I was probably in my early 40s the first time I caught a glimpse of my mother as I walked by the pier mirror in my foyer. I didn't shudder like I would have if I'd been in my 20s or 30s. Still, my reflection startled me. I'd always been told I resembled my father. This new revelation felt otherworldly, like some alien had begun inhabiting my body. Weirder still, at times I liked it. Sort of.
Not long after, I noticed Mom's doppelganger had entrenched itself even deeper.
"Mommy, what does 'enchanted' mean?" my then 5-year-old daughter Ella had asked me while reading "Snow White."
"Some enchanted evening, you will meet a stranger," I sang, straight through to the end.
"Sorry, honey, what did you want to know?" I asked when I was done with my reverie. I was breathless, flushed and full of what felt like a boost of hormonal energy. I was even happy to be loading the dishwasher.
"I just wanna know what 'enchanted' means," Ella persisted. I told her what I thought then went off in search of the dictionary, as I always did, for the definitive text. As I opened the dictionary, I sang: "I just wanna be your friend, uh-huh, uh-huh."
By then I'd gotten a couple of annoyed looks from my daughters though neither complained out loud about my growing affectation. Of course, I never said anything about it to my mother either. But I grew up in the days when you didn't talk back, let alone give dirty sideways glances.
I don't recall when my mother's melodic outbursts started, but when they did, I cringed. And not because she couldn't sing. She had a beautiful voice, and I loved listening to her sing at church where she was selected for most of the solos. She also was asked to sing at neighborhood weddings and funerals. A coloratura soprano, she was the only one who could hit those high notes. Mom said she was encouraged to study opera when she was young, and even thought of taking singing lessons. Her family, unfortunately, had no money for that.
So in lieu of a career on stage, Mom sang at church. And in our kitchen where something I'd say would inevitably trigger a memory that caused her to burst into song. Oblivious to my presence, she'd get completely carried away and come back to earth only when she had finished. Meanwhile, I'd sit at the kitchen table, silently annoyed. Why does she always have to do this?, I'd think.
Mom's musical interludes became more frequent over the years as she became more adept at finding a song to fit almost any conversation. This forced me to choose my words even more carefully, but she'd always manage to find some connection between whatever I'd say and some song from her past.
A simple "How was your day?" as I rushed in from school might become "How are things in Glocca Mora?"
"Mom, can I have a nickel for candy?" turned to "Put another nickel in / in the nickelodeon."
And my call from the bathroom for "more Prell" elicited "I'm gonna wash that man right out of my hair." My mother so perfected this talent that she graduated to the realm of free association, no longer needing a specific prompt from me.
And then one day, without warning, at 40something, I became my mother—catching a passing phrase from my daughters and converting it to song. And once the urge struck, it was uncontrollable for me, too. The truth is, I enjoyed it.
I live alone now. My oldest daughter is out on her own, and Ella is in college. Now I sing mostly in the car along with the radio or at church. After my father died, Mom often came to visit me and the kids for Christmas and Easter, where she'd sit in the congregation beside me at church and sing. People would often turn around and compliment her on her voice, as they had when she was younger. Mom worried that she sang too loud, though, and looked to me for reassurance.
"No, you're fine," I'd say. "You have a beautiful voice."
These days Mom's too infirm to travel, so we don't get to sing together anymore. Sometimes fellow parishioners turn around to me during the offering of peace at church and tell me what a lovely voice I have. I worry that I sing too loud, too, though I don't let that stop me. Because when I sing, Mom's voice echoes in my head as if she's standing by my side. I know that I'll carry her with me forever.