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Baby love

Last week I traveled to Birmingham, Ala. to sing for four days. Last year, on a writing assignment, I discovered the Sacred Harp, a 19th century songbook of hymns written in four-part vocal harmony with notes drawn in shapes, hence the popular name "shape-note singing." Shape-note singers meet in churches, community centers and living rooms across America and thrive especially in the rural Primitive Baptist churches of Alabama and Georgia where many who still attend the singings grew up going to singing school, learning to read the notes and the tunes.

I go to the singings to be washed in the big, sometimes mournful, sometimes joyful sound. Shape-note singers, unlike singers in formal choirs, sing with an open throat, not exactly hollering but certainly belting it out when the spirit moves. Less confident singers can be confident that if they miss a note or a beat, their small voices will be drowned out by the strong voices of others.

So for three days, I sang among a huge group -- almost 500 -- of singers at the National Sacred Harp Singing Convention, then on the fourth day traveled out to the country for a smaller singing. I'd met a few of the people in Birmingham, but knew none of them. I go to the singings to be a friend among strangers, sharing song and voice.

Next to me on the hard church pews, on the third day, sat a beautiful young couple and their 7-week-old baby. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, the mother and father could have been mistaken for siblings. Their beautiful little daughter, dressed in a pink stretch suit with tight knit pink booties, looked mesmerized by the music. I imagined that the vibration of this huge choir of voices entered her body and soothed her. She dozed and awoke, dozed and awoke, her mother handling her expertly, moving her from knees to shoulder to lap, jiggling her to the time of the music.

The father took her in his large hands when the mother wanted to focus on the songbook. He knew the songs by heart, singing each one in a strong, assured tenor honed by many years of practice, eye to eye with the baby. The mother told me she had gone to singings while she was pregnant and believed the sound was familiar and comforting to the baby. The father said he had attended his first singing while in the womb of his pregnant mother and had gone to them regularly all his life.

I watched the baby, calculating how I would ask them to let me hold her. The need to feel her weight in my arms, her smooth skin, was as visceral as hunger. So when the coffee break came, I casually said to them, "Why don't you let me hold her while you two stretch your legs?"

The mother hands her over with no hesitation and steps into the aisle for coffee. The baby's diapered rump and silky head are equally weighty in each of my hands. Her sweet scent fills the air. I brush her cheek with a finger and her eyes roll upward, then she snoozes. The father watches her sleep in my arms.

"She sleeps right through the noise," he says. "My mother always said to get out the vacuum cleaner and sweep right under the baby's bed while it's sleeping. That gets 'em used to the noise."

He explained her sleeping habits, how she is drawn to light and loves to stare at lamps at night, how busy she gets just when he is ready to sleep. He tells me her name is April. I tell him that's the name I wished for when I was a girl, since April was my birth month.

I am inexplicably proud holding her, admiring her perfection, her curled fists, her dark lashes, her curved seashell of an ear.

The mother returns and I hand her back over, watching her settle into her mother's hands with a stretch and a curl of her body forward, toward her mother's chest.

The singing continues following a brief memorial service naming all the singers who have died in the last year. We raise our voices in a song about heaven. I glance over to see the father wiping his eyes, unable to sing. His mother's name has been called. His wife wraps one thin arm around his back and jiggles the baby with the other. He looks at the baby, wiping at his eyes again.

Then he holds out his arms and she is slipped comfortably into them. He pulls the baby up to his red face and with one tiny finger, no bigger than a twig, she reaches out and grabs his nose. He laughs and cries as voices rise around them, singing a loud tune about glory land, sweet glory in the sky.

--kathryn@csindy.com

  • Baby love

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