like a mother and child

I was 12 years old and away at summer camp for the first time. She was the counselor assigned to my cabin. I remember her long dirty blond hair, wavy and wild. Her weathered hiking boots and the lilac shirt she tied around her waist each morning.

Her birch-bark name tag read Marion, but we all chose French pseudonyms for our two-week cultural immersions. So I never knew her real name.

She was blessedly kind, with that standard-issue camp-counselor caring heart. She let me sniffle into her shoulder one lonely night when I was feeling homesick. She probably did the same for every girl in our bunk, though we were all too cool to admit it in daylight.

She didn’t care when we giggled our way through quiet time. She ignored our whispering in English when we were supposed to be practicing French. She laughed when we gossiped about the boys in the bunk next door.

And every night she sang to us.

Like a ship on the harbor
Like a mother and child
Like a light in the darkness
I’ll hold you awhile

Who know where she got the song. Whether her mother cooed into her own ears as a baby, or a beloved grandmother hummed while they rocked together. Who knows why she chose to sing us a child’s song, when every other counselor crooned camp ballads or classic oldies or old folk tunes to wind down their charges for the night.

But she sang us a lullaby. And even though we were awkward and eager girls on the cusp of adolescence, we let her.

We’ll rock on the water
I’ll cradle you deep
And hold you while angels
Sing you to sleep

Last night I crooned these words into Joseph’s ears as he screamed and fussed. By the fifth time through, just when I thought my head would explode if I didn’t get back to sleep soon, he was silently sucking his fingers and staring up at me with those unblinking round owl eyes.

The song had worked its magic again. It always does.

the mystery of mothering unfolding

Is it odd that one of my favorite lullabies comes from not from a beloved relative, but from an almost-stranger I once knew for two weeks? I have sang this song to every child I baby sat. Every niece and nephew I rocked. Every newborn of my own.

And each time I hum its melody, I reach back to this young woman, singing softly to a cabin of girls tucked into the settling summer woods, distant loons calling to each other on the dark lake beneath our windows.

I don’t know what happened to Marion. I wrote to her eagerly the rest of that summer and into the fall. She sent me one letter from college, short but kind, postmarked from Madison. I came back to camp for three more summers. She never returned.

She probably never knew that the song she sang each night at lights-out would imprint itself on the mind of a young teenager and carry into her own motherhood. But she taught me something about being a parent. Even when I was miles away from my own family, even when I was only twelve years old.

She taught me that tenderness is an offering, an openness, a gentle hospitality to whomever needs our love. She gave this gift that sweltering summer to twelve girls tucked into creaky wooden bunk beds.

Maybe one day, a child will remember I shared this song with them. Maybe it will be one of my sons. Maybe it will be a niece or nephew or neighborhood kid I babysat growing up. Maybe they will sing it to a child of their own. Lullabies are sung to be shared, after all.

My hope is that they (and I) will remember how sharing these small holy moments – when day meets night, when waking meets sleeping, when cry meets comfort – can shape us over time into gentler people. People who make space for what is tender and vulnerable and in need of love.

Like a mother and child.

. . .

I discovered that this lullaby was written by Cris Williamson in 1977. I’d love to know if any of you ever heard of it before today?

Here are a few more musings on lullabies: finding a song for each child and singing to babies as a spiritual practice.

the touch of rivalry

I hit, I hit, I hit!

He wakes up chirping like a bird. A happy song to greet the dawn, warbling as he waits for me to arrive. But the words aren’t quite as sweet as the tune.

No hugs! I do not hug. I hit! I hit my brother!

The rivalry song.

Half of me wants to burst out laughing every time I hear his angelic soprano start on the monitor. Half of me wants to storm in the little devil’s room and declare, for the thousandth time that no, you do NOT hit your brother, it is NOT nice to hit, and you do NOT sing mean songs about hitting, you need to be GENTLE.

(Even though yelling at children to be gentle never fails to amuse in its irony.)

He’s three and the baby is one and they can’t help but collide all day, physically and emotionally. One is curious, the other covetous; one likes to build carefully, the other likes to barrel over and destroy. They are each other’s beloved playmates, but when the toys and books and food and games and attention have to be shared, rivalry rears its ugly head. For now the older is always the instigator, but the tables will soon turn and the hits will trade back and forth.

Push, shove, steal, slap, throw, grab, smack. I hit, I hit, I hit!

Sometimes I try gentle reminders: We don’t hit in our family. Sometimes I opt for alternative techniques: Hands aren’t for hitting; they’re for helping. Sometimes I simply grit my teeth and seethe STOP.

I know it’s a passing phase; I know some siblings spar far worse; but I also know I’m plain tired of it. Tired of him singing about it from the time he wakes up; tired of wrestling toys away from one or the other all afternoon long. Tired of whacks and slaps and shoves and pushes between brothers. Yearning for a gentler touch.

. . .

