Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Daughter Song

I've had a tune running through my head, and it's been irritating the life out of me. The household remedy for that is to sing the "Digimon monsters" song or the Flintstones theme to the afflicted person, but that hasn't worked to eradicate it completely. It's such a simple tune it just creeps back in there. (On top of the tune, I keep thinking of Blanche DuBois asking Stanley "don't you ever get something awful stuck in your head?" and Elia Kazan's dance tune at every point when Blanche thinks of her dead young husband in the movie version.)

I know very well where this tune came from. A poet once sang it to me in a seminar room at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her name was Ruth Stone, and she had come to do a big poetry reading in the evening, but she met with a group of us graduate students who were interested in poetry earlier in the day, talked to us about her writing, and read some of her poems. I will never forget the moment when she began to sing us her poem "I Have Three Daughters." It was memorable for many reasons, not least of which was her aplomb. She sang out with no apparent self-consciousness, as if it were the most reasonable thing in the world to be doing in that seminar room at that particular time of day.

Here is the tune, starting with middle c: c e a g e, e c d e, c e a g e, f e d c
Repeat (and add repeated notes) as necessary. Here is the poem:

I have three daughters
Like greengage plums.
They sat all day
Sucking their thumbs.
And more's the pity,
They cried all day,
Why doesn't our mother's brown hair
Turn gray?

I have three daughters
Like three cherries.
They sat at the window
The boys to please.
And they couldn't wait
For their mother to grow old.
Why doesn't our mother's brown hair
Turn to snow?

I have three daughters
In the apple tree
Singing Mama send Daddy
With three young lovers
To take them away from me.

I have three daughters
Like greengage plums,
Sitting all day
And sighing all day
And sucking their thumbs;
Singing, Mama won't you fetch and carry,
And Daddy, won't you let us marry,
Singing, sprinkle snow down on Mama's hair
And lordy, give us our share.

When Ruth Stone finished singing this poem, she had a roomful of mystified but newly devoted fans for the rest of their lives. Devoted because you just couldn't help loving a woman who would do something like that. Mystified because we just weren't equipped to understand this poem.

Twenty years later, I'm equipped to understand it, because I have a teenage daughter who is trying to find ways to assert her independence from me. It's a tangled process, though, and the tune must be going through my head because below the level of consciousness, I've been thinking about the mixture of little girl who needs me and adult girl who is making her own life ("sucking their thumbs" vs "give us our share"). Also I really get the "greengage plum" image now. My daughter is ripe and glossy and gorgeous, and soon someone won't be able to resist her.

I'm also understanding the gray hair theme. I have some gray hairs, as mothers of teenage daughters tend to have (I will swear to you that my first gray hairs appeared the morning after Eleanor broke both her arms). My new haircut makes me see a "bride-of -Frankenstein" gray streak at my temple a little more. On top of that (literally), I keep brushing the top layer of my hair against the white paint I'm putting on the trim in our house, so I have new white hairs every other day or so.

When school is out for the summer (two more days), I think there might be less daughter-pulling-away pressure for a little while. There will be less pressure, anyway! One of the results will be that this blog will get updated less frequently. I have two rules ("well, they're more like guidelines, really"*) about summer: 1. you should go swimming at least twice a week, ideally in an all-day excursion including packed lunch, and 2. you should get out in the yard first thing in the morning at least once a week, for any reason--watering plants, filling up pools, sitting in the swing while there's still dew on it....this is a departure from my usual morning round of writing and reading, and often leads to less of either one. And that's okay. I'll still try to get here at least once or twice a week and tell you about what I've been reading.

*fans of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies will recognize this phrase

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