The Toy That Didn’t Exist

I don’t know what made me think of this story recently, unless it’s that the holiday season—the season of miracles—is upon us, even if it is only October. And maybe it wasn’t such an extraordinary miracle, as miracles go. After all, there was undoubtedly a rational explanation for it.

But at the time I think it must have seemed like one . . .

* * *

I don’t have to be a parent to know that diagnosis of a serious illness in a young child is one of the most terrifying experiences a parent can ever face.

My cousin Matt’s son, Shepard, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, or ALL, shortly before his third birthday.

Long-term chemotherapy was on the horizon. Three years, in fact. And as Matt said, he might not be able to control his son’s pain or the toll cancer would exact on his little body, but he could get him a toy to help him through it. So he asked Shepard what toy he most desired.

Much to Dad’s chagrin, Shephard replied: “I want Randall.”

“Randall” was Randall Boggs—lizard-like chief scoundrel of Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.,” and Shephard’s all-time favorite movie character. While Matt couldn’t fathom what toy company would actually manufacture “a slimy villain” like Randall, he was going to find Randall Boggs and put a smile on his son’s face, if only for a moment.

There was just one problem. No retailer Matt contacted had ever heard of a Randall Boggs toy, much less had one in stock. He finally gave up, concluding it didn’t exist.

Not long afterward, as he told his Facebook friends, he was in the throes of “a little bit of a pity party” when his wife, Brady, suggested that he take Shephard’s big brother Sanders out for some fun. The pair ended up at a local Barnes & Noble bookstore, where they played with a train set for nearly half an hour. And on their way out, a toy caught Matt’s eye. A plastic figurine of “Sulley,” Randall’s arch-nemesis.

A closer look revealed that Sulley was one of a series, and yes, Randall Boggs completed it. But while the second figure was quickly located, there was no sign of Randall. Undaunted, Matt tore through a display of nearly 100 boxes until he finally saw, in the last spot on the very last row, a single package.

Guess who?

Overjoyed, he made a beeline for the cashier. Although he left the store $30 lighter in the pocket (having been convinced that a similar toy was in order for Shephard’s twin and older brother), he couldn’t drive home fast enough. For the look on his little boy’s face when he opened the box, he would have gladly paid three times that amount.

“God can use the smallest thing in the world to reveal Himself to you and renew your joy,” Matt said.

Even a toy that supposedly doesn’t exist.

Shep today

Shep today…future Auburn alumnus and…budding chef?

 

In Which the Advent of Spring Makes My Pants Want to Get Up and Dance

Meadow dance

Earlier this week, I was trying to make myself sit down at my laptop to work on a writing assignment. Trouble was, I just didn’t really want to. Sit down, that is. Or work. Now that is not unusual for writers in general, but it wasn’t hard to conclude what might be at the root of the strange feeling in my blood that made my limbs want to twitch in a manner commonly referred to as dancing. Even though there was no music on.

Even though I don’t dance (at least not in a way anyone would want to actually witness).

But I’ve felt that way several times lately—not like I wanted to dance, necessarily, but like I wanted to, well, something. To move. To get going. To DO something.

I even thought about—wait for it—exercising again!

Too bad spring only comes around once a year. I might be slimmer if it did more often.

I wanted to run through some woods (even though I don’t run, either) under a canopy of green. I wanted to feel dirt under my feet and to inhale that indescribable scent that comes from the burst of new life.

Turns out there wasn’t a thing wrong with me other than a touch of that old spring fever.

Granted, the coming of spring isn’t as big a deal in sunny Central Florida as it was when I lived up north. For a couple of years before we returned to my home state, I loved to stroll through the woods that backed our house, especially on those mornings I got up to discover that the stick-figure trees had gone bushy-green overnight.

Did it happen overnight? Probably not, but it sure felt like it.       Woodland path

And all this week, with spring edging ever closer, I’ve wanted to throw open every window in the house and let the breeze blow away the last tinge of winter chill and accumulated dust . . . yet in my neighborhood we seem to have skipped spring and gone straight to summer, with a pollen count so high I had to borrow from my mom’s stash of allergy medicine for the first time in I don’t know when.

