I hate to say it, but I’m not musical.
Now I don’t mean “not musical” like when my kids talk about “Beyonce” and I say “beyond what-se?”
Or “not musical” by liking elevator music.
I mean I can’t sing – or not in a way that most people would call music.
I have known this since high school at Celibacy Academy. Me and the rest of the Celibacy Celebration Choir were practicing for our Christmas concert. We were lined up, doing “O Little Town of Beth-le-hem,” and I was getting into it. Sister Bombastia kept walking up and down the row, up and down, tilting her wimpled head like a snake, and finally she stopped in front of me, wagged her head, then hissed that I should move my lips, but don’t sing. Please.
(Unlike a snake, she had ears under that wimple.)
Well, when life hands you lemons, throw them in the crab boil, I say. Now I do my singing in the shower, where nobody can hear but me, and even I can’t hear myself too good. It is better that way. I rock my grandbabies to sleep with “Rock-a-bye Baby” on my iPod.
Now my mother-in-law, Ms. Larda, don’t sing no better than I do. She went to Celibacy Academy too, and I’ll bet if you looked back in their ancient archives, you’d see she was also told to just move her lips in choir practice. Instead, she turned up her volume. “If you don’t sing good, sing loud” – that’s her motto.
She got no patience for “Rock-a-bye Baby.”
“No way to soothe a child, singing about a baby falling out a tree,” she says.
She goes with, “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest; yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum …” And would you believe, them babies clench their eyes shut and go right off to sleep. Or maybe they go into shock. Anyway, it gets them quiet.
In church, I always get next to Ms. Larda and move my lips while she bellows the words to the hymn. If she gets too terrible, I have a little coughing fit, so everybody who’s looking around to see who in the world’s singing like that will know it ain’t me.
Anyway, at Christmas time my teenage daughter Gladiola comes up with the brilliant idea that the whole family ought to go to the annual Jackson Square carol sing. (She and me have lived a couple blocks away from Jackson Square, ever since Katrina washed away our house in Chalmette and we rented this apartment from my gentleman friend Lust, behind the Sloth Lounge in the French Quarter.) I don’t know what comes over the rest of the family to think this is a good idea, but all of a sudden, all the Gunches decide to go. Like we were the Cleavers, or something.
We all meet up in front of the Sloth Lounge. My little granddaughter Lollipop hands me her special Christmas present: a hairband with construction paper antlers glued on. I am telling her they are the most gorgeous antlers I’ve ever seen, when my sister-in-law Gloriosa elbows me and points to the antlers that her little girl Comus made for Ms. Larda, so I say, “the most gorgeous antlers my own grandchild ever gave me.”
My gentleman friend Lust announces he won’t go, being as he’s a devout atheist. Ms. Larda wags her antlers, getting ready to argue, but then he brings out hot buttered rum for everybody. We are all sipping it, and Gloriosa screeches that the kids are drinking rum, and we snatch their drinks away from them. Naturally they start yowling. My brother-in-law Lurch says don’t worry, he’ll drink theirs for them, and he pours all their drinks into a jumbo go-cup, which don’t help. Lust offers them Cokes, but Gloriosa says that’ll keep them awake all night. This ain’t no Beaver Cleaver family scene, I’ll tell you that.
Ms. Larda says if we don’t get a move on, they’ll run out of song sheets and candles. So off we go, kids still whining, Lurch slurping their hot buttered rum, Ms. Larda out in front like Rudolph.
At the square, various notable people, like the mayor and Angela Hill, are up on a stage with microphones to lead the carols. I see my friend Alba McGuffy, who’s a bigwig at the French Quarter Boosters Association, on stage too, and I wave. Lurch says his hot buttered rum is now cold, which serves him right.
Everybody launches into “Jingle Bells” and then “12 Yats of Christmas,” me just mouthing the words like always. Each notable takes a turn to lead a song; and then Alba steps up and says they want a volunteer from the audience to lead “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and that she sees somebody dressed for the part … I raise my song sheet up to hide my face, but in my hystericalness, I also raise up my candle, and – Whoosh! – I set my antlers on fire.
I yank them off just as Leech throws his cold buttered rum on my head, missing my antlers, which is a good thing, since butter and rum are flammable, but it don’t do my hairdo much good. Meantime, all the Gunches jump in stomp the fire out together. The Cleavers would have been proud.
Next thing I know, Ms. Larda is leading the reindeer song, and after that, because I’m wearing a lot of butter and rum, we head home. I am worried that Lollipop will be traumatized about her present, until she pipes up that the part of the carol sing she likes best is stomping out grandma’s antlers.
I guess that’s how traditions are born.