Lullaby. say it to yourself, softly, slowly, repeatedly. It is an old word, formed sometime during the sixteenth century, whose onomatopoetic sleepy-time syllables are borne out in the slumber songs of many lands, in countless languages and dialects. It is a word that takes me to my children when they were small, and before them, back to my earliest memories of childhood.
My father taught me that a lullaby can be almost anything provided it is accompanied by ritual. It takes a special kind of love to get a child to drift off to accordion music. But my father, widowed at thirty-nine, achieved this by lighting a candle each evening in the bedroom I shared with my sisters, and coaxing folk songs from his old Hohner until we fell asleep. Some of the songs he played he learned from his mother – my grandmother – Gladys Irene Riddell Mason. I have her to thank for gifting me the unlikely heart of my own lullaby repertoire: love songs from the Scottish Hebrides.
Gladys was of Scottish descent and grew up in Birmingham, England, in the 1920s. Her talent for singing was recognized early, and her parents paid for voice lessons. As a young woman, she worked as a primary school teacher in the Birmingham slums, announcing breakfast and leading the ABCs in her resonant alto voice. A forgotten bus fee was the fortuitous event that brought my grandparents together. My grandfather Arnold Mason, ever the gentleman, paid Gladys’s fare and so met “the brightest mind, warmest heart, and bluest eyes in all of England” (if he said so himself). He soon discovered as well that his “Glad” also possessed its “sweetest voice.” They married at Christmastime 1933. The following year Gladys entered and won the ladies’ open competition at the Leamington Musical Festival. (Ironically for her later transmission of lullabies, it was for her rendition of Handel’s “O sleep, why dost thou leave me?”)
Shortly afterward, my grandparents traveled to Germany to visit, and eventually join, the Bruderhof community. As war swept the Bruderhof out of its native Germany and on to adventures in England and the United States by way of the Paraguayan jungle, my grandmother’s much-loved Hebridean songs took their place in the community’s vast treasure-trove of songs for all seasons and occasions, gathered and curated from around the world.
I was twelve years old when I discovered that I had a gift for singing and that I couldn’t read music. My violin teacher gave up trying to explain the significance of lines and dots to my uncomprehending mind and suggested, gently, that I quit. I did, and instead took up voice lessons, with Grandma as my first teacher. “You can learn just fine by ear,” Grandma told me as she taught me all the Hebridean love songs she knew. She taught me how to handle high notes, how to enunciate (“If people can’t understand the words, there’s not much point in the song”), and how to develop control through diaphragmatic breathing.
When I started my own journey as an early childhood educator, Hebridean songs unsurprisingly surfaced as a mainstay among the naptime lullabies I sang to my nursery students. I sang them daily, and in the same order, which the children seemed to love. In my estimation, these are the requirements of any good lullaby: that they gently prepare a child for rest, encourage language development, and strengthen bonds of connection between parent (or caregiver) and child. I had grown up in a home immersed in the songs, old and new, of many lands and cultures, all of which I sang. But invariably, I would return to the haunting, lilting melodies of the windswept Scottish isles.
And then I sang to my own children. Each time I discovered I was pregnant, I began to do two things: keep a baby diary recording the miracle of each day, and sing lullabies to our unborn child. I have three diaries that end abruptly after a few months, and an ache in my heart I have learned to lean into, but I also have lingering and sweet memories of singing to my unborn children who sojourned with us here for a brief time. Lullabies provide an eternal point of loving connection with them.
I have three finished diaries, too, and three grown sons who still know the lullabies I taught them. Perhaps it was merely wish fulfillment on my part, but it seemed to me they recognized, responded to, and claimed as their favorites certain songs from those cold, misty islands – songs I’d sung to them in utero. For as long as possible, I would take turns cradling my children in my arms while I sang through our special order of songs with a reminder that “this one means the next place we’re going to fly to is bed.” After each child was tucked in, he got his “last song before Mommy has to go.” That seemed to help cut down on separation dramas at sleep time.
One of my most precious and enduring memories: my oldest son, still small enough to be snuggled against me, his head on my shoulder and arms around my neck, and his younger brother softly stirring in my womb. I was singing to both children at once, marveling as I watched brotherly bonds form through song. When our third son arrived several years later, the older two would sing each other and their baby brother to sleep when we were away. “Day in the cornfields, I a-reaping, cutting my sheaf and it wasna easy …”
The Aboriginal peoples of Australia, where I live now, have storylines and melodies that connect them deep into the past, to their ancestors and their sacred heritage. For me, lullabies do something similar. They bring my children into a circle of song in which they and I are linked to their grandfather and great-grandmother, to a lineage of lullabiers long asleep among the stars, but held close through song.