Singing In The Plymouth

Since this site has been up and running, I’ve gotten a fair number of questions about Howard as a kid.  Did he always write, was he always special, that sort of thing.  What may not be obvious in all this is that I was the kid sister, three years younger than Howard, so maybe my views are a bit skewed. Nevertheless, as adults, Howard and I endlessly discussed our family – analyzed, romanticized, told and retold stories that were pretty much true – or as true as our memories could make them.

So here’s a little story -- a moment in time really-- about the Ashman family, Ray, Shirley, Howard and Sarah.  I hope it gives you some insights into Howard’s childhood.  At very least, I hope it entertains.

Our family had a tendency to song.  A phrase could not be dropped without it reminding one or the other of us of a lyric.  To Mom especially, life was a song cue.  Weekend breakfast was served to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan:

The eggs and the ham and the strawberry jam

The rollicking bun and the gay Sally Lunn

None of us had any idea nor any interest in what a gay Sally Lunn might be.  Didn’t matter.  She sang, we rolled our eyes.

Howard and I were told endlessly about the singing career Mom had given up for love and I was shocked, just recently, to realize that the professional part of Mom’s career began and ended with a one-month stint with Lester Cole and His Debutants – a troupe she left while touring in Ohio, to return home to Baltimore and marry my father.

Howard’s first poem was an ode to our grandmother. The words Nana and banana were forced into an unfortunate rhyme.  Interesting that even then, food was important to Howard’s writing.  Of course, the final part of the rhyme was piano.  Even geniuses have off days, it seems.  And he was eight, so there are mitigating circumstances.

On pretty Sunday afternoons we would go for drives – for ice cream or snowballs or whatever other trumped up reason our father could find to pile us into the Plymouth and start the Ashman family sing-along.

In Dublin’s fair city

Where the girls are so pretty

Either Mom or Dad would start.

T’was there I first met my sweet Molly Malone

Any one of them, Mom, Dad or Howard could throw in the harmony

She wheels her wheelbarrow

Through streets broad and narrow

Singing cockles and mussels alive, alive oh

I’d like to think I joined in the chorus but in the spirit of honesty, I have to admit I don’t remember if I did.

What I do remember is this recurrent fantasy I had as we drove:

We’d be singing our little suburban hearts out when a car would slow down, the driver obviously listening in.  He’d wave my Dad over and get out to chat and before you knew it, wham, it’d turn out the guy was a talent scout.

Soon enough the guy’s in our kitchen, phoning long distance to New York (I’m sure he was told to reverse the charges, we were suburban but broke).  “I’ve found this family” he shouts into the phone.  “…the Ashmans.  I swear Ed, they’re another Trapp Family”.

Ed was, of course, Ed Sullivan and I was no doubt heavily influenced by the recent purchase of the Broadway cast album, Bye, Bye, Birdie.

The next Sunday night -- live from New York -- Mom, Dad and Howard would be singing on TV.  I’d be with them of course, but in the wings.  I wasn’t just hanging out though.  I was making sure they had their costumes and the orchestra had their music.  People thought I was very impressive.

At my tender age, I had become their manager.


Now, I realize that this story says as much about me as it says about Howard or our parents.  But that’s the way memories work – as well as little girls’ fantasies.