Yesterday I went to services and got conscripted for some cantorial assistance. Felt good, felt like my voice was behaving itself, which especially in the spring allergy season it sometimes doesn’t. And then, near the end of the service, the young woman who was chanting the latter section pulled me aside and asked me for a tune (for the final hymn) suitable for Mother’s Day. I spent the next ten minutes, while she finished up and announcements were promulgated, trying to think of one.
A musicological note here: contrafaction is the process of setting a lyric to a tune previously used for something else. The final hymn of a Jewish Sabbath morning service is a 10-stanza piece in iambic tetrameter. Which means it can be made to fit almost any tune, either in 3/4 or 4/4 time, provided the line has (or can be contrived to have) the proper number of feet. Anything from the Star-Spangled Banner to the choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth to My Darling Clementine. It’s a game musically literate Jews enjoy playing.
A tune for Mother’s Day? I’ve played the game for 40+ years and never had to come up with that. Finally, I got it, just in time. After I gave Abby the hairy eyeball for not sending me an e-mail on Friday, we launched into Adon Olam to the tune of Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
Look it up. The narrator is watching his mother’s body being carted off for burial. I didn’t bother explaining, for fear of weirding out the people whose mothers are still living (and even, in many instances, standing beside them.) But for me, and a lot of the others whose mothers are gone, it wasn’t bad. Will the circle be unbroken? If I still can’t think of my mother without a twinge, like an aching tooth, from 40 years ago almost exactly, then, yes the circle is still whole, though not exactly sound. She and I had our differences, and there wasn’t time to patch them up the way those things usually get patched up as the child matures and finds herself stepping through the same markers as her mother, and remembering the warnings, or pointers, or jokes, about them. I had looked forward to being my mother’s friend, once I had gotten past merely being her daughter, and I never got that. It wasn’t fair. Dammit. But yes, the circle is unbroken, and it rolls on and on. And my daughter calls me, and we walk through the markers, and we can be friends, while I edit her stuff and she sends me book titles she knows I’ll be interested in. Yes, the circle is unbroken.