A Song Without a Tune

My identity has always been tangled up in my writing, long before the poetry unit in the first or second grade when my mother declared me a genius and I experienced my first intoxicating hit of fandom. Truth be told, I became a writer when I was four, the summer of some huge family crisis, when my Auntie Barbara, desperate to keep us entertained, enlisted her daughter to help my sister and me write songs.

They would be put to music, my Auntie Barbara promised. We would have a concert, she promised. So bellies down on the big cushy bed in the guestroom, we recited our compositions, my cousin, Johnna, as our trusty scribe.

I remember shouts echoing from the dining room, tears and drama and Auntie Barbara in a swirl of strapless black sundress and penny gold hair. I remember ice cubes clinking in glasses of bourbon, my grandpa storming off to feed his goats. And I remember my song, inspired from some nursery rhyme my mother sometimes sung. It went like this:

Johnny Rebecca went up the stairs, and down the stairs, and all around.
Johnny Rebecca went up the stairs, and down the stairs, and all around.

Then, outside the guestroom, as things began to settle down, Johnna took to creeping into the dining room, asking to go home. Six years older, her due diligence long spent, I imagine she was tired of us little girls, tired of our all-important entertainment. Yet in reply came only whispers, words my little girl brain translated as, “We’re not done. Go on back. The girls need you.” For that’s what we were, my sister and I. Always. The girls.

Johnna skulked back then, picked up her pen and notepad, asked us to hum her our tunes. Except I had no tune. Just words.

Johnny Rebecca went up the stairs, and down the stairs, and all around.

My sister, on the other hand, two years my senior and an expert at putting on shows, had melody, music, a drum beat she tapped on the side of her thigh. And Johnna’s attention. Johnna’s praise.

I longed to belong, as I always had and always would, a stranger in a strange land. But it was not meant to be.

Instead, I crawled beneath the covers as the crisis abated in the dining room, as my mother packed the car to leave, as my sister sung her song to all the aunties and uncles and grandparents who had gathered.

And when my Auntie Barbara came to find me, I was spent, a mass of rat tails and alligator tears. She made no mention of my agony though. She only pulled the covers aside, patted the edge of the mattress. “You didn’t give your song a tune,” she said, or something like that. And when I nodded, “That’s called a poem, you know? A song without a tune is called a poem.”

What I felt in that moment can be described as nothing less than enlightenment. I stared at the notebook in my Auntie Barbara’s hand as she went on, as cool as iced tea on a summer day, explaining how my character, Johnny Rebecca, was “androgynous,” both male and female, yin and yang. I listened with bated breath. Could that be right? Could that be what I meant? Yet she continued even so. “Johnny Rebecca is both upstairs and down,” she said. “Why? What is Johnny Rebecca looking for?”

I didn’t know. Nor did I know I was even capable of inspiring such profound concern. I only knew that I had moved my Auntie Barbara somehow, that I had caused her to ask questions she would have never asked on her own, no matter that later I would understand her attention as being something akin to putting a child’s artwork on the fridge with a coo of praise.

Later, as we drove back home, I pressed my face against the car window, remembering the drama that had risen from my grandma’s dining room, all those clinking ice cubes and echoing shouts and my Auntie Barbara’s swirling strapless dress, yet all I could think about was Johnny Rebecca going upstairs, and downstairs and all around. And all I asked myself was Why?

Because I had never asked myself such profound questions, because I didn’t know I could.

You see, it was never about the fandom. And it was never about the praise. Not Johnna’s nor my mother’s; I know that now.

It was all about the questions.

As you can see, Johnna was always an expert entertainer.

What’s interesting too, is that if you had asked my sister why she wrote, she would have told you the exact same story, from another perspective, but still… She’d tell you how we were always the girls, how writing with Johnna that day shielded us from the family drama unfolding in the dining room.

Now, writing is still a shield from the outside world, helping me understand the world and understand myself. And now writing, for me, is still a long song without a tune, asking the same damn question (in a voice that sounds remarkably like Auntie Barbara’s): Why?

 

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