I was ten years old in 1954 when I saw, in a dark air-conditioned theater in Manila, the movie adaptation of Sigmund Romberg’s operetta, The Student Prince. I thought Edmund Purdom was remarkably good looking as the prince, and Ann Blyth passing fair as the barmaid he wooed but could not marry. The songs from the show were all quite memorable, but “Serenade” was the one I liked best. It was the first real pop song I learned to sing by heart, and I still, on occasion, sing the first stanza to myself:
“Overhead the moon is beaming,
White as blossoms on the bough;
Nothing is heard but the song of a bird,
Filling all the air with dreaming.”
Also in 1954, I saw, for the first time, in the hot and crowded gymnasium of the Jesuit elementary school I attended in Manila, the 1939 movie adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. When Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow” in the movie, I started to cry. I was ten years old and, until that moment, I had not realized that I was unhappy. I was an only child because my two older siblings had both died during the war; I had no friends or playmates because my parents were overly protective, afraid that I too might die. I had lots of toys and comic books, but I was sad and lonely. The lyrics of the song reinforced my longing for a life elsewhere:
“Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly.
Birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh why, can’t I?
If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow,
Why, oh why, can’t I?”
It’s hard to believe that Judy Garland died 47 years ago today, and that I have now been living in Kansas for 48 years. She died the year after I left the Philippines for the United States, on wings which flew me first to San Francisco, then New Jersey, and finally to Lawrence, Kansas. Both “Serenade” and “Over the Rainbow” are songs I still listen to because they are on my iPhone. But there is another one on the playlist I am fond of, also from childhood, about a pair of yellow birds, one of which flew away, leaving the other one alone:
“Yellow bird, up high in banana tree,
Yellow bird, you sit all alone like me.
Wish that I were a yellow bird,
I fly away with you.
But I am not a yellow bird,
So here I sit, nothing else to do.”
What life has taught me, now that I am 72 years old, is that being alone can be a blessing, not a curse. I lived with a good friend from 1968 to 1985. They were good years, but then I decided to buy my own house, which I eventually populated with a dog, an aquarium full of tropical fish and, yes, half a dozen caged birds. I retired five years ago. Although I continue to see many friends and colleagues on a regular basis, I also love the quiet moments alone, the solitude. My parents eventually had three more children, but they arrived when I was already in my early teens, so in my mind I have always been an only child, alone, with just my birds of yesteryear for company, taking me along on their incredible flights of fancy.
“Lullaby of birdland, that’s what I
Always hear when you sigh;
Never in my wordland
Could there be ways to reveal
In a phrase how I feel.”