But I don’t care. Today is the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, and dammit, my pants want to get up and dance (hat tip to Dr. Hook).

It’s SPRING, people! Get out there and rejoice. Pollen and all.

* * *

Is spring fever for real? The experts say there is an actual biological component. To put it simply, the lowest levels of brain serotonin are found in the winter and the highest levels in spring and summer, which “may help explain why many people feel better and more energetic in the spring.” Others cite the increase of light during the spring months, causing the body to produce less melatonin and a “reduced desire to sleep”; dilation of blood vessels with warmer temperatures; an increase in endorphins and hormones.

(And here I  thought it was just the joy of being able to ditch those winter long johns and itchy wool sweaters.)

Serotonin and hormone levels aside, the vernal equinox—the first official day of spring—is a big deal, symbolizing the regeneration of nature, with its own myths, traditions, and even superstitions. For example, one popular belief, often attributed to the Chinese, is that you can stand a raw egg on end on this day. Of course, it is also said that you can do this on any other day if you just have enough patience, but go ahead. I’ll wait. Another old fable advises that you’ll want to kill the first adder you spot in the spring if you wish to overcome all your enemies.

By the way, before this halcyon time of year came to be known as “spring” in the 16th century, it was called Lent, or Lenten. And the first known use of the term “spring cleaning” dates to 1857.

Spring cleanBut what’s up with that annual rite, so much a part of our culture that manufacturers of cleaning products ramp up their advertising in late winter?

Perhaps the answer lies in Jewish, Chinese or Iranian tradition. In Iran, the pre-new year ritual known as khaneh takani, or “shaking the house,” means that everything from ceiling to floor and in between gets a thorough scouring. Once the house is shaken, the new year, and spring, can arrive. (I know a good shaking would benefit MY house! I might even find some things that went missing years ago.)

In the Jewish faith, Passover is a time of house cleaning as well. Because slaves in Egypt, including the Jews, were fed unleavened (yeast-free) bread, it serves as a symbol of their subjection. During Passover, the presence of leavened bread in the house, even if it consists only of crumbs, is considered an insult to God, so homes are well scrubbed beforehand. Could this be the origin of our more modern spring cleaning? Since both events occur in April, many think so. Then again, we could have the Chinese to thank, as their pre-new year sweep is designed to rid their homes of bad luck and misfortune that accumulated in the outgoing year.

* * * 

Whether the warmer air and longer hours of sunshine make you want to wash your windows or fly a kite or take a  Dandelion teawalk in the woods—or something else altogether—one thing that makes spring special is that, like the dawning of January 1, it signals new growth and new beginnings. If you’re like me and haven’t been doing such a hot job of keeping certain “resolutions” you made a few months ago, spring is a great time to dust them off with the furniture,  even if, like me, you’ll probably have to repeat the process about as often as you dust your furniture. Or maybe you’ll enjoy improving the look of your lawn as well as benefiting your health by gathering some dandelions for a cup of tea.

Whatever you end up doing, remember that no one said it better than the late and much-lamented Robin Williams:

“Spring is nature’s way of saying, ‘Let’s party!'”

So proceed accordingly.

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That’s One Brave Chick

Sara Bahai

Sara Bahai

I’ve never met Sara Bahai outside the pages of my local newspaper or laptop screen, but I wouldn’t mind doing so. I’d like to look her in the eye and shake her hand. People who do things I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to do tend to affect me that way.

Sara’s brand of bravery comes from being a member of what’s been called the world’s second oldest profession: She drives a cab.

Now I’ve only experienced the passenger side of that profession, and even that a mere handful of times, but my understanding is that, at least in America, practitioners have witnessed pretty much everything from the expulsion of body waste to acts better reserved for the privacy of the boudoir, as well as domestic arguments and costume quick-changes. Of course, not every day is that exciting, or even potentially risky.

But Sara plies her trade in Afghanistan, where she doesn’t have to worry as much about romantic spats or handing out barf bags as she does the male passengers who have no qualms about castigating her for “un-Islamic” behavior.