Election season rolls round, and the churches roil over to uproar again, and I’m so tired of the factions, the fighting, the fear, and the ferocity with which we attack each other. Over and over again we become as bad as sparring siblings: we hit and hit, lashing out; one side’s sinners, the other side’s saints. I wonder if deep down we’re all craving God’s attention, clamoring for love like children, shoving at the siblings around us, slapping each other with name-calling and petty attacks. Where’s the Christ in that?

I hit, I hit, I hit my brother, no, I do not like hugs.

Contrary to Teresa’s wisdom – Christ has no hands but yours in the world – we use hands in many ways that aren’t holy, too. The slaps and shoves I see from my oldest to my youngest aren’t so far from my own fists balled in frustration, my palms slammed to the kitchen counter, my fingers pointed in pettiness. As they learn language I’m constantly coaching use your words, but how do I teach use your hands?

Maybe the more I fold them in prayer, bring them to heart’s center like my yoga teacher reminds, the more I model the gentleness of touch. Fingers that fix, palms that smooth, hands that hold, hug, help.

A heart that rests in God’s belovedness without elbowing the other children of God around me. Hands that don’t need to fight for attention.

finding his song

I finally found his song. It only took a year.

When he was first born, in that bleary, dreamlike blur of the early weeks, I sang anything – show tunes, rock songs, church hymns, folk ballads. I had all the time in the world to sing, awake with him through the wee hours. His tiny new ears didn’t care how tired my voice rasped. Sometimes I sang just to keep myself from nodding off.

When he crawled into the alert baby months, needing more of a routine to quiet down for bed, my songs grew shorter, more repetitious. One verse for the diaper change, one for the rocking waltz towards the glider, one for the last gentle lift to crib. I didn’t pay much attention to song selection; we’d go through weeks of one, then I’d wander into another. The effect was nil: he hated the changing table, preferred jostling en route to rocker, and slipped so quickly into sleep after nursing that it didn’t seem to matter whether I sang or not.

Force of habit kept me going, but I figured he simply wasn’t a snuggler.

Then a few weeks ago, as we wrestled through our nightly post-nurse, pre-bed squirmy-baby-wants-off-lap, I paused in my mindless humming of the same song I always sang his brother. I started singing something new. A song deep from my own childhood, echoes of my parents tucking blanket under chin, kissing forehead, turning off lights. A song that thousands of babies have been sung before, but a song I’d never sang to either of mine.

He stopped squirming. He stared up at me with round owling baby eyes, inquisitive even in the evening dark of his room. His body relaxed into mine. His eyelids lowered. And he let me sing.

It’s his song, of course. I’d just never found it before.

Bedtime is different now, since our discovery. We both want to be there, in the lilting lullaby and the rocking chair rhythm. He lets me sing two, even three rounds before he starts to stretch towards crib. I kiss him softly, keep singing as I turn to go. What a wonder to find the song that was in both our bones all along.

Lullabies are overlooked in importance. Our first encounter with word and rhyme, rhythm and song, comes from the lips of those closest to us when we first enter the world. The simple songs are the most ancient, wordless hums from our ancestors. Some are universal, others are particular to the era or music or poets our parents loved. We hear them hundreds of times before our brains even understand what language or music means. But they can set our pulse to music.

My bones are strong with song. Many nights when I was young, I had four different lullabies sung to me. With two older siblings and two parents making the rounds of rooms to tuck us in at night, I often heard an alto, a soprano, a baritone and an almost-tenor before my eyelids shut. Like any child resisting bedtime, I begged for endless rounds of infinite songs. But my special ones were always the same, always particular to the singer.

My mother crooned “A Bushel and A Peck” from Guys & Dolls (though I thought she wrote it just for me). My father drummed his fingers to “Lullaby and Goodnight.” My sister sang “Edelweiss” in a voice sweeter than Julie Andrews. And my brother grinningly sang “Wee Willie Winkie” with our own lyrics, full of silly jokes. I delighted in each lullaby and its singer. For a few precious minutes every night, at the end of a noisy day in a big family, I had each of them to myself. I knew those moments were to be savored.

But my own songs weren’t the only ones I loved. For years my younger brothers shared a bedroom next door to my own, and as our roving band of singers made the bedtime rounds, I listened to my brothers’ lullabies, too. I can still hear my dad bellowing through the open doorway – “Camptown Races” rollicking for one brother, Ireland’s anthem “The Soldier’s Song” proudly proclaimed for another.

Why did it take me so long to remember the truth I learned in my own childhood, night after night? That the beauty of each child is reflected in the unique songs we sing them. That what works for one will not always work for another. That we each need our own lullaby.

Each of my boys has their own song from me now. It took us awhile to get here; I’ll likely have to relearn this lesson a thousand times as I keep going – to delight in their differences, not to force them into another’s mold. But the way that sweet baby relaxes his busy limbs and breathes deep into my lap as we rock and I sing, the way his brother faithfully requests the same lullaby every night, even when I try to slip in something new, they remind me what they need from me the most – to be a mother to each of them in their own way.

With their own rhythm, their own words, their own song.