I sang to my kids at bedtime when they were little. It started with my son. I tried to get home each night in time to read him a story before tucking him in. After a while, our little routine began to feel mechanical.
I thought singing him a song might jazz up our bedtime ritual, but I’m not much of a singer. My mother said I couldn’t “carry a tune in a bucket.” That was generally true, but in high school I discovered I could sometimes find the bucket by singing along with a tune on the radio when I was alone in my car and no one was listening.
I never told anyone about my car radio sing-alongs and I never sang in public for fear I’d wander off key and make a fool of myself, but I considered taking the chance with my five-year-old son in the privacy of his bedroom. The problem was finding a song I could sing that would be fun for him to listen to.
I rejected all the slow and sappy lullabies. I was looking for pizazz. Where the bough breaks and the like didn’t have enough juice. Then I thought about my old radio songs. My high school senior year, Roger Miller released King of the Road. It’s about a hobo riding the rails to Bangor, Maine, wearing a worn out suit and shoes and smoking old stogies. He’s a man of means by no means, but he sees himself as a king of the road. The lyrics are fun, and the tune is catchy.
Back in the day, I could sing that song with Roger Miller’s smooth voice and guitar chords covering up my mistakes, but I didn’t know if I could sing it solo with no music. So I practiced. I memorized the lyrics, locked the door to what I hoped was our soundproof bathroom, and rehearsed. Again and again. After about twenty tries, I was no Roger Miller, but I wasn’t completely bucketless either.
I was nervous when the time came to face the music. I read the bedtime story to my son, set the book down, took a deep breath, and started singing. My voice cracked here and there, but I finished strong. At the end, my son was smiling ear to ear. He asked me to sing it again that night and the next night. And the next. For weeks.
After a while, I had to expand my repertoire to keep him interested. I picked out a couple of The Lovin Spoonful’s songs from the 1960’s. Jug Band Music is about a guy down in Savannah eating cream and banana on a day so hot it made him faint. He started to see things as they ain’t, so his relatives called the doctor. “Just give him jug band music,” the doctor said. “It seems to make him feel just fine.”
Bald Headed Lena is about a girl with a cue ball head that’s hard as lead. It’s so big she can’t wear no wig, but the singer has a thing for her anyway because, well, his alternatives aren’t that great: Messy Bessy, Tricky Tessy, Silly Dilly, Lyin Lilly. Lizzy’s so dizzy she went and lost her mind. Ella Mae might have saved the day but she’s deaf, dumb, and blind.
By the time my daughters came along, I’d memorized enough songs to perform a low-grade lounge act in a cheap hotel. I sang The Big Bopper’s Chantilly Lace (Oh, Baby, you know what I like!), Sixteen Tons, Daydream, and a few other stray cats and dogs. They liked those songs, but the big hits were the first three I learned, and of those, King of the Road was the hands-down champ.
That song became my favorite, too. After bobbing and weaving all day to survive in a big high-powered law firm, the stress and tension would drain off as I sang about riding to Bangor in the third boxcar on the midnight train. It seemed to anchor my soul in stormy seas. I don’t recall a single night when singing that song to my kids failed to lift my mood.
One of the grave injustices in life is that your children grow up. First, they won’t let you hold their hand. Then they want to play with their friends instead of you. Before you know it, you’re touring a college campus, and they ask you to walk far enough behind so the college kids won’t know they’re with you. And sometime way before that, you don’t get to tuck them into bed any more.
I was mourning our empty nest when a Latham senior partner died. He was a titan among litigators, the lead trial lawyer in the biggest case our firm had ever handled. At his funeral, his adult daughter spoke to a packed sanctuary. “It will probably come as a surprise to the lawyers at Latham,” she said, “but when we were children, Daddy sang to us when he tucked us into bed.” I talked to her after the service. “It was a special gift,” she said, “and we loved him all the more for it.”
Her words helped me adjust to the adulthood of my children. They’ve grown up, I told myself, but maybe those special times with them when they were kids will live on in their memories.
A few years after that funeral, my older daughter chose King of the Road as the song for the father-daughter dance at her wedding. The ceremony and reception were outdoors on a ranch in a canyon near Malibu. We danced to King of the Road at night under lights strung in California live oaks. As we twirled, I sang a few lines to her about worn out shoes and fat stogies. I was out of practice and off key, but as she looked up at me with sparkling eyes, her smile said she didn’t care. For a few precious moments, she was my little girl again.
My younger daughter choreographed our steps for the father-daughter dance at her wedding. We marched to the center of the dance floor, I in my tuxedo, she in her flowing gown. Our faces were serious and stern. I stood straight, shoulders square, and bowed to her. She did a low sweeping curtsy to me. That was the band’s cue to launch into a brassy melody and for the lead singer to belt out, “Bald headed Lena/Has anybody seen her/Cute as she can be.” As we hooked arms and danced to the ragtime tune, my younger daughter’s impish grin told me she was still my little girl, too.
I was concentrating on my steps through most of that dance, but about half-way through our routine I caught a glimpse of my son at the head table, sporting a big grin. He’s grown up and has his own kids now, I thought, but he’ll always remember those nights I sang to him when he was a little boy.
As I’ve grown older, opportunities for encore performances have arisen, and I’ve learned the hard way the downside of screwing them up.
A while back, I put one of our grandsons to bed for an afternoon nap. When I finished reading his story, he asked me to sing him a song. Twenty-five years out of practice, I sang a rusty version of King of the Road. The smile I expected wasn’t there at the end. “You messed up the words, Papaw,” he said. “Mommy sings it better.”
“I’m sorry, Buddy-Beau,” I said, feeling ambushed by my unexpected competitor. “I’ll do better next time.”
I practiced and I did better next time, but I still wasn’t as good as Mommy. It ain’t over yet, though.