In 1996, women were banned from driving, under penalty of death, by the Taliban. Once its rule ended, they slowly began reappearing behind the wheel, thanks partly to the efforts of the German-based organization Medica Mondiale, which launched a driving course for women in 2002. However, they are still far outnumbered by their male counterparts, and reactions range from the astonished (“Look, it’s a girl!”) to the negative (threats of kidnapping or worse), even as some men informally teach their wives or regularly allow their sisters to take the wheel in an effort to normalize the sight.

As for Sara, while she admits that her male customers are never happy with her, despite the fact that Islam does not actually prohibit women from driving, she doesn’t get upset; she just tells them exactly what she thinks.

Which led me to think, as I put down my newspaper with a smile, “That’s one brave chick.”

* * *

I’ve been driving for enough years now that I don’t quite recall what my feelings were upon grasping the full implications of operating a gas-powered metal behemoth, other than a twinge of healthy intimidation, but decades later, I still enjoy a good cruise with the music cranked up and the sunroof cranked open. Sara’s first turn of the ignition felt like “someone had given me wings,” and if her maiden voyage in a neighbor’s car consisted merely of a few miles around her neighborhood, it was enough to get her hooked. So she took a two-week professional driving course and applied for her license.

But that wasn’t enough for Sara. To help provide for her ailing mother and her widowed sister’s seven children, she Sara Bahai decided to become what is believed to be her country’s first female cab driver. Nor was that the only pattern she broke—despite a number of marriage proposals, she’s the sole sibling of fourteen to remain single. Looking at some of the “very unhappy” unions among her sisters, she has no regrets, especially since she wanted to demonstrate to the world that Afghan women were born for self-sufficient independence as well as marriage and motherhood.

Her female passengers tell her they’re proud of her. Some of them giggle under their burkas at the sight of a female cabbie, but they also feel more comfortable with one. And if she tells them much about herself, perhaps they’re as impressed as I was to learn that she does her own car repairs, buys and sells secondhand cars, has started her own driving school, is a beekeeper who earns extra income by selling homemade honey, and still finds time to be a human rights activist.

No wonder the gal is single. Who has time for a husband with that kind of schedule?

* * *

While Sara’s been a cabbie for over a decade, she still encounters a share of resistance in various forms. But like any trailblazer worth their salt, she pushes through it. And I hope that the next time I start my old Honda and tool down the road without fear of much beyond an unexpected traffic jam or possible flat tire, I’ll remember this middle-aged woman a world away who surprised and inspired and infuriated her fellow Afghans just by driving a car.

Just by being one brave chick.

 

In Which I Remember That It’s Christmas

Creche

It’s not like I don’t possess a calendar.

It’s not like I don’t turn on the radio and hear holiday music on a 24-hour rotation, even before December 1. It’s not like I don’t see the lights and crèche scenes and inflatable snowmen going up in my neighborhood.

It’s just that I forgot what season it really is. That it’s Christmas.

It’s Christmas.

I’ve been ignoring my own advice to “do the next thing” lately in favor of fretting about things like health insurance and finding a job I like, aging family members and a house in which the clutter seems like something over which I will never gain control, and forgetting that . . .

It’s Christmas.

I’ve fretted about approaching deadlines and not managing my time well despite intentions to the contrary. About my eating habits and books that haven’t been read or reviewed. About messages that aren’t returned and checks that haven’t been mailed. About whether I’ll ever be smart enough to pursue a dream. About what kinds of gifts to buy and finding them on time, driving an old car (that still runs well and requires very little maintenance). And in between, I’ve grieved . . . for the blogger I’ve never met, whose husband’s deterioration from ALS has recently increased so rapidly that he was just placed in hospice care. For the Facebook friend whose books I’ve read and admired and shared, whose unborn grandchild has been diagnosed with an incurable genetic condition described in medical parlance as “incompatible with life.” For the real-life friend with an undiagnosed health issue and no health insurance. For the woman less than a decade my senior who is barely making ends meet on Social Security and sometimes goes for days with no food until her next check arrives, whom I only know from a newspaper advice column.

