When I was a child and couldn’t fall asleep, my grandmother Doris sang a song I called the cabin in the woods song. The actual title is “In a Cabin in the Woods,” and it is an old folk tune turned campfire song. I didn’t know this when I was 7; I thought Doris had made it up herself.
Doris liked to use her hands to mime parts of the song. For “In a Cabin in the Woods,” she wiped her fingers through the air and “drew” a house. She circled her eyes with her fingers, making pretend glasses for “a little old man by the window stood,” and then put up two fingers like bunny ears at “saw a rabbit hopping by.”
I liked the way Doris sang, “‘Help me, help me, help me,’ he said,” in a hushed voice with just the right amount of emphasis to let me know the rabbit was scared.
Doris, who celebrated her 90th birthday on Feb. 27, has rosy cheeks, and her fine eyebrows are set in a graceful arch, giving her the appearance of permanent, playful surprise. The wrinkles on her face, bathed regularly in cocoa butter, are always moist and her skin, radiant. She is, in a word, soft. Even her faded chambray skirt and white cotton shirt, which she wears daily, are as soft as a baby’s favorite blanket. So you can imagine the irony when, in time with the next words in the song — “or that hunter will shoot me” — my sweet grandmother would pull up her arms as if she was pointing a rifle, and then scowl as she sang the word “dead.”
After a brief, dramatic pause, Doris’ face would return to its usual comfortable smile as she patted the wrist of her left hand with the right and sang, “Come, little rabbit, come with me, happy we will be.”
In all the years Doris sang that song, it never occurred to me how awful the words and her pantomiming really were. It’s no wonder I had trouble falling asleep. Even so, again and again, I called for Doris in the night and asked her to sing.
When I had my own children, I naturally rocked them to sleep singing the tune Doris had taught me. Except, the first time I sang it to Ford, I stopped abruptly before I got to the rifle part. What a terrible bedtime story, I thought. “Or that hunter will shoot me dead?” What does that even mean, anyway? Isn’t the guy in the cabin — the rescuer — a hunter, too?
I wouldn’t sing that awful, morbid part to my baby, so I switched the words on the spot to “or that hunter will steal my bed.” No, it didn’t make any better sense, but at least it didn’t require pointing a pretend rifle at my son’s head.
A few years later, I drove Doris, Ford and Owen from Birmingham, Ala., to Virginia to see my parents. When the children grew restless, I suggested we sing a song.
“Let’s sing the cabin in the woods song,” Ford said.
Doris thought that was an excellent idea.
We all sang together until we got to the shoot-me-dead part. The boys sang “steal my bed.” Doris sang “shoot me dead.” It reminded me of church, when some people say “trespasses” and others say “debtors” during the Lord’s Prayer.
“Now just a minute,” Doris said, interrupting the singing. “What’s this about an ol’ bed? That’s not the way the story goes.”
“Yes it is, Doris.” I gave her a knowing wink in the rearview mirror.
“Well, I’ll be,” she said. “That hunter was going to shoot the rabbit dead, not steal his bed.” She was pouting now. I could see that in my mirror. The boys looked stunned. All their life, so far, they thought the hunter would steal the rabbit’s bed. They had never stopped to think that rabbits don’t have beds. Rabbits, of course, are usually shot dead by hunters.
“‘Shoot him dead’ is a little harsh for a children’s song,” I said to Doris. “So I changed it. That’s all.”
“Good gollywog,” she said. “Now I’ve heard it all. Old Queen Bee Sarah changes songs to suit herself.” She turned to the boys. “The hunter was going to shoot that rabbit dead, I tell you. He was going to be deader than a doornail.”
My boys didn’t dare object. They swallowed hard and picked up books to pretend to read.
Our family never did switch back to “dead” from “bed,” but I do think of Doris and smile every time I get to that verse.
Last night, I sang the cabin in the woods song to my youngest son, Lindell. When I came to “or that hunter will steal my bed,” Ford, who was listening from the couch, smiled at me. I winked back. It would be our little secret. For now. Until Doris comes to visit.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.