Hymn: Now I Recall My Childhood

“Now I Recall My Childhood” (UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition #191; words by Rabindranath Tagore, tune Sursum Corda)  

“Now I recall my childhood when the sun burst to my bedside with the day’s surprise, faith in the marv’lous bloomed anew each dawn, flowers bursting fresh within my heart each day.”

The reminiscence below was started as the first of a series of daily journal entries during the month of November about some of my favorite hymns. It seems appropriate this New Year’s Eve to post it to my blog to “finish up” the strange year just ending. I’m taking a look further back to where I came from before facing forward into the coming, as yet uneventful year.  Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the author of the words to this hymn (in English translation here), was a poet, writer, and activist from the Indian state of Bengal. In 1913, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Two of his compositions have been adapted as national anthems: India’s “Jana Gana Mana” and Bangladesh’s “Amar Shonar Bangla.”  

May all of us have at least some good memories of childhood. May all of us maintain hopes for the future, whatever our stage of life:  

An ear worm of a tune in a hymnal, remembering the joys of childhood—the sun on my face, a smile from a parent, a favorite swing, the wind in my face as spring began. A few darker images, too—a scowling uncle, a bramble patch that scratched my bare legs in summer, an uphill trudge to school. School mornings featured a hurried scramble to get to our elementary school before the Greyhound bus came past, belching diesel.  

I remember playmates, a sandbox, a swing set, a sliding board, some apple trees, a backyard chicken coop. The coop was constructed hastily one spring after my kindergarten classmates offloaded their Easter-gift baby chicks to my former-farmer-father. The cute little fluff balls over time had gotten bigger and grown feathers, outgrowing their initial families’ patience and living quarters. After we’d dispatched the cockerels to the stewpot and installed the laying hens in their expanded coop, it was my job to collect the eggs—a sometimes smelly job, depending on how recently the coop had been cleaned.

I remember a big horse chestnut tree where my dad had flung a long rope for a swing. It was so much more fun that the measly contraption on the store-bought swing set, which would only curve an arc a few feet wide. On the tree swing, I could pump my legs until the arc reached at least ten times higher, or that’s how it seemed to six-year-old me. 

I remember the sweetness of the raspberries my grandfather grew on a hillside behind the housing compound that sheltered my parents, me, my sister, my uncle and aunt, and Pop-pop and Granny. Once we were old enough to save more berries than we ate, my sister and I were given free rein in the berry patch, only occasionally chastised for bringing in half-empty berry containers and ruby-red-stained hands.  

I remember an elementary school building whose lower floors were dark, smelling of a mixture of urine and pine-scented cleaner. I remember Blinka, the cleaning lady, and the long-handled cloth mop she wielded up and down the hallways. 

I remember the elementary school playground, and little boys chanting “I see Paris, I see France, I see sister’s underpants” while we girls practiced dangling upside down, like some of the cartoon monkeys we saw on a neighbor’s TV set on Saturday mornings. 

I remember walks to school a couple of weeks before summer vacation, when the honeysuckle was blooming. I remember the beads of nectar we’d stop to savor just before the one major road crossing, where Mr. O’Casey used his whistle and arm gestures to stop traffic and let us cross. 

I remember the Catholic church and the school building next to it. We didn’t know anyone who went there, but had heard stories about the ruler-wielding nuns, ready to slap your hand if you talked out of turn or didn’t do your homework. I remember church bells ringing for celebrations, weddings, funerals, saints’ days. The most consistent neighborhood sound, though, was the weekly test of the civil defense system, blasting out a pattern on the volunteer fire department’s siren every Friday at noon.

I remember May fairs, with a May court of young girls in frilly dresses—one for each grade. I only played that role once—a first grade alternate pressed into service after the girl we’d voted to be our first choice declined to participate. In preparation for the big event, my mom took me to the beauty parlor to get my usually limp hair tressed into ringlets. She was only slightly mortified when in the excitement of May Day I forgot to take off my hair net before making my princess-ly entrance to “Pomp and Circumstance.” 

I remember snowfalls, some slight, some nearly overwhelming. During the snowiest winter, my preschool twin brothers got snowsuits.  They would jump off the front stoop steps and sink up to their waists. I remember “Pan top” sleds, with handles but no good way to steer. We eventually created ruts enough to guide the things—a sort of primitive luge course.

I remember lullabies, and silly rhyming songs, and bellowing “I’ve been working on the railroad” at the tops of our lungs when returning in the family station wagon after longish car trips. 

I remember sometimes having thought that I’d be even happier when I finally grew up. The growing up part I’m still working on; the happiness part has, more often than not, turned out to be true. 

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