I forgot that it’s almost Christmas.

CHRISTMAS.

And so a couple of nights ago, after sending up yet another brief and hasty request to heaven for direction while doing whatever else I was doing, perhaps it was no surprise that the immediate answer seemed to be: “Go for a walk.”

Which I did, for the first time in almost two months.

It was a good night for a walk. Cool but not cold. A full moon. Huge white clouds.

And lights. Inflatable snowmen. Wreaths. Trees in windows.

I needed to see the lights. To remember what season it was.

Yes, I have a calendar. But I’d forgotten that it’s Christmas. I’d forgotten who put that full moon in the sky and who breathed life into those clouds. I don’t know if all the owners of those lit up houses were thinking along similar lines when they decorated, or simply responding to tradition. It didn’t matter. I walked by their houses, slowly, and looked at those lights. Enjoyed them. And simply let myself remember why they were there. I looked up at that moon and felt small, as I should. But not in a bad way. I waved at the cheerfully waving inflatable Abominable Snowman when I was sure no one was watching. I walked slowly by the lit and unlit crèche scenes, humble plastic figures put in yards as a reminder, and humbly accepted the reminder.

That this is a season. Preceded by another, to be followed by another. And my job is to live in only one at a time.

Over and over again last week I wondered, “What do I do next?”

The answer was simply to remember the season.

Merry Christmas.

* * *

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”  – from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Star

 

Please Don’t Call Me “Unemployed”

Hey-ho, unemployment woe – I’m not in the mood for you.

Not right now, anyway.  Maybe because it’s too early.  I only left my job last week, after all.

But I’d rather believe it’s because I’m better prepared than on previous occasions when I got the axe, the pink slip, the news, whatever you want to call it.  Yep, I’ve been there before.  Seven times, in fact.  Last week was Number Eight.

They say you never forget your first time, and the first time was the worst.

There I was, going about my business while the rumblings, which there surely must have been, eluded my ears.  So when my boss called me into her cubicle (even the department director had a cubicle), I had no clue I was about to hear that essentially my entire department had just been eliminated.

Shock quickly gave way to fear, not to mention a sense of being cut adrift.  How long would it take to find another job?  Did I even have the necessary qualifications to get another one that would pay enough?

I soon found myself typing up my coworkers’ resumes.  At home I lay on the couch, plagued with worries about whether my car, on which I was still making payments, would be repossessed.  Human Resources assistance was, frankly, a joke, and not just in my case: at one point enough of us complained that at least two recruiters were called on the carpet.  But as it turned out, I was fortunate enough to be carpooling with a friend who had a friend in another department, and said department had an unexpected opening, and…

Suffice it to say that I didn’t need to worry about my car being repossessed.  In fact, I would stay with that company for nearly another decade.

* * * * *

It gets easier.  You learn that the world doesn’t end, to not become too emotionally invested, for in the eyes of a company you really are just a number.  You apply for unemployment yet again and curb unnecessary spending.  You give a speech on surviving a job loss at your Toastmasters club.

While I’ve been very fortunate in not having experienced unemployment as a single parent or sole breadwinner, I know what it’s like to lie awake at night worrying about money.  Old journal entries are filled with mathematics and bank balances.  I still remember the frustration of putting out literally hundreds of resumes and receiving, at best, about a two percent response; the nagging anxiety, as the months moved into the double digits with no offers, that there must be something wrong with me; the sense of failure when it finally came to a choice between paying rent or expensive COBRA health insurance; the secret wonderings of Is my age working against me?  Have I been out of work too long to be considered?

And oh, I could go on.  The interview questions that don’t really apply to your experience.  The worry that the job you know you don’t want is the one that will be offered, and you’ll feel you have to take it.  The well-meaning but annoyingly repetitive queries of “Have you found something yet?  Any news on the job front?  Have you thought about doing something different?”

So I worked on becoming better prepared this time, because this time my job had a foreseeable expiration date.  Interestingly, though I was ready for a “change of scenery,” I found myself having unexpected emotional reactions at various times as the embers of old fears were stirred.

