My aunt Viola warbled like a cat in the rain. Uncle Casmir’s voice was raspy from fifty years of cigars. My grandmother’s voice was reedy and full of thick Polish sighs. My dad had a booming basso profundo that wasn’t exactly on key but nearer to the notes than his mother and sister. My mom was a wayward soprano but what she lacked in pitch, she made up for in enthusiasm, and she conducted us as only a former high school drama teacher turned speech professor could do.
In 1967 at Grandma Chmaj’s house, the Christmas Eve tradition was to sing Christmas carols. She had little books that were handed round with all the words, even to verses three and four which had to be sung. Everyone was allowed to pick their favorite, even us little kids. All religious carols, of course, none of your Holly Jolly or Rudolph. My mom’s pick was O Little Town, my dad’s was God Rest Ye Merry. My pick was We Three Kings. To this day, as soon as I think of it, I always hear:
We three kings of Orient arrrre…
Tried to smoke a great big cigar
It was loaded
God rest ye merry gentlemen…
Such was the humor of 1967. We didn’t sing the words that way — you would “get in trouble” such as that was. We sang the right words and without accompaniment. My cousins Pat and Barbara, ten years older than my brother and I, had choir-trained voices. One of them would bring an accordion and after the regular singing, they would do two special duets that sounded truly angelic, especially in contrast: The Little Drummer Boy and O Holy Night. Truthfully, O Holy Night is still a favorite because I can hear their harmony every time the song plays.