Monday, September 19, 2005

You'll never know, dear

Darcy and I tried to sign up, this weekend, for a session in one of NPR's StoryCorps mobile recording booths. The Seattle outpost was, sadly, overbooked. But we poked around the website and examined their brochure, which lists some helpful topics and questions to get an interview flowing: How did you meet your spouse? What was your first date like? Can you sing me some of the songs you used to sing to me when I was little?

That last one. "I could do this with my mom," I said. "She'd sing 'You Are My Sunshine,' and then the last 10 minutes would consist of me sobbing uncontrollably into the microphone."

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away

My mom can't sing. This doesn't prevent her from rockin' the karaoke mike after a couple of mojitos, but she pretty successfully evades any particular key, and has a distracting tendency to misremember song lyrics--nothing as entertaining as "scuse me while I kiss this guy," but swapping articles and pronouns just enough to irk the obsessive types who KNOW ALL THE WORDS, MOM.

But when I was very little, she'd try to sing me to sleep. "You Are My Sunshine." It's one of my earliest memories, predating the birth of my sister; I can't be more than two and a half, three years old. We're at Grandma's, Mama lying down with me on the green twin bed in the guest room, hoping to lull me into a nap. (I was extremely nap-resistant, as a tot--ironic, now that I practically need a gallon of coffee and a neck brace just to remain moderately alert and upright in staff meetings.)

The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms
When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
And I hung my head and cried

My mother was scarcely more than a child herself; at 19 she'd gone directly from her parents' house to her husband's. At 22 she had me. My dad was likewise young and relatively foresight-free, working strange hours at blue-collar jobs: delivering milk, driving a gravel truck. He had his first affair before I was born; my mother discovered it after Thanksgiving dinner, heavily pregnant with me.

I'll always love you and make you happy
If you will only say the same
But if you leave me to love another
You'll regret it all some day

So we retreated to Grandma and Grandpa's a lot, in the days of my parents' marriage. It was pure prime spoiling, for me, beloved and indulged as the first grandchild; I can't imagine what it was like for Mom, lying with her baby in her childhood room, trying to figure out how to save her own life.

Except--that song. I don't remember any traditional lullabies or nursery rhymes...just "You Are My Sunshine," and while she sang it out of love, I remember being aware on some level that... damn. That's a brutally sad song. It's a plea, to a dark and overcast heaven. The speaker dreams of joy...and wakes bereft, alone. A grownup cries, in that song. I remember recognizing that; it was the time I first understood, however vaguely, that there were some hurts that couldn't be healed with a bandaid, a kiss, a cookie. That I could do nothing in the face of distant, adult grief and longing. That my mama was vulnerable to sorrows I could see but not begin to name.

You told me once, dear, you really loved me
And no one else could come between
But now you've left me, and love another
You have shattered all my dreams.

I own several recordings of "You Are My Sunshine," wildly different. There's Norman Blake's weedy, reedy version on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack; better still is Ray Charles' duet with his chief Raelett, Margie Hendrix, who magnificently, blisteringly roars that last verse until you half hope the cheating bastard comes crawling back sorry. I can listen to these with impunity; I can holler along with Margie and feel straight-up righteous.

Just don't let my mama sing it to me, man. We've all moved on and I'm thirty-odd years grown past it...but that, I could not take.

* * * * *

However did we all survive without Google? Just stumbling through the days, wondering all kinds of shit but never, ever being able to find it out? Thus: "You Are My Sunshine,"written by Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell, is one of the official state songs of Louisiana; Davis used it in all his campaign appearances in his successful run for governor. Here are two verses I, and probably you, have never heard.

Louisiana, my Louisiana,
The place where I was born
White fields of cotton, green fields of clover
The best fishing and long tall corn

Crawfish gumbo and jambalaya
The biggest shrimp and sugar cane
The finest oysters and sweet strawberries
From Toledo Bend to New Orleans.

New Orleans. Well. I think I'll just pluck out my heart and roast it on a little spit, before I tuck in to bed. Criminy.

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