Songs My Mother Didn’t Teach Me
Gale Stubbs McClung ’45 served as editor of the Alumnae Quarterly from 1962 to 1989. The following essay was one of nearly two dozen published in the Quarterly in the winter 1990 issue in response to a call for articles from alumnae on the meaning of success.
As I was growing up, my mother was a great embarrassment to me. She had a sense of the absurd—a way of acting ridiculous which made other people laugh but which mortified me. She would go as a guest to a dinner party with a two-foot-long peacock feather perched rakishly in her hair, or with a front tooth blacked out, her coat buttoned out of kilter, and her stockings sagging around her ankles. At perfectly normal, serious meetings at her church or women’s club or music society, she would interject a silly ditty or outrageous song. She was a “ham” at heart, and whenever I was with her and she was clowning around, I had the urge to crawl under a chair and hide. Mothers weren’t supposed to act that way.
Mother, who never touched a drop of alcohol in her life, and who was outspokenly opposed to all who did, often in her nonsense acted as if she had had a few drops too many. People marveled at how uninhibited she was. At the rehearsal dinner, on the night before Bob and I were married, she went to the piano, played, and belted out in her own inimitable style “She Was Happy Till She Met You!” My father, who always sat quietly on the sidelines and smiled with seeming approval (I think he really did admire her style), did his usual thing, while my parents-in-law-to-be took a few moments to realize that it was funny and that they could (and should) laugh. (On the day of the wedding, on the other hand, Mother sang, in her extraordinarily beautiful contralto voice, two lovely solos of love and joy. She wasn’t always the clown, even though I tended to think so.)
Many people would tell me that my mother made them feel good. True, I recognized that she was an upbeat person, and also a very good listener to whom many turned with their troubles; but I wished, so often, that she would “behave herself.”
I became increasingly aware of the joy she had brought to so many lives.
Gale Stubbs McClung ’45
After she had died, and I had matured, I became increasingly aware of the joy she had brought to so many lives. And just about the time I was coming to that realization, I met a woman, Dorothy Wright, who was closer to my mother’s age than to mine, and whose off-beat humor made me and many other people feel good. Somehow Dorothy gave me a new perspective on my mother. She often noted, especially during the troublesome 1960s, that too many people took themselves much too seriously. She aimed to help people lighten their loads, to add a little sunshine to their lives, offering an absurd story, a witty line or poem or song (or ridiculous gift) for any occasion. She had an enticing turn of phrase, and a joyful way of singing and playing with the piano, that made everyone want to be with her—to join in the fun. As I delighted in what Dorothy had to offer, I became increasingly sorry that I had not appreciated my mother more. I also was sorry that the two of them never met. They were kindred spirits.
With Dorothy I began to share some of the laughter and enthusiasm. She and I together wrote (and sang or recited) some pretty silly songs and poems. My mother would have approved. And I figured that we were on the right track when a ninety-year-old man told us how much he appreciated having an occasion
to laugh out loud.
Though some of my friends may not believe it, I’m nothing like the extrovert my mother—or Dorothy Wright—was. And though I may have some small measure of talent, I can’t begin to match either of them. Nor would I try. But I think I have learned from both of them a lesson in joy—in not taking life too seriously—in trying to bring at least a little song and laughter into our sometimes humdrum, often overburdened, work-a-day lives. Maybe this is a small bit of success.
December 19, 2016