Many years ago, when snow clad hills folded in corduroy rows along the Shenandoah and the deep calling wilderness breathed close and fast and grim-faced Ulstermen stood defiantly in their hollows, there lived two sisters from the old country.
In their hands quilts were made, fires kept, children comforted, cider pressed, men tamed. And around their hearths and tables and through the bare woods rose up the songs of their broad-shouldered father who now lay resting in the green land far across the water. Sturdy children ran barefoot through soft curling ferns and sang the songs to the wind and to the dogs that ran sure-footed at their sides.
Then came the day when their children left the valley. The sisters lay peacefully under the grassy hill behind the spring house and the children’s children took their leave. They pressed out to Kansas, where broad winds slung against them and the wide skies made them feel small. Wars came and went, soldiers fought, dreams were dreamed and babies were born. And they sang about the hollows and ridges of their birth, where the river flowed clear and the girls danced under a harvest moon.
Nearby, on a farm where German was still spoken, a mother wrote hymns. She hung the laundry, she killed the hogs, she churned the butter and sent her children to California and watched the black bellied train that carried them away until it was a speck on the heavy horizon. After they left, she prayed for them and the people they would meet and the babies they would carry. And when they buried her, they found scraps of paper tucked here and there: her prayers and hymns written for the grandchildren she didn’t know yet, and for their children’s children. She was a master of language, this simple farm woman with her stubborn, faithful heart.
Then, when the Hard Times came, a girl had to go home to take care of her motherless siblings. She left her job at the radio station where she sang with a big band, she gave away her scholarship to the music school and she went home to take care of her sisters and brothers, even the sloe-faced one who had stolen her high school boyfriend. There was no money and her father’s parishioners left barrels of potatoes and beets instead of tithes. Water had to be pumped and dreams died. She became a teacher. And instead of the music career she had wanted, she sang spirituals with her low-throated voice to her granddaughter: a rapt audience of one.
Much later, in the dark of the night, on a sweet-breathed summer evening amid sage-scented hills, four little girls lay in their beds listening to the songs of the two sisters from the Old Country, to the hymns of the German grandmother, to the love songs of the Time Between the Wars. To these, their mother added her own tearful-written songs: words of blessing and comfort for her small charges. Their tiny lips turned the phrases until they could repeat them, until the stories became part of their own story, until they could picture the radio station and the farm and the hollow near the honey-flowing river and the distant land where an old man had once sang his little girls to sleep, long long ago, before they sailed across the ocean wild and wide.
Then they grew up, and made music of their own.