My mother and her music have always been with me. As a very small child, one of my favorite things to do was “rock-a-mama.” The term itself was an evolution of the phrase, “Rock with Mama,” which Mom would say to me as an invitation to climb up into her lap in the rocking chair. She would snuggle me in her arms and rock with me and sing to me, and all would become right with the world. I remember being five or six years old, far too big to comfortably fit on her lap anymore, yet squeezing myself in there and somehow making it work, because “rock-a-mama” still felt like the thing to do when I was sad or hurt or tired.
I remember my maternal grandparents singing to me and rocking me as well. One of my earliest memories was of a night spent sitting in the dark in the living room at my grandparents’ house on Fredericka Street in North Tonawanda, rocking first with Grandma, and then with Grandpa, as they sat in two rocking chairs, side by side. I remember looking out over their shoulders at the street lights outside, feeling safe and warm and loved as we rocked together.
The songs they sang were a vehicle for transmitting family culture from one generation to the next. They told the story of who we were, where we came from, and what we valued. Grandma always said she couldn’t sing, so she didn’t sing to me as often as Mom did. But I remember Grandma singing “Immaculate Mary” in both English and Polish, and “You Are My Sunshine,” as well as Elvis Presley’s “For the Heart,” with the words, “Treat me nice, treat me good, treat me like you really should. ‘Cause I’m not made of wood, and I don’t have a wooden heart,” which seemed to be an early lesson in interpersonal relations. My mother had a lovely alto voice, and her repertoire was considerably more varied. Some favorites stood out, though: “Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzenellen Bogan by the Sea,” “Tammy,” “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo Ral,” “Dear Hearts and Gentle People,” “My Blue Heaven,” “Mockingbird Hill,” and Doris Day’s, “Till We Meet Again.” Interspersed with these were Catholic hymns, including Marian favorites like, “Sing of Mary, Pure and Lowly,” “Salve Regina,” and “Bring Flowers of the Fairest,” as well as the occasional Polish folk song like, “Góralu, czy ci nie żal,” which tells the story of a Polish highlander who must leave his beloved homeland in order to earn his living.
Even beyond rock-a-mama, Mom filled my childhood with song. On rainy days, she’d sing, “Pitter Patter on the Windowpane,” and when I was scared of a thunderstorm, she’d sing, “Who’s Afraid of Thunder?” If Mom had to drive in heavy city traffic, or if she got lost, she’d sing, “Blessed be God Forever.” That song, with its refrain, “Whenever we’re together, in warm or stormy weather, oh we can’t go wrong if we sing our song; Blessed be God forever!” was her way of whistling in the dark.
Mom would also playfully adapt songs for other purposes. When it was time for bed, she used to have us “march” to our bedrooms while singing “Marsz, marsz, Dąbrowski, Z ziemi włoskiej do Polski. Za twoim przewodem Złączym się z narodem.” It was decades before I realized that these were the words to the Polish national anthem, and not just a bedtime song. She rewrote “Bringing in the Sheaves” in a similar fashion, changing, “Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves, we will go rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves,” to “Marching along, marching along! Mommy, Anne Shell and Julie, marching along.”
When I was about 6 years old, living in Cincinnati, my parents decided that piano lessons were a priority for us girls. Money was a little tight, and there were certainly other things that they could have spent money on, such as a formal dining table and chairs to fill the big empty space that was our formal dining room. Nonetheless, they bought a beautiful cherry upright piano so my sister and I could each start lessons. Mom would also play sometimes in the evenings, having kept all her old piano books from when she herself was a girl taking lessons. I wasn’t an especially enthusiastic piano student, but Mom was always encouraging. There was one Easter morning when I went to search the house for my basket full of chocolate treats, and discovered that “the Easter Bunny” had hidden it inside a rather obvious “house of cards” made from piano lesson books. Mom observed that the Easter Bunny must be trying to tell me that I should practice more.
When I was about nine, Mom decided that I should learn to sing harmony. She was very fond of the “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” and had a piano arrangement that included vocal harmonies, which she tried to teach me. I remember being very frustrated because the line of harmony didn’t sound right to me, accustomed as I was to always singing melody. Then one day it finally clicked, and I learned to hear the harmonies in my head. As a teenager, I would sing with my mother and sister, returning to our old repertoire of rock-a-mama songs, Broadway show tunes, and music from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, adding in harmonies as we sat and rocked on the porch swing in front of the rose trellis on summer evenings.
Music had a place in times of distress as well as in those happier times. Our last December in Cincinnati, in 1978, was a hectic one. Dad’s work required him to relocate, so he had put in a request for the Buffalo, New York office, which was approved. He had to be in the new office in January, so we were in the middle of selling our house and packing, amid Christmas preparations, and I was also in the hospital for several days before Christmas, following minor surgery on my arm. The night after the surgery, I was in so much pain that I couldn’t sleep. Mom stayed by my bed in the hospital all night long, singing the Advent carol, “O Come, Divine Messiah” over and over again.
In her late 30s, Mom developed a progressive, debilitating, metabolic bone disorder for which the doctors could never seem to find an entirely adequate diagnosis, despite consultations with the best medical minds at the Mayo Clinic, Toronto General, Washington University Hospital in St. Louis, and more recently, at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. Despite her chronic pain and the frustration of disability, music could still brighten Mom’s day. She loved to listen when my sister and I would play the piano or sing, and when I started dating Bruce (whom I eventually married), she would encourage him to bring his guitar whenever he came over for dinner.
Mom’s music was there as I married and raised my own family. The cherished tradition of rock-a-mama was shared with a new generation, and “O Come, Divine Messiah” became my go-to song through all their ear infections, teething pains, bouts of croup, and other childhood ailments, whether it was Advent or not. Mom loved being a Grandma, and made it a priority to be part of her grandchildren’s lives despite the many miles which separated our family. She was always happy to celebrate each grandchild’s unique talents, interests, and achievements, often through little songs of congratulations which she would sing to them over the phone.
In more recent years, after surgeries in 2016, 2017, and 2019, I found myself singing by Mom’s bedside in the hospital, just as she had done for me so many years ago. Over the past year, when I was with her almost daily, Mom would often ask me to bring her printed copies of the lyrics to songs that were stuck in her head. Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” was one of those songs, and on many occasions, she would ask me to sing that with her. I will also cherish the memory of the evening that Bruce and I spent with her and Dad a couple weeks before she passed, when we played a YouTube game in which they had to guess the theme songs from TV shows of the 50s and 60s. The game brought back so many memories for them both, and although Mom generally hated computers and modern technology, she loved the fact that theme songs from her favorite shows like Petticoat Junction, Maverick, and Sugarfoot could be played again on YouTube.
In her final illness, when Mom was home on hospice, there was music as well. Interspersed with stories and tears and rosaries and parting words, two generations sang her those “rock-a-mama” songs that she once sang to us. We sang those songs that brought her comfort: “On Eagle’s Wings,” “I Am the Bread of Life,” and, “Be Not Afraid.” And we sang, “O Come, Divine Messiah.”
My darling mother has gone home to be with our Lord, but I am so blessed to have had her as my Mom. She taught me by example what it means to be a daughter, wife, mother, and friend. She was my teacher, cheerleader, confidante, and ally. She knew the song in my heart, and sang it back to me whenever I forgot how it goes. For Mom, our Divine Messiah has finally come, and that day has arrived “when hope shall sing its triumph, and sadness flee away.” Until we meet again, rest in peace, Mama.
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2020
Featured image: The author with her mother, Elaine Zielinski Roberts, circa 1970, photographer unknown. Image colorized by Lorraine Kulig.