This is a simple column by a complex
“You in the choir?”
I’m sure if they found the guy who provided the sperm sample for my mother’s first and unexpected impregnation, aka my heretofore unknown biological father, they’d find him onstage with a microphone, crooning away to the classics from the 50s and 60s, some Latin salsa thrown in.
My family, a handful of friends, everybody I know has a musical side, except me.
You know the story: Plain Jane wishes upon a star for a gift, any gift, from God, opens her mouth expecting noise, yet releasing sweet symphony. I know it. I’ve watched it unfold into happily ever after for ... everybody else but me. (I think there’s a Judy Garland song about this topic.)
Before I went practical on a high school counselor pressuring me for specifics going into college, way back in the Stone Ages of vinyl and those round Panasonic multi-hued radios with metal knobs for volume and tuning (or extraterrestrial eyes), I wanted to sing and play drums.
My role model happened to be Karen Carpenter. She even had a wise-cracking wit I wanted at her older brother’s lisping expense during their many variety show appearances; I seem to recall the brother/sister duo hosting their own show sometime in the early 70s.
While vacuuming between age 7 and 8, I noticed my right pinky finger locking on me. At first, this filled me with the kind of panic reserved for broken legs and twigs accidentally shoved up the ass during a round of childhood Doctor (long story). Then, I learned to avoid keeping my fingers straight for any length of time, about, oh, five seconds, for fear of another lock I wouldn’t be able to ease back into bending.
I could still do many activities that required the fingers, typing, pointing, cracking my knuckles, digging my nose, pushing my hemorrhoids back inside my anus after every shit. I just didn’t think I could play drums, or any other instrument, least of all a piano as my mom always dreamed for me.
And sing? Whenever I tried, with my innocent Wonder Years approach, tape recorder, fist microphone and the kind of 100 percent belief children are known for in hand, someone in the family, usually my outspoken parents, would cringe, and bitch at me to, “Shut the fuck up! You’re horrible!” Or, in the words of my mother, who can sing with the best of them, “Ca-dole! Please stop screaming. You’re giving me a headache.”
Since it mattered what an audience thought, albeit a hostile audience of my dysfunctional family members (keep in mind, this is the same family from whence cometh my younger brother James, who christened me at the ripe age of 9, “Blimp!”), I moved on to another activity less bruising on the ego: chasing boys. Okay, scratch that; rather, considering a holy life as a nun. I mean, God wouldn’t reject me or tell me my voice and my looks sucked.
Come 6th grade, I don’t know whether it was insanity or boredom or pure happenstance, but the music teacher, Ms. Zwalinski, held chorus try-outs in the band room down the hall and since it was part of the music portion of the classroom, I auditioned. Everyone had to sing, “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.” I sang it, expecting howls of pain, nothing at the very least.
“Great! You’re a Soprano. Practice is Thursday after school. The choir performs a Christmas special in December.”
Huh? I passed? Confused, I sang softly to myself on the bus ride home and in the safety of my bedroom before tackling the day’s real homework.
The deflating criticisms of my (so-called) loved ones managed to shut me up out loud, but I still maintained my fix in private, late at night, in my bed, with the red Panasonic radio close to my right ear, singing along in a bare whisper. Hmm... I must have improved.
Choir provided loads of extra-curricular time to goof around with one or two friends and feel special the big Christmas day. The next year, I tried out again, feeling confident enough to assume octaves I never possessed.
Curious about the harmony inherent in the Alto section, I went lower while singing “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.” Even a deaf person would’ve flunked my ass. My voice went up and down and cracked so badly, I might as well have been a young boy reaching puberty.
There went my last ‘bout with Fame! I’m gonna live forever, I’m gonna learn how to fly!
Oh I still sang, more like lip-synced... you should’ve seen me and my brother wail away on the coffee table pretending it was Captain & Tennille’s keyboard set, to “Love Will Keep Us Together” on dad’s stereo phonograph.
The difference between me and James, however... While I kept pretending, he moved on to the real thing, guitar lessons, tenor sax in Intermediate School band, and wouldn’t you know, he inherited our mom’s pitch-perfect voice, on cue, in key, with that lush vibrato finale.
I moved on to...chasing more boys who’d rather have had their heads dunked in my hot shit than be caught. And the writing thing.
To this day, though, I harbor an embarrassing fantasy, dredged up from time to time when I’m feeling low, devalued, taken for granted, the usual. It’s every loser’s fantasy, really. I’m given a chance to sing lead, choir for back-up, full band, everybody who’s ever dumped on me in the audience, the boy of my dreams front row—completely oblivious to the magic yet to come. I open my mouth and instead of noise, it’s Karen Carpenter, Part II!
People weep and gnash their teeth with the momentousness of the voice that surpasseth that of angels! Lifelong enemies lay prostrate at my feet. And Damian Lewis whips off his clothes in adulation.
Something like that.
Lately, as I enter the hallowed halls of a REAL choir, at the Northshore church (reluctantly, with me telling everybody I can’t sing and them telling me it doesn’t matter), latent childhood feelings of invincibility threaten to rise up and bite me in the arrogant ass. I go far beyond the fantasy into blasphemous territory, on par with the Lord Himself.
My husband plays keyboards in the choir sometimes, and he’s a stickler for perfection from musicians and singers especially. If he says you can play and you can sing, start booking events at the Met. For some reason that escapes me, outside of the suspicion that he’s just conning me to be more sociable, he’s telling the church people that I CAN sing.
So I include him in the blasphemous fantasy where it’s a Christmas service, the entire congregation shows up. The singer who’s scheduled to perform “My Help” (a piano-based song of glory that’s been my obsessive goosebump listen lately) suddenly has to bail the last minute and in a frenzy, the choir director looks at me, “Eddie says you can sing. Eddie’s the best keyboard player in the universe, so he CAN’T be wrong. YOU take over.”
Of course, me being the humble meek servant of God that I am, I hem and I haw and I back off the request until she’s convinced me that even if I fail, at least I’ve tried, setting up this fantasy into every movie-of-the-week, pre-“Sister Act.”
As I step forward, a hush falls over the room, nobody knows me, Eddie looks shocked and scared. I open my mouth, and sing my little heart out -- well. I do the Bernadette Peters thing too, emoting my entire loser life before a room full of strangers, weeping along to the meaning of every word of redemption and hope. Standing ovation, the Grammy goes to...
Yeah, yeah, but it encourages me to practice and listen to the 12 or 13 new tracks assigned the church choir for the rest of this year while I water the backyard sod.
Just the other Sunday, I’m in a conference room eating some potluck with the son of another choir member, right before the 10:45 a.m. service (or around there, I must do better with my punctuality). He’s a young kid, friendly enough, and ... I have to finish my sandwich there anyway so... uncharacteristically, I strike up a conversation, “You in the choir?”
“Me? