When I went to my grandson Jackson’s third grade holiday concert, so did about a thousand other people, which was way more than the school’s auditorium could hold. All the seats were full of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and grandmothers and grandfathers and stepparents and extended families. There was no room at the concert, so to speak, so I went home.
I was bummed. And a little put out. I thought, I’ve been picking him up after school on choir practice days for two months now, and I don’t get to hear him sing?
But, later that week, I did. It was an unseasonably warm day for December. The grass was still green and lush, and the low winter sun was spreading golden light over everything. Jackson and I were working together in the mushroom yard after school. I was drilling holes in logs and pounding in shiitake mushroom plugs and passing them along to Jackson, who was sealing the holes with wax.
When I turned off the drill I heard my grandson softly singing as he worked. He was singing, “Hail Holy Queen enthroned in love, Oh, Maria.” (big breath) “Queen of Mercy, queen of love, Oh, Maria.”
I knew that song! I learned it at my school when I was his age. So I joined in: “Triumph all ye cherubim, sing with us ye seraphim, Heaven and earth resound our hymn . . . . . . Shoot! What’s the next word ? I thought: Is it “Ave?” So that’s what I sang, which was the right word but the wrong song. Jackson didn’t falter. He kept singing in his young boy’s soprano, pretty as birdsong. He sang: Salve, salve,” and, then, with an unexpected twist in the traditional rhythm, “Sa-al-vay Ray-gee-ena.”
I put down my drill. “Did you sing that in your concert?” I asked.
“Uhuh,” he replied, rocking slightly, keeping the rhythm as he plied his wax brush. “ It was everybody’s favorite,” he added.
I had never thought of “Hail Holy Queen” as holiday concert material. Back at Holy Sepulcher we sang it for one of the myriad feast days devoted to Mary, mother of God. But I could see the logic: just think how difficult it must have been for her, forced by government decree to go back home for the census, traveling by donkey while nine months pregnant with her first child who turned out to be Jesus: Who more than she deserved a place on the program?
“I love that song, too,” I said.
Jackson lifted his brush, raised his eyebrows, and looked up at me. “You watched Sister Act?”
“Sister Act? The Whoopie Goldberg movie! That’s where he got that jazzy ending! Of course,” I said, “but I learned the song at school when I was in third grade.”
“The same as me!” he said.
“Yep, the same as you.”
“Oh,” said Jackson. He’s a boy of few words.
A minute later he asked, “What’s a seraphim?”
“It’s a great big angel with great big wings.” I told him. “And a cherubim is a baby angel.”
After another long pause in the conversation, filled with the quiet rhythm of our work, Jackson asked, “If a baby dies, does it become a cherubim?”
I didn’t know what to say. My very Catholic upbringing had left me with more questions than answers. These days I’m with that guy who said trying to explain the mysteries of God is ‘like trying to explain television to an ant.’
So I said, “I don’t really know, but that does make sense.” Silently, I prayed – to what I don’t really know - that he wouldn’t continue that line of questioning.
And he didn’t. Instead, we sang “Hail Holy Queen” about five more times as we worked together, until the sun got too low and it got too cold out there in the mushroom yard.
I took such pleasure in my private concert in that beautiful setting, and in my past finding kinship half a century later with my grandson’s present, and for our ever-changing multicultural stew of a society, where “Hail Holy Queen” can be given a new beat and a new time slot, and we can all go right on singing about a queen of mercy and love.
Molly B. Moon is a retired Language Arts teacher and musician living in South Bend.