I have a very vivid memory from childhood of my mother brushing and blow-drying my hair. She’s singing Mairsy Dotes and Billy Boy while I stand and endure the pulling of my hair, yet enjoying the attention and the brush strokes on my scalp when the hair wasn’t pulling. I also recall that I had a little hard plastic doll I called Billy Boy after the song. I remember giving the doll a bath in the sink.
This comes up because I find myself singing as I comb Bella’s hair:
Where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Where have you been, Charming Billy?
I have been to see my wife. She’s the apple of my eye.
She’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother.
Combing Bella’s hair is an ordeal. She must sleep on her face like her father does, head buried in the mattress, because her forelock is always teased and knotted. It takes a great deal of detangling spray and patience to undo the ratted disaster. It always ends in tears. But the singing helps to calm her down and distract her. And now she’s also come to associate the song with the hair brushing.
“Come on, Bella, let’s comb your hair. Piggy tails.”
“Sing Bildy Boy?”
“Ok, I’ll sing Billy Boy.”
I only know two verses, the first and a second one “Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy…” But I looked it up online and found pages and pages more. I printed it off and stashed it in the bathroom for easy reference. But sometimes I just make up my own lyrics:
I love my girls, Bella-girl and Sophie-girl.
I love my girls, Bella and Sophie.
I love my girls, they’re the prettiest in the world.
They’re both young things and cannot leave their mother.
And so traditions are passed on. I recall a song my mother used to sing to me, a made-up song with my name in it. I’d forgotten about it until Bella was born and then it came back to me along with all the other songs she sang and the nursery rhymes. They just come tumbling from my brain along with the rocking motion that soothed the crying baby.
I don’t really like the sound of my own voice when I try to sing in public. I grow self conscious and know I’m not hitting the right notes, not even close to the correct melody. But at home, alone with the babies, I love to sing. It feels right. And they don’t seem to mind when I lose the tune. In fact, Bella often asks me to sing.
And now I often hear Bella in the other room, singing to herself. Frequently I can’t understand the words or the tune but sometimes there are snatches of the familiar, echoes of my music.