The Fifth Noel: Chantez Joyeux Noel
We sing when we are together. That's what we do. It's in our DNA, as they say in phony journalism and the meetings of public relations consultants. By we, I hope I mean we human beings, who share song with the birds, but have, arguably, better lyrics. Arguably is an ugly word and, a little known fact, is forbidden from use in opera libretti.
I mean I love bird songs almost as much as I do human necks, but the entire bird kingdom, if there is such a thing, has still not produced one bird duo as fine as the Everly Brothers.
Anyway, by we I also mean the Ricke family. I'm not exactly sure where it came from, but I know a few things. My maternal grandfather, Charles Thompson, whom we called Paw-Paw (at his request, lest you think less of me as a child) played in a hillbilly band back when that meant something more than a bunch of suburban Californian kids with expensive mandolins and fiddles and phony accents. I mean, back in those days the number one requirement to be in a hillbilly band was to be a hillbilly. Today, it helps if you're from England and play the same stupid lick on the banjo at the end of every song.
But Paw-paw played hardcore hillbilly, in a band called the Arkansas Travelers. My mom had some old 78s (wish I knew what happened to them) which occasionally she would put on the old record player so she could listen to the music her dad made when he was a young man and before he was her father. I don't think he sang on the records. As I remember his voice was a combination of a growl and croak. That worked for Dylan, but back in the day, hillbillies had to be able to sing it or leave it alone.
Mom used to sing to and with us on every car trip of any distance. And when you live at the ultimate bottom tip of the nation, a mile from the Rio Grande River, you had to drive (and sing) a long way to get just about anywhere. She also played the harmonica, especially under the influence which was often. She didn't do either particularly well, but when you're a kid, you don't really know that, and when you're in the back of Country Sedan fighting with your siblings, you don't have the energy to be a music critic. I remember she also played the jaw-harp, which, for some reason, is not included in most symphony orchestras.
Her favorite was the song about "Redwing," the little Indian maid. Also Clementine and songs like that. And the song about how much we loved our Valley home way down upon the Rio Grande. We'd sing all the way to Houston sometimes, or at least it seems like it now. At least as far as George West which is where mom lived as a girl and was smack dab in the middle of absolute nowhere. She used to make dad drive us all there so she could be nostalgiac, brood, cry, and (I suspect) write poetry.
Well, we got the bug, if that's what it is. When we got a bit older, it was very much the expected thing, the usual family activity, in different configurations, to sit on the steps (in Denver), Mom's backyard (in Houston), Missy's spirit yard (in Austin), and Gordo's stone porch (also in Austin). Usually Gordon and I would play guitars and whoever else was there would sing along. But we'd also pass the guitars around if other people had a song they wanted to sing or accompany. Noel could play, but usually didn't. He never took the lead. He never sang loud, just would join in with everyone else.
Singing is a gift, from the gods or the birds or both. I'm not sure anyone has ever really understood exactly where it comes from and what it does to and for us and how it does it. I'm sorry for people who think that music is primarily something experienced through ear plugs and while doing other things. Music is already a thing. Maybe a thing divine. And supremely worth doing. Can you imagine singing and dancing to an old French Noel while doing your homework or texting someone or watching ESPN with the volume off? If you can imagine it, stop it right now before I unfriend you (another ugly word not allowed in opera).
The last time I was really with Noel for an extended time was in October when he was recovering from his hip-replacement surgery. I brought my ukelele. He had a lot of downtime, and he was in a lot of pain. We sang some stuff together, the stuff we always sang together. Beatles, Dylan, Simon and Garfunkle, Amazing Grace, and such. Then he wanted me to play some of my songs. He got to hear a couple that basically nobody else has ever heard. And the stories that went with them. It made me feel really good that he liked them. He made me play when other people came to visit too, like his in-laws. Not sure what they thought about it. After all, it was a ukelele. Sometimes I even wonder about that.
In November, things were obviously a lot worse. We either knew or feared that we were coming together to say goodbye to him. He said some words, some very lovely ones in fact, but for the most part, conversation was not much of an option. But we sang a lot. A. Lot. With a chaplain whom we invited in to pray with and for us. He stood at the foot of the bed and sang a wonderful blessing. We sang hymns, old songs, Christmas carols, and whatever else we felt like.
Nathan brought his mini-Martin so we had a guitar to play. One day we sang for what felt like three hours straight. Starting with "The First Noel" and "Silent Night," but pretty soon, we sung up every song that driver knew. At one point we slipped into "Take It Easy," and "Wild World," and then the room really started jumping when we took off on "Brown Eyed Girl." This feels like a movie in my memory, but as we were "sha la la la la la la la la la la-ing like New York Presbyterian Hosptial ICU has never heard before, Noel's nurse whisks open the curtain (closed to give the impression we cared about keeping things quiet) and squeals, "That's my favorite song" and starts rocking out with us.
I can't remember how we ended. I can't remember why. Maybe we actually were trying to be sensitive to the other patients. I remember that, at some point during the long night before he died on Saturday morning, we sang Amazing Grace again and I read the 23rd Psalm. And we prayed the Lord's prayer together.
Everything good in this world can kick you in the gut if you aren't careful. And, truth be told, it will kick you in the gut even if you are careful. This is what it is to be an animalangel on this mysterious planet. It means you have a gut. And you will get kicked. So don't be so careful.
In spite of that, we sing. Or maybe because of that. As I said before, we can't explain it. Well, actually, I can, but you would have to sign up to take my course Dr. Ricke's Ironic Explanations of Everything, and it only happens around a fire or on the stone porch or, now, a hospital bed, and never on a T.E.D.
So Love comes to us again, and, despite what you may have read in devotional literature, we sing and dance as spiritual exercises. Love came as a baby. Love comes as a brother. Love comes in a birth. Love comes at death. Love comes in a song. In a dance. Ask Saint Francis. I will bet you a hundred years in Purgatory that he agrees with me.
Well, one day we had nothing to do. The funeral would be Tuesday and Wednesday. We had rested all day Sunday. So, on Monday, we took a drive up the Hudson River to a little town where Lynn and I and Matthew and Nathan and Lauren used to live. We walked, a talked, and ate Italian, and marveled at the great river at Nyack, so big the Dutch called it a Zee at that point.
We got a hotel that night and, glory be, it had an indoor pool. We spent a fun hour at the local Walmart trying to find things that would serve for swimming gear. The clearance swim suits had been gone since September. But we put together a little of this and a little of that. Missy was the hardest to figure, but she finally rigged something up.
Nobody else came into the pool that night. Maybe because of the crazy music coming forth. I swear that joint had the sweetest acoustics of . . . any indoor swimming pool in the Hudson River region.
I forget what got us going. DNA, I guess. But before you know it, Gordon and I were harmonizing on the sweet high then higher tunes of the Everly Brothers. And, of course, "The Boxer." Sam Cooke. "You Send Me. " "Chain Gang." Beatles. When we started in on The Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody," Missy finally suggested we quiet it down a little bit. I don't know, we probably ended with "We Are the World" (not!) or "Let It Be" (probably). Gordon was sitting on the edge of the hot tub, and I was in the pool, keeping time by slapping the water.
Because I'm human, and maybe because of Kierkegaad, I can't imagine pure joy. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist, just that I can't imagine it. But I do imagine it involves singing. And I hope it involves dancing. Maybe Noel will take the lead for once and show us all how to do it.
We slept well, despite the snoring.