"TOO-RA-LOO-RA-LOO-RAL," TRADITIONAL (1913)
The first song I ever heard was "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral," the lullaby my mother gave me night upon night when I rested most comfortably in the crook of her arm. She'd have been in the Boston Rocker in the living room, so my dad could sleep. Back and forth we went for hours. She'd have a cigarette in one hand and me in the other, a glass of beer or something stronger nearby.
Her rib cage caught the air to hold the words that made a ribbon of sound that traveled invisibly to my ears and way down past them, melting whatever disturbance had caused me to cry in the first place. The accordion-explosive push of my ribcage that brought frightfully loud baby cries into the air, would ease having heard the effortless though, now I recognize, quite tired lilt of my mother's voice, and I would catch my little breath. It was goodbye to the crying that woke the neighbors late at night in Queens, New York, during that especially hot summer into which I was born late, having made my mother swelter even longer — two weeks too long. But the moment either the rocker stopped or her voice did, my cries would erupt again.
"Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral" was my favorite bedtime tune till long after one was sung, and my favorite words in it were the ones I never knew the literal meaning of. Those rippling words skipped from my mother to me. Was it from that song that I learned the power language has beyond a literal understanding of words, or might it have also been from the Italian swear words that later my father singed the air with, conveying just as much significance without my having an inkling of the actual meaning?
Though its title is in Irish and my mother was Irish, and the lyric appeared in Irishman James Joyce's "Ulysses," one of my Italian father's favorite books, and though I linked the Irish of the song and the Irish of my mother together, the song turns out to have been written by an American — James Royce, in 1913, who was of English heritage. Alas, the whole of it is still Irish to me.
More than once I heard my father said, in an off-hand, inconsequential manner, "Your mother sure can't sing; never stays in key."
But only once did I shoot back, "What are you saying? She has the most beautiful voice in the world." And then I thought about it. He was right. How could I not have known?
The baby disturbances that kept my mother up all night are long gone from my life; Mother, too, I suppose, if nearly 30 years is long gone. My first song was the last one my mother heard; I whispered it to her in my own off-tune voice, over and over again. "Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral" — Irish for "Goodbye; I'll be seeing you."
Patrice Vecchione lives in Del Rey Oaks.