But I knew even before that date was announced that I had to do something different.  Knew I had to change if I didn’t want to endlessly repeat the same old patterns.

So on January 1, 2014, I embarked on my “Year of Believing Dangerously.”  Oh, the rational voices in my head tried to kill it before it started.  They warned of reaching the December 31 finish line a puddle of dashed hopes and laughable expectations.  “You don’t know what you’re getting into!” they claimed.  “You’ll end up alone and depressed on New Year’s Eve, wondering how you could have been dumb enough to think…”

But another small voice overrode them. “So what?  You’ll still be better off than you were before.”

And thus, when the still-triggering question of “What are you going to do?” came up, I learned to articulate a new hope, and with practice my voice became stronger.  I committed, for better or worse, to moving towards something I wanted rather than something I didn’t merely to pay the bills.  I didn’t want fear to be my impetus anymore, to drift for days, weeks, months, staying up too late at night and spending too many hours surfing the Internet while I waited for a phone call, an email, an offer, an assignment.

So please don’t call me “unemployed.”  It’s a word with negative connotations, besides which I will indeed be employed, even if humbly at my bedroom desk and not in a paying capacity at first.  I’ll be brushing up on my proofreading and computer software skills.  Researching, writing and marketing articles.  Reviewing books and serving as a beta reader/proofreader for other writers.  Continuing my daily exercise in a quest to reach my goal weight.  Listening to motivational speakers.  Reading.  Interviewing and blogging.  Taking courses and seeking volunteer opportunities, working on developing new relationships and networking opportunities.  Designing a new website.  Job hunting while I’m reinventing.

And, to slightly paraphrase a line from one of my favorite novels:  “If I come a cropper, at least I can say, ‘Well tried.'”

Writer for Hire

Writer for Hire

 

 

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If These Stones Could Talk…Wait, They Do

Bonaventure #1It may sound odd, but I enjoy visiting cemeteries.

A couple of years ago, MySendoff.com spearheaded the first observance of “Visit a Cemetery Day,” and while I don’t recall now how I first heard of it, I thought it was an interesting idea.  This month, as the third annual observance of the day approaches, I’ve been thinking about, well, cemeteries.

More specifically, gravestones.  Because while I’ve always enjoyed the peaceful quiet of cemeteries, it’s the stories told on their headstones that interest me.

No sign here that this Civil War veteran played a role in President Lincoln's assassination

Hanged in 1865, buried in 1994…no sign here of the part this Civil War veteran played in the Lincoln assassination.

Or the ones not told.  A few months ago I was in the small town of Geneva, FL, visiting the grave of Lincoln assassination co-conspirator Lewis Powell, and found myself a bit surprised that his headstone made no mention of his involvement in that event.  Of course, a casual observer would also not know that only his skull rests there…the whereabouts of the rest of his remains, which were (perhaps not surprisingly) unclaimed by his family after his public execution, remain a mystery.  All that is immediately apparent are the span of his life and his service in the Confederate army.

That same day, just before visiting Lewis, I’d sat at the graves of civil rights activist Harry Tyson Moore and his wife, Harriette, thinking about the violence of their deaths, of which there is no trace in that silent earth.  The same passerby who stopped to take a look without knowing their story would not realize their untimely end came at the hands of a bomb planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan…or, possibly, that they were in the “colored” cemetery:  the dust of the sleepers here had not been seen fit to mingle with that of whites. (One wonders how the people who saw fit to create a “colored” cemetery imagined the different races would get along in heaven.)

I like reading headstones for the stories they tell, even if I never knew the deceased.  The graves of infants and children are the most poignant.

Matthew Stanford Robison, Salt Lake City Cemetery, UT

Gravestone of Matthew Stanford Robison, Salt Lake City Cemetery, UT.

But it was during a visit to Savannah’s famed Bonaventure Cemetery that I really noticed the contrast between how we typically memorialized the dead, then and now.

