Shall We Gather At the River
Yesterday morning, when Dad came out for breakfast, he told me that he had composed a song while he was sleeping.
“Really?” I said. “Are you going to sing it for me?”
“Yes, I will,” he replied. “Just give me a minute to remember it.”
He sat there thinking, while I took his blood pressure and got his morning meds for him.
My father has compared his singing with Lee Marvin’s in Paint Your Wagon. In fact, I can remember times when my father would burst into “Wand’rin’ Star,” singing the first few lines. Lee Marvin’s gravelly baritone-bass was just enough off-key that I felt a kinship to him, and just enough on-key that I enjoyed the song — but my father was just off-key. I always smiled, though, when I heard him singing.
My mother was a soprano. Yesterday we sang “Shall We Gather at the River?” at church. I got a little lump in my throat because I could hear her singing this good Baptist hymn. It reminded me of my mother’s Baptist upbringing. I remember her singing it.
Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.
My father was bobbing his head a little, trying to find the rhythm for this song he wanted to sing for me.
“The words are kind of crazy,” he said. “I don’t think I can remember them all.”
“Just sing what you can,” I said, getting more curious by the moment.
He closed his eyes and sang, “Humpty-backed camels and chimpanzees…” He swayed to some internal music, then finished with, “but there ain’t no uni-corn,” and opened his eyes to see what I thought.
“I hate to break it to you, Dad,” I said, “but that song has already been written.”
He laughed, “Well, isn’t that the darnedest thing.”
I sang The Unicorn Song for him, (not nearly as well as The Irish Rovers)
There was green alligators and long-necked geese
Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees
Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born
The loveliest of all was the unicorn*
He mouthed the words with me and nodded, remembering them better as he heard them.
“That’s right!” he said.
“You were listening to it last night,” I said. “It probably got stuck in your head and played in your dreams.”
He shook his head, “The brain is an amazing thing, isn’t it?”
The funny thing about the Wand’rin’ Star song is that my father was born under the farthest thing from a wandering star. He was born under a stay-put star. Fifty-some years ago, when he left the Army, he bought a house and settled in.
He put closets in the house.
He planted trees, putting down roots.
Those humpty-backed camels — I suppose they were a part of his life, too — but only a small part.
The last verse of Shall We Gather says —
Soon we’ll reach the silver river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.
Perhaps it’s there that we’ll find those missing unicorns.