My poems podcast, Words by Winter, can be found here.
My dad once told me that his school music teacher told him not to sing. Mouth the words, pretend to sing, but don’t. Every time I think about this, it hurts. Last February I was visiting my parents when they called my brother to sing him Happy Birthday. I secretly took a video of my big dad, phone clutched to his mostly-deaf ear, leaning forward in the lamplight and straining out the words.
How many songs are locked up inside each of us? When I read this beautiful poem below I wished I could go back in time and tell that little boy to sing as loud as he wanted.
A Lao Jia Song Is a Song of Home, by Stephanie Niu
There were two times I heard my father sing.
Once from behind the camera, panning to my brother’s
birthday cake, his happy birthday a key off,
so bad it is valiant, my brother blushing before the table.
The second was at a feast—a mountain village
south of Kunming where, my father pointed out,
people readied for winter like animals,
mixing butter into their tea.
There was something there, his eyes watching
the long-haired buffalo graze the cold hills
as our little bus wound up and up. His favorite American books
were the Little House series, with their descriptions
of simple tasks, how they churned butter from cream.
At the dinner, roast lamb, dark pickled flowers,
a strong tea, and before long his song:
the haunting rise of an attempt at melody,
his voice breaking before it can carry.
Somehow they recognize it, the mountain family,
and they lean over and whisper “This is a lao jia song,”
because we have never heard it
in all these years, we are sitting with strangers
trying to imagine what he is mourning.