The reports of Bonaventure’s loveliness were not exaggerated, and my afternoon stop there was a moving as well as deeply peaceful experience in spite of a slight drizzle under gray skies.  I’d come not only to view history, but the grave of Danny Hansford, whose murder was made famous in John Berendt’s bestseller “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”  With the grounds largely to myself, I walked up and down the sandy pathways, gravitating to what must have been fabulously expensive memorials in their day.  Two in particular stood out:  “Little Gracie” and marathoner Julia Backus Smith, “Savannah’s Fastest Female Runner.”

Julia Backus Smith

Julia Backus Smith.  This statue was commissioned by her mother.

The life-size statue of a woman in jogging attire, posed as if in mid-stride with a flower in one hand, looks toward the road ahead of her with an open, welcoming smile that contrasts shockingly with her untimely death by suicide at age 57, two years after competing in her last marathon. A city commissioner and activist as well as dedicated runner, the stone at her feet memorializes her as “Humble, brave, beautiful, determined” and “her family’s rock.”

“Little Gracie” Watson, who died of pneumonia at the age of six in 1889, was the only child of the man who managed Pulaski House, one of Savannah’s leading hotels, and, according to her gravestone, a favorite with guests.  Her life-size statue, carved from a photograph in 1890 by rising sculptor John Walz, depicts a child in demure dress with hair cascading loosely over her shoulders, small feet delicately crossed in high-buttoned shoes.  As if to indicate that she felt cheated by leaving the world so young, Gracie’s spirit has been said to haunt the area of her death, and her gravesite, ever since her passing.

Little Gracie Watson

Tomb of Gracie Watson.

Other memorials proved slightly puzzling…for example, the undated stone erected to two women.  A solemn angel stands guard above the inscription to primary spouse Barborn, “wife of F.D. Rückert,” which is followed by “Also Lovila, His Second Wife.”  Did the unlucky widower have funds enough for only one marker?

Then there was the gold-tinted grand piano headstone of a gentleman named Upchurch.  The slab below it makes no mention of his having been a musician…did he simply adore piano music?

I wandered past more angels and pensively posed female figures in flowing costumes before taking a short drive to the adjacent Greenwich Cemetery, which posed such a striking contrast to Bonaventure that for a moment I thought, “What happened?!”  Here lay row upon row of flat, uniform stones such as one typically sees in modern cemeteries…and while it’s where the dead are remembered more than where they rest that matters, I couldn’t help feeling a little chagrined.  Upchurch Marker

Fast forwarding two and a half years to my discovery that “Visit a Cemetery Day” was approaching, I took my curiosity as to why grave markers have so radically altered over the years to “MySendoff.com,” where Monika Berens kindly took time to reply.  While she admitted that she had never considered the question, her take on the situation made perfect sense:

“The older cemeteries – pre-1900s – used mostly soft rock like limestone, shale, brownstone, etc. for headstones.  Headstones made from this rock were easy to engrave and more elaborate designs could be used.  Hard rock like granite began to replace the limestone because engraved inscriptions, designs,  etc. would last longer (lots of the old limestone headstones are unreadable today).  Granite was a lot harder to cut into shapes or carve into statues and would have been more expensive and most people would have kept the shape simple and the text short to avoid the higher costs.”  She added that today there are only about a dozen tombstone craftsmen left in the U.S. – which to me seemed rather sad.  Furthermore, Monika noted, nowadays most North American cemeteries are governed by boards that dictate a headstone’s appearance.

Part of this gravestone's inscription reads "Her children rose up and called her blessed"

Part of this gravestone’s inscription reads “Her children rose up and called her blessed.”

“The changes in our cemeteries/headstones really parallel the changes in the communities in which we choose to live,” she went on to say.  “Builders/developers build entire neighborhoods where every house is the same.  Lots of these communities have boards similar to a cemetery’s that dictate how everything should look right down to the color of paint used on a door to the type of tree planted in the front yard.  So maybe it’s just a trend?”

Maybe.

