Somewhere between the verses of my lullabies, I became aware of her voice. It was before the time of words, she was that young. But somehow she was already capable of humming along with me, a thin, barely formed voice that managed to mimic my notes with exact precision.
By the time she was two, we sang together—grandma and granddaughter—easy lilting repetitions…the driver in the bus says move back please… and I would break off into harmony, moving a one-third interval up, just to see if it would throw her off. She held fast to her melody line, undaunted. So then I’d change things up a bit, pitch my voice a third below hers, then, without warning, alter the rhythm. With her eyes shut, because who needs eyes to hear, she stayed right with me. Your daughter can sing, I told her parents, and they granted me a condescending smile because I’m a singer, and they figured I just wanted the company.
No, I’m telling you, this girl can sing.
When Nicole was four, I played her some folk music from my international collection: Bulgarian, Russian, and some obscure Gaelic tunes that caught your ear and refused to let go. I played her spinning, spooling haunted melodies designed to dissipate sorrow like they had done for generations before. The Gaelic lyrics were indecipherable—a mish mash of vowels and consonants swallowed whole.
Later that day, when I buckled her into her car seat, driving to somewhere, she asked me to play the Irish song I had played earlier. I popped the CD into its slot, scrolled through until she recognized her favorite. Naade lachen savute or something like that. From the rear-view mirror I saw her head lolling back and forth, her eyes shut as though bound in some kind of ethereal transcendence. At the top of her four-year old lungs she sang in perfect cadence the impossible syllables she had only heard once before.
I tried to keep my awe-struck bragging to a minimum. Besides, who would trust a starry-eyed grandmother on such matters?
When she was six, she came for a visit—a very big deal since she was all by herself, without her family, to stay with me for five whole days. “Let’s sing Grandma!” she announced, before setting her backpack down, and that’s pretty much what we did. I’d start plunking out tunes I thought she’d like. Where Is Love from Oliver, whose lyrics she inhaled and immediately returned as though she herself had been orphaned on the streets of London. After a while my safe suggestions bored her—she preferred to belt out hits by Coldplay and Maroon 5, leaving my aged repertoire in the dust. Her voice was decades older than the rest of her.
Of course by now, at the advanced age of ten, nobody in her greater periphery is unaware of the astounding power of Nicole’s singing voice. Her brother puts his hands over his ears and says shut UP and even the next door neighbor has been known to complain.
But that’s their problem.
This child produces notes so rich with texture and power and passion that it is impossible to believe she hasn’t lived more lives than this small, safe, one.
When she sings, I close my eyes, try to imagine her fully grown, her mature voice strengthened by her own life’s experiences, by love, by loss. I will not live to hear the heights those notes will reach, though surely some part of her music came from me, and will follow me to wherever it is we go when the music stops.