Hark the herald, angels sing. Glory to the newborn King
My family sang, our voices echoing in the empty church. We weren’t at a church service, we weren’t singing in preparation for a wedding or a funeral. We were gathered together, my big family and I, to create what is probably the most memorable Christmas gift I’ve ever been a part of making.
It was 1992, I think, and I was eight on the verge of being nine. The gift was for my grandma Nellie, who was legally blind and loved music. My entire family, in fact, loved music and we were all blessed with the gift of song. I don’t know from whom the idea came, to make grandma Nellie the Christmas tape. All I know is that I am beyond grateful that the idea came about when I was old enough to have memories of the experience.
I didn’t want to be involved at first. I was anxious and shy about having to sing on my own. I was an ass about it; begging my parents not to make me do it and even outright refusing until one day we pulled up to my aunt’s house and my mother stopped the car and locked the doors in the driveway. She looked at me.
“Natalie Elaine,” she began, “You aren’t backing out of this. I don’t care if you’re nervous, or if you are shy about singing by yourself. You are going to be a part of this because we all are and if you are the only one not on this tape, I promise you one day you will regret it and you will be very sad.”
My mother has not ever been a source of advice or wisdom for me, but on this she was dead right. After her talk with me there was no question about whether or not I would sing on this tape. I did it, I sang my song and I am eternally grateful to my mother for locking me in the car that day and telling me in no uncertain terms that I was to participate. She was right: if I had been the only family member left off that tape I would be very, very sad.
Over the course of weeks – maybe even months, time is different when you’re a child – we recorded together at my aunt and uncle’s church and individually in a recording studio. Everyone involved got either their own song, or their own verses in a song. My mother and her two sisters sang a song together. My father and aunt sang “O Holy Night”; a song that makes me cry to this day from the memories it brings. Mostly because that Christmas tape was one of the last good memories I had from when my family was still whole. My song was “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella”. I sang it in a recording studio by myself. I still remember the weight of the earphones, heavy and professional-feeling; too big for my head. I remember the sound of my own voice rebounding back into my ears. I sang the song in one take and that was it. The thing I had feared so much was behind me.
On Christmas that year, we gathered at my aunt’s as we always do. The air was heavy with excitement and anticipation for the surprise we were about to give to my grandma Nellie. After the presents were opened and the room sufficiently filled with snowman-covered paper, one of the adults in the family came forward with grandma’s present. I don’t remember who it was, but I do remember what they said:
”This year for Christmas, we decided to give you two things you loved most: music, and our family.”
The tape was popped in, and the sound of my family’s voices singing in four-part harmony filled the room. Everyone teared up as my three-year-old cousin Laurie sang the first verse of “Away In a Manger” in her baby voice. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach when my song came on and I was suddenly flushed and red with embarrassment. I listened to the sound of my own voice and watched my family’s faces, waiting for their silent critique. Everyone smiled as they listened but no one’s smile was bigger than my grandma Nellie’s.
In the years since her passing and as I’ve grown up, I am more and more grateful for that experience. It really was one of the last good memories I have from my childhood. Grandma Nellie died two years later, and shortly after that my parents divorced and my family fell apart. But in the Christmas of 1992 I was part of something special. Something wonderful. I was part of giving my blind grandmother the gift of the two things she loved most:
Music, and her family.