The Song My Mother Used to Sing

Submitted by Rima El-boustani to Contest #3 in response to: Write a story about a parent putting their child to bed.... view prompt

“Wlazł kotek na płotek

i mruga,”

My mother sings as she puts me to bed. I never really understood the words but it goes something like this:

“The kitty has climbed the fence 

and blinks,”

This song is the last thing I hear, every night, at bed time. While my friends would hear nursery rhymes of the latest trends, my mother sang this song to me. It’s amazing that I have never learnt it in English. But, for the purpose of this story, I have asked my mother to write the song in its entirety and I have looked up the translation online.

As the song goes on, it says:

“ładna to piosenka,

nie długa.”

Roughly translated by Google, that means:

“it's a nice song, 

not long.”

Just like the porridge, the chair and the bed favored by Goldilocks, this song is neither too long nor too short, as the next lines tell me:

“Nie długa, nie krótka,

lecz w sam raz,”

“Not long, not short, 

but just in time,”

I hum along, because I don’t know the words (my mother sings in her native Polish). As her tongue expertly manoeuvres the language, I hear nothing but gibberish. It doesn’t matter how many times I have heard my mother sing it to me (nearly every bed time), I have never learnt it.

“zaśpiewaj koteczku,

jeszcze raz.”

“sing kitty, 

again.”

“Sing again,” I repeat to my mother in my clumsy Polish. I recognize the words ‘jeszcze raz’, though my spelling is different (jeste ras). It is amazing how well I know this song without ever really knowing it. I remember the tune and the undulations of my mother’s voice as she sung, quietly. But the words have mixed up in my mind, so instead of:

“Wlazł kotek na płotek

i mruga,”

I have:

“Raz potek na kotek, jeste ras.”

A complete mockery of the original. I grasped at what the words were and what they might mean. I spelled them incorrectly, using my native English to write them, I created an absurd farce, a charade, if you will. The original kitty sitting on the fence and blinking became: “Once kitty to kitty, there are breeds,” after I fed it into Google Translate, an online dictionary and translation service. I had, quite successfully, butchered a classic Polish children’s song.

My mother tucks the blankets around my chin, and continues on to the next verse:

“Wlazł kotek na płotek

i mruga, i mruga,”

It’s pretty much the same, but I don’t notice, unable to follow the flow of a language I am so unused to:

“Kitty has climbed the fence 

and blinks and blinks,”

Despite my clumsiness as both listener and singer, I am a loyal audience, absorbing every word I hear, spelling them out in my mind, albeit badly and incorrectly.

“ładna to piosenka,

nie długa, nie długa.

Nie długa, nie krótka,”

“it's a pretty song, 

not long, not long. 

Not long, not short,”

As my memories flow, I remember the song with a great fondness, sounding out the letters as I read them on my computer. I see words that I had never known were there, understanding meanings I hadn’t realized existed. And even though the song is essentially repeated, the words would blend so easily and twist my tongue so irrationally that I had never grasped them until now.

"lecz w sam raz, lecz w sam raz,

zaśpiewaj koteczku,

jeszcze raz, jeszcze raz.”

“but just in time, but just in time, 

sing a kitty, 

again and again.”

And just in time, I learn these words before the song I only knew as a little girl might take flight and leave my mind as time ages it. (My mind, not the song.) The song comes forward from the dark recesses of my mind, and I hear the words as I heard them sung by my mother. Such simple, beautiful words. Or was it her voice that gave them beauty and my childlike love for her that rendered everything she said simple? A universal truth.

The next two verses are the first two repeated. Or nearly so. It goes like this:

“Wlazł kotek na płotek

i mruga,

ładna to piosenka,

nie długa.

Nie długa, nie krótka,

lecz w sam raz,

zaśpiewaj koteczku,

jeszcze raz.”

Even though I am becoming familiar with the words and sounds (the song is available on You Tube), I miss the strange unfamiliarity of the Polish sung by my mother’s voice, lulling me into a peaceful sleep. It was my favorite time of the day.

“The kitty has climbed the fence 

and blinks,

it's a nice song, 

not long. 

Not long, not short, 

but just in time, 

sing kitty, 

again.”

As I read the words, I’m taken back to a place I no longer live in (it has been demolished – not by us) and a time that has long since passed. My mother fluffs my pillow as I snuggle into the bed sheets and curl up. I don’t sleep until she is done; I want to hear every word.

“Wlazł kotek na płotek

i mruga, i mruga,

ładna to piosenka,

nie długa, nie długa.

Nie długa, nie krótka,

lecz w sam raz, lecz w sam raz

a ty mi koteczku,

buzi dasz, buzi dasz.”

The words blend, but not because they are the same words repeated or because my mother’s voice is soft. But because I am not familiar with neither word nor tone. The enunciation escapes my grasp and I misspell everything in my ignorance. But, still, the words resound as my little ears hear them and my little mind creates alternative meanings of the sounds. In all the years my mother sang this to me, I never knew I heard:

“The kitty got on the fence 

and blinks and blinks, it's a 

pretty song,

not long, not long. 

Not long, not short, 

but just in time, but just in time 

and you kitty, 

give a kiss, give a kiss.”

As we near the end of the song, my mother bends over me to give me a kiss on my forehead. And I give her a kiss on the cheek, as the song says:

“A ty mi koteczku,

buzi dasz.”

“And you kitty, 

give me a kiss.”



END

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