15: Singing in the Rain

15: Singing in the Rain

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Singing in the Rain

I don’t sing because I’m happy; I’m happy because I sing.

~William James

It had been months since my dad went to work one night and never came home, but we were nowhere near over the divorce. My siblings didn’t talk about it. Kelly went out a lot and my brothers, John and Matthew, just sort of wandered around doing what they always did, but in a kind of fog.

My mother cried night after night. Of course it would affect her differently. She had not had a clue Daddy was leaving. The shock of it alone made her cry. She screamed a lot, too, misdirecting her anger at my dad towards us, mostly me. It was one of the hazards of being the oldest child.

Then our house burned down. Neighbors actually stood outside in the street and chatted and laughed as our house burned one January morning. I stood there, shoeless, watching my mother weep and all I could think was, “We are broken.”

We moved into the Ramada Inn, where my mother worked, five of us crammed into one tiny room. In no time, we were on each others’ nerves. After four months of not having any of our own air to breathe, we were on the verge of just giving up. We were never going to have a home again. Putting one foot in front of the next felt impossible.

One day Mother stood up, looking frenzied. “Let’s go for a ride.”

Kelly, John, Matt and I looked at one another warily, not sure we had heard right. There were two issues. One, Mother had just been learning to drive out of necessity since Daddy left. Two, she was very bad at it.

“Come on,” she urged. “It’ll be fun.”

This confused us further. We didn’t have fun in our family. We fought and cried. Our mother’s anger at our father’s abandonment had seeped slowly and surely into each of our lives. Fun was something we might have known about once, but which seemed foreign to us now.

Still, we minded our mother and piled into our 1972 blue Ford Torino, a blue so faded as to appear almost white. As the oldest, I sat in the front seat with our mother, while Kelly, John and Matt sat in the back. Mother started the car and backed out of the parking lot. “I thought we’d go look at all the houses we’ve lived in.”

We had lived in quite a few places. Mother drove us by the house where we’d lived when I was just a kindergartener and then down the road a few houses to where we’d lived when I was in first grade. We even hazarded the main drag to see where my parents had lived when I was born, a tiny one-room apartment over a pharmacy that looked about the size of the motel room we inhabited now.

We talked about everything you could imagine—all the things we had to avoid talking about in that motel room. When there were lulls in the talk, we sang. We had always been a singing family, growing up with two parents who loved music. We started by singing “On Top of Old Smokey” the right way and then we sang every strange variation we could think of. We laughed a lot.

After this first foray, going for a ride in my mother’s car became a regular thing. Every night we piled into the car and the world changed. We told jokes and sang and looked at houses we wished we had the money to live in. One night we stopped at the grocery and were having so much fun joking and laughing that we were halfway back to the motel before we realized we had forgotten five-year-old Matthew. We laughed hard all the way back to the Kroger store where Matt was waiting patiently outside on the sidewalk.

I loved riding in the car. As spring turned to summer, the breezes blew through the car and cooled us even on the hottest of nights and we were spared the sticky, humid nights of anger in the motel. The singing allowed us to vent emotions we couldn’t face back in that cramped space. It was during one of those nightly car rides that my mother taught me how to harmonize.

We sang “You Are My Sunshine” and “K-k-k Katie” and a million other songs. The hope we seemed to have lost in the rest of our life was real again in the car as we sang.

So was laughter. We sang a Lynyrd Skynyrd song, “What’s your name, little girl? What’s your name?” at the top of our lungs to a tiny girl in another car at a stoplight and fell into hysterics when the occupants of the other cars pointed and laughed at us.

The hymns were my favorite. Mother didn’t go to church. God had become a taboo topic since our dad had left. The hymns we sang—“Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art” and “Shall We Gather at the River”—let us connect on a different level than we’d ever been able to in the past and calmed us down at evening’s end for the return to the motel. More often than not, Mother and I ended these nights by carrying our sleeping boys, her sons and my brothers, in to bed, exhausted but happy.

One night as we were singing loudly, “In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines and you shiver when the cold wind blows...” Mother suddenly slammed on the brakes. “This is it!” she cried.

“This” was a house, and a for-rent sign in the front yard brought me more joy than I could believe.

“Really?” I asked.

My mother jumped out, excited, and ran to peer in the windows of the house. My siblings soon followed, and when I realized we might really have a house again, I got out, too. “This bedroom is mine!”

I realized that night that my mother was just a person, just like the rest of us. She was no better and no worse and she had been through a lot. And her driving had improved dramatically!

We moved into our new house the following weekend. We were very busy and the nights in the car became a thing of the past. The following summer we tried again with the car, but the times had changed and the car was never the same kind of haven for us again. Better off, we had moved on. New jobs and activities of every kind used up our time now. But we knew that one summer in the blue Torino had saved a vital part of us all. My dad had left, it was true, and we had lost our home, but my mother, whether by accident or design, had found a way to bring us together and keep us that way.

~Marla H. Thurman

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