By Carla Sameth
When my son Joshua was three, he overheard me telling a friend that I was a single mom and asked, “You’re a singing mommy?”
“Yes, I am,” I sang to him, “and you are a singing baby.”
Joshua and I often sing together. Like me, he makes up words to songs he can’t remember based on whatever his current passion might be, like hot cocoa. Sometimes I join Josh in the “cocoa dance” to try to humor him out of a slump. In Joshua’s version, vocals are accompanied by foot stomping, heavy whining, and the potential for complete baby-blow-up.
I want my cocoa and I want it now, yeah, yeah, yeah!
I want my cocoa and I want it now.
If I don’t get it, I’ll have a cow, yeah, yeah, yeah!
Give it, GIVE IT, GIVE IT TO ME NOOOW!!!!
Stomp, stomp, yell, yell, fists in air, jump up and go back to the refrain until the cocoa is ready and the crisis has passed.
Finding a song to lift the weight pressing on my heart is my way of knowing I’ll be okay. For me singing is like when my grandma, at 89, said, “Well, I’m almost blind; I can’t walk; I can’t hear; but I just made a plate of raspberry blintzes, and I’m feeling pretty good.” Just like good food to my grandma (and many of us Jews), where there’s music, there is also light. I have felt like singing most of the time since Joshua’s birth—except for a three-month period during my custody battle with his dad, during which I took on the face of a war victim and could barely utter a word to Joshua, much less a song.
Sometimes I sing in only a whisper to myself, just to keep breathing. Even when Joshua’s father left eight months after he was born, I comforted myself, sleep deprived, singing Raffi songs while I nursed Joshua:
All I really need is a song in my heart
Food in my belly
Love in my family…
And I need some clean water for drinking
And I need clean air to breath for breathing
So that I can grow up strong
Take my place where I belong
The air and water in the L.A. Basin weren’t clean, and my fragile family was falling apart, but I kept singing.
Joshua’s father once told me that the Baptists believed that if you’ve got a voice, you ought to sing—no matter the quality. While I had one miscarriage after another, he had sung to me:
O-o-h child, things are going to get easier
O-o-h child things’ll get brighter…
I hope Joshua gets his father’s voice. Larry sang with the Black Baptist choir, and his voice was what drew me: a soothing, smoky, slow radio voice that made you think you ought to listen. I’m a sucker for voices and for phrases like “I’d like to grow old with you” and “Wanna have my baby?” But I didn’t like Larry’s voice as much when he screamed, “You crazy bitch!” or spoke to me only in muttered replies, if at all. A grunt instead of “hi, how are you?”
The baby we had is the color of café au lait with dark, deep eyes and lashes that my sister accuses me of curling, and a nose that is round and long. He could be mistaken for Ethiopian, Veracruzano or Salvadorean, but he is actually an Afro-Jew. He has inherited traits from two cultures in which food, humor, and strength-in-the-face-of-hardship are at their core and a quick temper and love of music from both sides of his family. And Joshua’s soul seems to house the spirits of the six unborn children miscarried before him.
Before Josh was born, Larry choked me and knocked me down. Earlier that day I’d had—for what seemed like the hundredth time—medical treatment for miscarriages. At UCLA, the nurse described it as the one that feels like a cigarette being put out on your arm followed by a bad case of the flu. After Larry threw me down, I lay on the floor in the living room and couldn’t move for a long time.
Joshua calls me a singing mom, but yesterday I wasn’t singing. I went to the mailbox hoping for a tax refund check and instead found a letter from the IRS. How many times had I already divided up and spent that long-awaited $685 refund—at least ten different ways? Like many single moms, I try to make time and money serve multiple purposes, but both always run out before I get to the end of my list. At night I review my list from the most crucial—hospital bills, electricity bills, pre-school tuition—to the most frivolous. Wouldn’t it be nice to have one pretty thing—the simple wood patio umbrella I was eyeing, or to once, yes just once, have a few dollars set aside for the next emergency? I shrieked into the phone at the IRS, “That’s my money, my child will starve!” They told me, “Lady, you should’ve paid your taxes… we can do whatever we want.” They had kept my refund for taxes owed by Larry.
I braced myself and asked Larry about the refund. He barked in his baritone, “Oh give me a break, I don’t need this right now! You can forget that money. I’ll owe the IRS all my goddamn life!”
A few hours later I took Joshua hiking in Eaton Canyon. At a drive-through bagel place on the way to the hike, Josh went through ten kinds of chips before deciding on one—as a long line of cars waited behind us.
My eyes pleaded to the clerk for patience. At Eaton Canyon, Joshua’s feet got soaked crossing the river and an unleashed dog galloped by and ate his bagel. Trying to find comfort, he changed his crying to singing as we pulled ourselves up the trail:
It’s the tree of life to them that hold fast to it
And all of its supporters are HAPPY (clap, clap)
Like me, Joshua loves those Shabbat songs, except he seems to sing them with an inherited Baptist twist. You can practically see him jumping up and down singing, “Yes, Lord, Shabbat Shaaaloooom!” In preschool, Josh sits up there with all those different little kids—Chinese, Brazilian, East Indian, Egyptian, Mexican, dark olive-skinned Sephardim and blondish Ashkenazi all singing with their little Yarmulkes perched on their heads.
But it’s at home that Joshua really belts it out. He dances around in circles to rap, salsa, new age, Louisiana bayou, and his tape from music class. “More music, Mommy, dance with me; I like that music!” He bellows out his own medley:
Day O Daaaaay O Daylights coming and he want to go home.
If you’re happy and you—nooooo—clap your hands---
Josh Avram Raphael Jones, that’s my name so, whenever I go out,
the people always shout, there goes Josh Avram Raphael Jones, na na na nananna naaaaaw!
“Well,” I think of my marriage, “I got a great kid out of it.” All those years without singing, and now, with my son, I can always find a song.
Guest writer, Carla Sameth
Carla Sameth has been writing since she was young. She "brings home the oatmeal" for her now 16-year-old son though her work in PR as president/founder of iMinds PR (www.imindspr.com). She also has a 16-year old (step)daughter from her unblended family who doesn’t live with her but is much loved by Carla and her son. Carla is the co-founder/co-director of The Pasadena Writing Project and has been featured in a variety of publications, including the Pasadena Weekly, Tikkun (daily blog), iVillage and was published in a book by Katya Williamson about the writing process called “Bringing the Soul Back: Writing in the New Consciousness.” She is currently working on a memoir and has been included in a recent anthology Panik - Candid Stories on Life Altering Experiences Surrounding Pregnancy. Carla co-teaches memoir writing workshops with -The Pasadena Writing Project . Together with Katie Scrivner, she pens the column on South Pasadena Patch “Single Moms of South Pas."