Online edition of Shunpiking
Published on Feb 2002
Culture & Life
Maxine Tynes of Dartmouth is an educator, social activist and writer. In 1998 she became the first African Canadian to win the People’s Poet Award for her collection Borrowed Beauty (Pottersfield Press).
Helen & The Everynight Sing-song
Those were the nights that were very special. Those nights that happened and were
Mama’s lady-friend Helen would be there in our squashy little railroad station-like kitchen, so long and narrow and lined all along one yellow wall with chairs. There she would be, in her big tan or navy blue coat, all fluffed out around her, in her velvet tam and perfumy Juicy Fruit gum, having tea with our Mama.
We’d peek out from the pantry or from the dining room door and see. Mama and Helen talking. Or not talking. It was really important to see all of that. Helen and Mama talking meant it wasn’t time yet for us to be there. But as soon as Mama disappeared into the dishes or ironing or one of the little brown babies, and Helen disappeared into the newspaper until only the fuzzy red or gold top of her tam could be seen, then we knew. And we looked and giggled and told each other to ‘Come on. Let’s sing for Helen.’
And sing we did. The whole little motley crew of us would one by one, or in bolder two by twos, sidle up to our Helen. This everynight lady in our house who was not our auntie or cousin or anything like that. But she was every bit as much ours as all of that, or maybe even more so, in spite of it.
Anyway, we didn’t care. We were going to sing for her. I would sidle up to her, to sneak a cherished rub of that velvet tam, and to say those magic everynight words: "Want us to sing for you, Helen?"
I know now, looking back from the steep hill of adulthood, that those truly were the magic words.
"Want us to sing for you, Helen?"
To have asked for permission; to have said, "May we sing for you?" would have guaranteed a response not from Helen but from our Mama who would have appeared from behind her camouflage of ironing to have said any one of her hundreds of ever-ready noes, with any one of those hundreds of mother-reasons attached. Like, ‘It’s too late.’ ‘It’s bedtime.’ ‘You’re bothering Helen. She came here for a little peace.’ But we knew the magic; the kid magic of what to say to make things happen.
"Want us to sing for you, Helen?"
The old grey head would raise up to give me a nod and a smile.
"Hi, girlie. Want to sing for Helen?"
Oh, the joy of it! By this time I’d be standing close. Babbling away. Saying that I’d learned a new song in school that day. Asking Helen if she wanted to hear it.
The old grey head would be nodding and smiling. Blue or tan coat arms would be folding up the newspaper, and oh, the clouds of Juicy Fruit that seemed to surround her would be like some heady charm to me. Helen would pull me in close to her.
"Come on, girlie, Sing for Helen."
And I would. I’d shove my little brown self up close to her to breathe in all the Juicy Fruit warmth of her. I’d throw back my head and sing and sing for all my little brown might. And one by one, all of my little stair-step brothers and sisters would sidle up and soon we were a chorus. Four or five sweet-child voices raised in smooth or ragged song.
There we were every night. Shout-singing all kinds of songs, in and out of harmony. Summer songs. Blue bird and black bird songs. Sleepytime songs. School songs. Even camp songs of camps we never went to. We’d sing-shout them all. All of those young voices singing loudly and happily. Completely without guile. Wagging our heads and being close to our Helen. The everynight sing-song.
And where was our Mama in all of this? Well, she was there, to be sure. Like all mothers then, our Mama was always there. Maybe the everynight sing-song was for her, too. Something she got but didn’t have to bargain for, organize or agree to.
After all, we used the kid-magic to ask Helen if she wanted us to sing for her. And our Helen always said yes. What could Mama do or say to stop it? Perhaps she never wanted to anyway.
Because there we all were, the last half of her sizeable brood, singing and doing her proud. The wagging little girl heads, crinkly black braids sticking straight up and out and not moving an inch. The sturdy little and bigger brothers, brown arms dangling out of Tee-shirts and plaid shirts, pumping to the sing-song melodies or sneaking in a pinch or poke or a tug on one of the crinkly braids.
I’m sure Mama watched us. Perhaps she even slowed her kitchen work while she sang. Perhaps, though, she bustled about in her usual brisk way; our singing a buoyant cushion of new energy for her each night.
And at the end of it all, she’d end our impromptu serenade with: "That’s enough now, children. Say good-night to Helen." And she’d watch us each accept our treasured half-stick of Juicy Fruit Gum from our Helen as she praised our efforts and bid us good-night.
"That was nice, children," she’d say. "Good night."
"‘Night, Helen," we’d all chorus.
"What do you say, children?", Mama would prompt us.
"Thank-you, Helen," came the chorus.
"You’re welcome, children. Good night."
So sweet and so formal we all were at the end.
Often I would hang back; to lean in close, close, close; to kiss that old, worn cheek. There was always the surprise of sinking into all of the warm, sweet fragrance of her.
"Thank you, girlie. 'Night now."
Our Helen. She felt soft and warm and always smelled of Juicy Fruit Gum.
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