Several years ago, my family went caroling in my mother's neighborhood in Georgia. My mother lives in what used to be a small town but is slowly becoming a suburb as Atlanta spreads to take over the southern states. But whether carols are sung in small towns or suburbs or cities, it seems that singing them on some one's front porch on a cold night before Christmas is a dying tradition. It's a shame.
My family sings very well together. We cover all the parts, and we have a guitar or two to help us out. I have written about The Program before, so I won't go into that again, but we do like to sing. My parents started it--when my father was younger, he and his many brothers would sit on their front porch in Alabama and play "old timey" tunes on fiddles, banjos, and mandolins. When my mother was younger, her family travelled to tent meetings and revivals and sang as featured performers, a bit like the Carter family but without any money or fame. We grew up around the piano harmonizing and giggling.
For my father's last Christmas, he was in the Alzheimer's unit of a nursing home. It was a very poorly designed unit with one long hallway and rooms off to the side, as if the architects had no idea that Alzheimer's patients need to roam.
Aside: If I were to design an Alzheimer's unit, I'd put funky bedrooms around the peremiter of a track where the residents could walk around and around. Their would be murals around the outside with colorful, stimulating images of childhood and food and music. And in the middle of the track, a swing band would play hit tunes from the 40s. And there would be a dance floor and a table with cookies and punch.
Back to my father's last Christmas. Because we didn't want to do The Program at home, we took our caroling books to the nursing home to sing for the residents. I was dreading it, I confess, because this Alzheimer's unit could be a bit like Children of the Corn. If you were cornered in the long hallway, the residents were likely to surround you and touch you and say unintelligible things. And you would feel like there was no way out. I would much rather sing for the general population in the dining room.
So, it was the Alzheimer's unit then. We went in with the big door locking behind us, and we positioned ourselves at the end of the hall in a kind of semi-circle. We opened up our books and started singing the standard--Away In A Manger, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, Silent Night. I kept waiting for some woman who thought she was looking for the dog she lost when she was ten to come up behind me and grab my ass. That never happened--instead, these residents joined our group and formed a complete circle. And they sang every song, remembering every word and melody. It was one of the most amazing experiences. For a few minutes, they were coherent and could participate and connect.
I thought we would just do a few songs, but we finished the song book before going to the main dining room to sing for the general units. The dining room was full of people, but they couldn't care less if we were singing Christmas carols for them or selling vacuum cleaners. They were there for lunch. They didn't sing, they didn't clap, they didn't say thank you. I almost wanted to go back to the long hallway with people wanting to pee in the window sills and steal hats from each others rooms. Those people knew the value of music and having someone sing with them.