Monday, June 28, 2010

Musical Influences

Musical influence of the relatives. Zero distance or sometimes across town.

As I sit down to write I am satiated. My tummy is full of warm porridge. I realize that I have never been hungry in my life. Not really. Not ever in danger for lack of food. But was Shaughnessy Heights a land of plenty?

The street vendors of Shaughnessy Heights included the milkman, the breadman, and in summer, the ice cream man. I still eat pretty much the same as I did back in my old North End neighbourhood. Pizza and yoghurt hadn’t been invented, but we did have fantastic rye bread, fish and chips, pea soup, and oxtail soup. On Sundays we usually had a roast – beef and Yorkshire, or pork and applesauce. In our house we had a very strict rule. No singing at the table. This was a heavily enforced rule, and I thought it was part of the etiquette of every good family. I was punished frequently for this misstep. It was the hardest rule for me to keep, and I was a good girl. 

Ours was a sing-along house. There was always a record player. It was my mom’s passion. She loved her movies and her records. She vacuumed with the old canister Viking to records that came in the mail from the Columbia Record Club. The show tunes. I could sing every song from My Fair Lady and South Pacific. I had a comical guess about the story that was strung between the tunes.

I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair. I knew she was sick and tired of some fellow and was happy to get rid of him. Foreign Tanginiki... I imagined, with clues from the scene on the album cover, a pensive young man dreaming of the next tropical island far way, where his love had gone. It was decades later that I realized that Omar Sharif had been singing Some Enchanted Evening, but my mom never corrected me. She had a sinister streak. She played lots of music for us like the Frankies, Lane and Sinatra. Well, actually Sinatra was a standby on my cousins’ record player, more than on ours.

Those cousins lived in St. James. By the time I had reached junior high, my cousins were already in their third house in St. James. Their second house had been a split-level, so at that house we had to sing for the grown-ups using the stairs to the top level as our stage. No amount of feigned shyness could get us out of our obligation to do our duty for the party. As soon as anyone would try to beg off, we would hear the chant from the grown-ups. 

Tell a story
Sing a song
Show your bun
Or out! You’re gone!
(Irish Rhyme, author unknown)

The chant would go on for a while, interrupted by laughter, very loud orders and finger pointing, kids running and ducking, and eventually close-up breaths of Five-Star or Black Label when they grabbed you. 

“Come on, you grubby kids!”

“Kelly! You get up there right now!”

Louder and louder they’d insist. There was no choice. And quiet singing was not permitted. My St. James cousins were obviously used to this routine. They could tap dance and would raise their hands like Judy Garland at the end of their songs. Real show-biz stuff. And when it was our turn, we did our best, but it was never as flashy as what those St. James kids could do.

I always had a sense of belittlement when I was there. We had a great time screaming and yelling and playing with our cousins while our parents screamed and yelled and played in the other part of the house, but they had so much fancy stuff like pianos and organs and ornaments from Hawaii, stuff we couldn’t touch. And they had wall-to-wall carpets and matching bedspreads. And their clothes closets had doors. My god. Their house even had a dishwasher! But for some reason we still had to wash the dishes by hand when we visited. And they had matching pink melmac dishes with oval plates. And they had no back lane! Imagine, a house with a driveway where you could pull right into your yard. And there were no sidewalks for hopscotch and there were no curbs on the edge of the street. And man alive! The trees were big on that street. I think I could smell the river nearby. But you couldn’t go to the store. They used cars to do that.

Eventually, every time we went to St. James there would be a huge yelling contest at the end of everything and we’d pile in the back seat and head back to Shaughnessy Heights in a dark mood with plenty of cigarette smoke punctuating the trip. I always felt glad when we turned off Keewatin and into the neighbourhood. St. James just wasn’t for me.

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