• 1 • Sweet Songs and Stinkbugs
My father, my younger brother Nate, and I sat on the hallway floor outside the one bathroom in our house. You might think we were waiting to use the bathroom, but that was not so.
We were listening to my mother sing. She likes to sing in the bathroom when she takes a shower. My father tiled the entire room, in fact. The tiles bounce her voice around so she can hear herself.
In the attic I found large posters of my mother, all dressed up in taffeta or silk, singing in great halls, fancy chandeliers above her. Her name, Melinda May, was written in large, important letters. Now my father calls her Min and she sings to the animals and in the tiled bathroom of our farmhouse.
When she sings in the shower we come to hear her. Nate hears my whistle and hurries in from the barn. My father comes in from the fields. Once he left his horse Jack by the back door and we later found Jack in the kitchen.
We heard the slap of the screen door, and Bett, our herding dog, came down the hallway to lie down next to my father.
“The herd is safe. Bett has come to be with
her pack and listen,” said my father softly.
My father set his cowboy hat on the floor next to him, his head leaning against the wall. His eyes were closed.
My mother’s voice sounded lovely and clean, like newly washed glass.
“Un bel dí,” my father said softly.
“ ‘A fine day.’ ”
My mother may not know all things about Johnny Cash, but my father has studied Puccini, who wrote the song my mother sings. My father knows all of my mother’s songs and who wrote them—Puccini, Bizet, Mozart, and Donizetti.
My brother, Nate, pointed to a stinkbug crawling down the wall.
There is something about my eight-year-old brother, Nate—a sort of sly sweetness
when he points out the strangely homely with the beautiful.
“Lovely,” whispered Nate with a grin.
My father—good with words, remember—said Nate understands the connection of opposites: the sleek, shapely body of the bug and his bad smell.
“Summer vacation soon,” said Nate.
I turned my head to look at Nate. “Do you ever want something exciting to do away from the farm in the summer? To see amazing things?”
Nate shook his head. “I’m happy here,” he whispered. “It’s amazing here. And exciting.”
“I need something new,” I said. “Something more interesting than cows and goats and chickens.”
“Chickens are very, very interesting,”
said Nate. “Millie even likes to sit on my lap. Buddy plays tag with me.”
“I need something different,” I said.
“It will happen,” said Nate. “It will.”
I smiled because Nate sometimes sounds like a wise old man.
My mother finished her aria on a high, long note. She turned off the shower.
My father quickly got up. He didn’t want my mother to be shy about us listening when she sang in the shower. Nate hurried off. Bett trotted after them.
All that was left behind was my father’s handkerchief. And the stinkbug crawling back up the wall again, direction changed.
My mother came out of the shower and bent down to pick up the handkerchief.
My mother knew everything.
I wondered why she’s happy singing in the shower instead of wearing a big silk dress and singing for a huge audience, who, when she is finished, leap to their feet and applaud. And someone gives her a huge bunch of flowers onstage as the velvet curtain falls.
Today I found a letter left open on the kitchen table for me to read. It was from James Grayson, a famous tenor, to my mother.
I will be singing a concert close to you. Please come. Maybe we can sing together again! I’ll send you tickets.
I turned the letter over as if hiding it from myself. I remembered a large, fancy poster with a picture of my mother and James, looking happy and famous. How could she leave that behind to live on a farm in the middle of the prairie?
It is hard to believe that loving my father is enough.
It is hard to believe that Nate and I are enough.