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It has been five years since the first karaoke Christmas. This year we are making plans to gather, as we always do, in Galveston at my sister’s and mother’s homes, eager to be together but even more, sworn to tradition.
That Christmas, 2006, I rented a house a row back from the beach. It was a blustery late December with choppy, cold waters and afternoons when the sun would break through and crystallize the air. We took walks on the beach, watched football on TV, cooked and ate together, read books on the deck, and rested in each other’s company.
Two of our company, my nephew Ted and my son Ted, 25 and 22, ventured again and again into the cold winter waters — in a boat on the bay, fishing together as they had since they were little boys, and surfing in black wet suits, both of them sleek and brown with dark hair, bouncing seals in the surf. The older Teddy, my sister’s son, was an expert; his cousin a novice. The younger Teddy plied the chaotic waves with determination, getting up and falling, getting up and falling, until he was too tired to stand.
One day in the middle of the week, when our days together were counting down, when the two Teds hadn’t shown their faces all day and it was nearing 3 in the afternoon. I marched into their sleeping quarters, armed and righteous, and demanded they get up and not miss a whole precious day with the rest of us. They groaned and looked at me blankly. I yelled at them and stomped off. A few minutes later, one of them appeared, still half asleep, and explained that they had been out all night, fishing off a pier in the surf. Their catch was the biggest they’d ever gotten together — a 30-inch long red fish they chased and fought and finally conquered over two hours, finally reeling him in at about 5 a.m.
Chastened, I said I would cook the fish for all of us. My brother-in-law cleaned it and I poached the filets in a sweet red sauce with walnuts and raisins. That night it fed all of us — fourteen in all, and the Teddys basked in their glory. Our vacation was drawing to an end, and my sister had brought her karaoke machine out to the beach house. That night, we sang and laughed and drank and danced for hours. I wish I could remember now what songs my son Ted sang. He was normally reticent, but that night he took the microphone and belted it out. His cousin too. The idea of either of them singing publicly was unthinkable, but there they were, cranking out song after song.
That night, my older sister, Kim, the one who had been rapidly declining with Alzheimer’s, who was confused and irritated by the loud, noisy clan gathered at the beach house, sat next to me on the fat sofa, and shared the microphone when it was our turn. She concentrated on the screen and read the lyrics, remembered the tune, a Loretta Lynn song, and smiled her sweet smile at the end of our number. Applause followed, the family’s gratefulness for her momentary escape from confusion, into familiar song.
This was the last gig of that band of revelers. A year later, both Teddys were gone, their deaths four months apart, so sudden and unexpected we still reel from the blow. By March of 2008, Kim was gone too.
Last Christmas when we gathered in Galveston, we ventured to the local Holiday Inn on karaoke night and reprised the pleasure of singing together and laughing at each other. Our band had picked up new singers and our busted hearts had aged our voices, less like good whiskey, more like Tom Waits. The spirits of Teddy and Teddy urged us to shake it off and not worry about looking foolish. Kim’s spirit remembered the song.
I don’t know what any of this means, except that in five years, much to our shock and surprise, our family band experienced a seismic shift, a cataclysm that changed us all. Even the house where we stayed that first karaoke Christmas. It’s still standing, but when Hurricane Ike slammed into Galveston Island in 2008, the storm surge wiped out the first row of houses and our second row house became beachfront property.
Still, we sing. Karaoke, the Japanese term, translates literally “empty orchestra,” referring to the missing vocal track in the recording. We hold up the microphone and fill the empty space.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.