* * * * *

How about you?  Do you like to read old tombstones?  Do you find graveyards peaceful, or morbid?  Will you be stopping by one on October 27 in honor of the third annual “Visit a Cemetery Day”?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Next week I’ll be sharing an interview with Teresa Shields Parker, author of a new memoir, Sweet Grace:  How I Lost 250 Pounds and Stopped Trying to Earn God’s Favor, a candid look at one woman’s journey to physical, emotional and spiritual health after years of morbid obesity.  This book should be on the shelf of anyone who struggles with food addiction and weight…and I’ll tell you how to get a copy.  See you then!

Two wives, one monument

Two wives, one monument…

Headstone of Danny Hansford (Greenwich Cemetery, Savannah, GA), characteristic of modern markers

Headstone of Danny Hansford (Greenwich Cemetery, Savannah, GA), characteristic of modern markers but still personalized by visitors.

 

You Say It’s Your Birthday? Happy Birthday to You!

English: Music and lyrics of the song "Go...

Music and lyrics of the song “Good Morning to All,” the basis for the allegedly copyrighted song “Happy Birthday to You.”  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week I celebrated another birthday…and in between wondering how the hell I got so old and plucking snow-white hairs in my car’s rearview mirror at traffic stops (WHY can’t they make a “permanent” hair color that will cover white?), I started thinking about the “Happy Birthday” song.

Which is, frankly, not something I do very often, but several months ago I heard a story on NPR radio about the song which left me figuratively scratching my head.  Because, along with most people, I took it for granted that the ubiquitous ditty, as much a tradition as holiday fruitcake (and in some quarters about as popular) was in the public domain.  Free for anyone to sing, anywhere, anytime.

Not so fast, most people.

Cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the most frequently sung songs in the English language, “Happy Birthday to You” has been translated into at least 18 languages and is even the subject of a documentary film.  But had you ever given a thought to its origin?

Me either.

 * * * * *

First appearing in print about 1912, with no credit or copyright notices, “Happy Birthday to You” is said to be the offspring of “Good-Morning to All,” introduced by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill to Patty’s kindergarten class in Louisville, Kentucky and published in their 1893 songbook, “Song Stories for the Kindergarten”:

Good morning to you, good morning to you,
Good morning dear children, good morning to all.

The story goes that the Hill sisters’ young students enjoyed the tune enough to begin spontaneously performing it at birthday parties, where they changed the “Good morning” to “Happy Birthday.”  A tradition was born, though the song wasn’t copyrighted until 1935, by the Summy Company, proud publisher of “Good Morning to All,” and a new company, Birch Tree Group, was formed to enforce the copyright.  In 1988, Birch Tree Ltd. was acquired by Warner/Chappell, a division of the Warner Music Group, for a cool $25 million.

Warner/Chappell not only claims to be the owner of “Happy Birthday to You,” but has collected an estimated $2 million per year in licensing fees for it, which is hardly chump change for a piece containing only seven notes and a little over five words (depending on the subject of the singing).

That was news to filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who wanted to produce a documentary about the history of the song.  Understandably, it was to be performed in one scene.

Not so fast, said Warner/Chappell.

First Ms. Nelson had to pay $1,500 and enter into a licensing agreement.  Which she did…before deciding to file a lawsuit against Warner/Chappell that seeks to have the tune declared in the public domain.

“It’s a song created by the public, it belongs to the public, and it needs to go back to the public,” declared Nelson’s attorney, Mark C. Rifkin, to the New York Times.  Personally, I’m betting the Sisters Hill would agree with him, and they’d be further backed up by Professor Robert Brauneis of the George Washington University Law School, who wrote a 68-page article on the subject titled “Copyright and the World’s Most Popular Song” and who believes it unlikely the tune is still under copyright.

I couldn’t help wondering what Patty and Mildred Hill would make of Jennifer Nelson’s legal battle, or the fact that she wanted to make a film about their little song’s history…not to mention those multi-million dollar licensing fees.  Mildred passed away in 1916, long before the song became famous; Patty, in 1946.  Then again, the sisters were posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame on June 12, 1996.

Perhaps that was glory enough.

* * * * *

You say it’s your birthday?  Happy Birthday to You!

But don’t ask me to sing it, okay?   Not because I’m a little shy about my singing voice…

I think I’d just rather wait until that suit is settled.