I share several things with my father, deceased now for twenty-three years. One is the daily crossword. My father did it each afternoon when he came home from work. That’s my habit too. Each evening I log in to the New York Times and do the crossword. I can check my stats page to see my solve rate, my current streak of solved puzzles, my total number of puzzles solved.
The best part, the cutest part, is when I complete the puzzle and the page plays a tune – a lively, congratulatory ditty. Catchy – the kind of thing that sticks in your head. If you were to ask me to hum it, I would utterly fail at reproducing it.
That’s something else I share with my father – the inability to carry a tune. This deficiency has seldom caused me too much grief or mortification simply because I accept my lack of a musical ear, am resigned to my flat voice, and never, ever sing.
Other things I can’t do: cartwheel, apply mascara or eyeliner, return a volleyball over the net. All things I’m rarely called upon to do. Like singing.
When the poet Michelle Peñaloza invited me to participate in a literary event to celebrate the elders in the Filipino-American community in Seattle, I readily agreed. We would read short pieces that celebrated family. We would invite the elders to share their stories. There would be karaoke.
I think my brain skipped over that last part. Or I convinced myself it was optional, like relish at the condiment bar.
But eventually it became clear that each of the writers was expected to sing karaoke, which included me, the worst singer in the world.
In the weeks before the event I was too busy with other concerns to give much thought to the karaoke element of the program. But when the week arrived and I needed to decide which short piece I was going to read, I also realized there was no way in hell I was going to sing in front of a room full of people. A few days before the event, I emailed Michelle and asked for special dispensation. She kindly granted me a karaoke waiver, but asked that I not divulge the favor to the other writers who might also want to back out – a total karaoke mutiny had to be avoided.
When I arrived and mingled with the other writers prior to the start of the program, I deflected or dissembled when one or another asked what song I was going to sing.
“Not sure yet,” I said, offering a shrug of indecision.
“It’s a surprise,” I said, all mysterious and coy.
The piece I had decided to read was a short essay about my mother imparting to me a ring my father had given her. The essay recently appeared in Split Lip Magazine. It seemed appropriate to an occasion that that was celebrating elders, family, and community. It occurred to me that if I were to sing, that is, if I had the ability to sing anywhere close to in tune, I knew exactly which song I would’ve chosen. If.
After Bob Flor read a couple of poems from his new chapbook Alaskero Memories, he gamely warbled his way through “Fly Me to the Moon.” Then Michelle read some of her poetry and raised the bar with a hand-wringing, heart-clasping rendition of “Crazy.”
The audience was primed. The show was rolling.
I stepped to the stage. I read my essay about aging, mother-daughter awkwardness, and unexpressed love. Then it was time for me to exercise my special waiver.
“Instead of singing a song …” I began and was immediately met with groans of … what? Disappointment? Disapproval at not playing by the rules? There were emphatic thumbs down, vociferous protests.
“So fire me!” I exclaimed from the stage, my arms raised in capitulation. But the protests continued.
I raised my voice above the din and began anew. “Instead of singing a song,” I said, again, “I’m going to talk about one.”
That went over well. More noises of disapproval.
But I plunged ahead. I told about my mother’s favorite song. How she had requested that it be sung at her funeral, and that it was. I recited the first verse of the song about renewing memories and then the last verse about a yearny heart and regrets about roaming. I told them that even though this was my mother’s favorite song, she herself had never roamed. It was my father who had roamed from his home in the Philippines, arriving in San Diego where he met my mother just about the time that her favorite song was popular on the radio, in ballrooms, and on TV. I told them that when they were married at the courthouse, their one witness was one of my dad’s shipmates, Cres Miranda, also a Filipino. Over the years, my parents lost touch with Cres Miranda. But on the day of my mother’s funeral, eight-seven-year-old Cres appeared, having driven himself from Las Vegas to San Diego where he heard my mother’s favorite song sung for her.
I was a little choked up when I said that Cres Miranda’s gesture was a reflection of the Filipino spirit of family and community, but I managed to sputter an invitation to anyone from the audience who might know the song to come up and sing it.
After I stumbled back to my seat, my eyes welling, another one of the writers, Maria Batayola, stood up and said to the audience, “Come on, you all know it.” A chorus rose up, bloomed like a rose, and it seemed the whole room was singing “Sentimental Journey,” and it was downright beautiful. And that, too, was a reflection of the Filipino spirit of family and community.