Today, I am still keeping my cat alive. She has revived somewhat—her longer-term survival is still much in question, but she is holding her own and, we hope, healing. Because she was so near death this past week, I couldn’t help but think of “El Señor Don Gato,” the traditional children’s song about the cat that dies and then comes back to life at the smell of fish. We’re still hoping we’ll be so lucky around here, but we also know that it’s a brutal song with a tacked-on happy ending that’s not too realistic.
We knew that even in fourth grade, where I first encountered “El Señor Don Gato.” Whenever I think of the song, I also have to think of fourth-grade chorus, unfortunately probably the pinnacle of my musical education. Oh, yes, I took guitar lessons during high school, and I certainly had my ears opened when I went away to college and encountered whole new styles of music—New Wave and punk and so forth and so on.
When I look back now, though, I think fourth grade was a watershed in determining I would never be a musician. It’s something I regret, though it’s not difficult to live with. Both my parents had grown up singing at church and both had been put through the requisite piano lessons. Neither had taken to any of it, and they didn’t want to force my brother or me. We were given lots of lessons outside of school—as soon as my father was out of graduate school and well employed, we had a private French tutor (remembered primarily for his one blue eye and one brown eye), and my mother provided me with tap dance lessons, drama and acting lessons, and those doomed guitar lessons. The arts were poorly covered in our Tennessee public schools. Some things don’t change much.
But in fourth grade, we actually had a class specifically for singing. I always loved it and approached it with gusto. That is, until preparations began for our holiday-season performance. It was at that time when my best friend in class, Karen, informed me that she would not be able to stand beside me in the risers.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because,” she said, hesitating slightly, “you’ll make me sing off-key.”
I, of course, had no idea that I’d been singing off-key. I didn’t really even know what that meant. I had just been enjoying belting out the lyrics.
Karen, on the other hand, had a father who was a music professor at the local university and a mother who was a former opera singer and who gave private music lessons in their home. Immigrants from Germany, they had a certain, shall we say, highly disciplined, old-school approach to life.
I’d spent a good bit of time at Karen’s home, and her mother terrified me with her heavily accented and tremulous voice that could easily rise to a Wagnerian-Brunhilde pitch. I recall one day when Mrs. L gathered Karen and me in the kitchen to help make rhubarb pie. Rhubarb pie was something I’d never had before, and as a newly diagnosed diabetic I wasn’t sure I should be having anything to do with pie, but I tried my best to help. Mrs. L put me in charge of mixing together the dry ingredients for the crust.
Of course, I didn’t get far. As soon as Mrs. L saw me dip the measuring spoon into the sugar tin, she grabbed it out of my hand. “You have to mix the salt with the flour in the bowl before adding the sugar,” she said. “You must follow the order of the ingredients in the list.” I felt terrible that I couldn’t even properly mix together a mere three ingredients.
So, no doubt that Karen was under a great deal of pressure to perform well in the holiday concert at school. Still, it hurt my feelings that Karen refused to stand beside me on the risers, and no doubt I sang less well myself without her strong, well cultivated voice beside me. Now, I wonder at the fact that Karen’s mother never made any gesture to help her daughter’s friend develop better musical skills. In spite of a devotion to music, and in spite of the fact that Mrs. L would sometimes be doing complex vocal exercises or giving a lesson while we played, it wasn’t the kind of house where people sang around the piano together. Probably my mother knew better than to sign me up for formal lessons with her.
At any rate, that was a time in my life when I was encountering the wider world and realizing my own limited place in it. Karen’s German parents were one example, as was my friendship with a girl from India, Sonchita, with whom I played all through second and third grade. In fact, other than my failure as a singer, what I remember the most about my fourth-grade chorus class are the tunes from other cultures—the Spanish origins of “El Señor Don Gato” were explained to us, as were the Scottish ones of another of my favorites, “The Skye Boat Song,” a melancholy tune that might be more akin to my mood these days than the cheerful gato song. “The Skye Boat Song” opened my eyes to the complexity of history. It is a song of survival, but of survival after defeat. It’s a tune I will always love in its making of sorrowful beauty.