.
Children walk quietly (at least while Mom and Dad are watching) to take their rightful spaces down front, where they can get in on all the action. Their hair is combed; their clothes are clean. The boys wear polo shirts and the girls wear patent leather Mary Janes. All wear innocence, and the suntanned glow of long summer days spent in the country, on the water. I have always maintained and here declare it officially: there are no kids anywhere on earth more attractive than the kids at the Sunday Night Sing.
Of course, every rule has an exception. The teen contingent shows little regard for the conventions of their elders. They wear tank tops and shorts, baggy sweatshirts and jeans. They line the scarred tables at the back of the hall, sitting with their backs against the wall, swinging their legs in rhythm, sharing secrets, smiling, flirting, out from under the watchful eye of their parents for an hour. As long as they are quiet, no one will turn around to check up on them. They perch on the tables like birds on a wire, waiting for the singing to start and their blessed hour of comparative privacy to commence.
It is eight o’clock. The piano plays and the strains of our national anthem float across the hall. As one, all stand; many place their hands over their heart, a few older gentlemen salute, and we begin to sing. The patriotic fervor that to so many in this cynical age seems laughable is everywhere in evidence here. These are good people, fortunate people, people who are glad to live in this country. And they are not ashamed of old ways. After all, the community sings have endured for almost 100 years.
We sing old songs - the ones our parents sang before us. We sing show tunes like Eidelweiss and Oklahoma by Rodgers and Hammerstein, folk songs like Puff the Magic Dragon, and This Land is Your Land. For the children’s sake, we do Bingo, and The Three Little Fishies, and She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain (with all the appropriate hand gestures). Everyone groans when someone requests Green Grow the Rushes (all twelve verses – sigh!) but all seem to enjoy Capitol Ship with its nonsensical lyrics and Waltzing Matilda with its liberal use of Australian slang.
Looking out the windows, I see a few lone boys – solitary escapees from their mother’s scrutiny - let go, no doubt, due to their incessant squirming and nonstop chatter. They chase each other back and forth across the putting green and play with the golf ball washers as my brother and I did once upon a long ago time.
So little has changed since we were children. No one stands up when we sing Dixie anymore – all the rebels have gone to meet their maker – and the songbooks have been rebound, thanks to someone’s generous gift. But the voices still rise in the still summer air, undisturbed by the sound of air-conditioning. The children still laugh and play; the parents still sing with gusto, helping the younger crowd to learn the words; the grandparents still knit and visit, and look out in peace upon the place and the people they love. The generations have turned, but the memories and traditions remain.
As we approach the end of the hour, the mood mellows and deepens as we sing lullabies - Sweet and Low and All Through the Night, which has a special hold on my heart; it is what I sang my children to sleep with when they were very young. We follow up with the old songs of grace and faith – Jacob’s Ladder, All Night, All Day, and The Little Brown Church in the Vale.
When I sing the words, “No spot is so dear to my childhood as the little brown church in the vale,” I remember my mother, dead these last eight years, sitting contentedly beside me, long before the cruel reality of divorce and alcoholism took her youth; and my grandmother, her voice strong and clear, belying her age and girth, singing the low descant, “Oh come, come, come, . . “
It’s that kind of a place. The kind of place where I meet my ancestors and my childhood at every turn of the path, and imagine the future - when my children will bring their families to the lake - every time I wish upon a star. In these days of transient populations and MTV induced attention spans, there is something holy about a place where you have put down roots - a place where your children play with the offspring of your childhood friends - a place where I am still known by my maiden name, where I am still the carefree girl with skinned knees and sneakers full of sand. A place where I am most me.
As we launch into The Leelanau Song, written expressly for the Sunday Night Sing so many years ago and still sung every week without fail, I remember the summer my grandmother wouldn’t let me go home until I had memorized all the words to three verses and a chorus. I remember her teaching me to swim on sunny days and how to knit and play a mean hand of gin rummy on rainy ones. I remember her smile, and her lap, and her love.
She and my grandfather first came to this place in the ‘30’s. I have come every summer of my life save one - in college, when I was unable to get any time off from my summer job. They found the land, and built the house, and brought my father and my Aunt Kathy here so many summers ago. My grandmother planted the gardens, full of hollyhocks, phlox, and old-fashioned lilacs; ripe red raspberries and little green apples, sour and hard. My grandfather blazed trails through the woods that my father still maintains for new generations of aspiring young woodsmen to follow. Did they know what they were starting? Do they know how much I love this land? And how much a part of it all – how much a part of me - they still are?
We close the Sing with Now the Day is Over. My father leans into me, puts his arm around my shoulders, and as my voice rises in harmony with his, the past blends seamlessly into the future. I cherish the deep feeling of peace that comes over my heart and over the land, as the sun slips silently behind North Manitou Island and into Lake Michigan.
My father and I share the same wish – when we sleep at last beneath this land of pines and dunes and brilliant blue skies, we want to be sung to our rest with this song. It is a song about endings and beginnings, death and resurrection, founders and settlers gone to ground and new generations carrying on. It sings of renewal and rebirth and restoration. It sings of hope and mercy, love and life. It is a song of God’s grace, a fitting end to a day spent in a place of such beauty and blessing – a fitting end to a life spent in service of the good, the beautiful, the rare. It is profound prayer.
Now the day is over. Night is drawing nigh.
Shadows of the Evening steal across the sky.
Jesus give the weary rest and sweet repose.
With thy tenderest blessings, may my eyelids close.
When the morning wakens, then may I arise
Pure and fresh and sinless in Thy holy eyes.
Susan Pandorf 2003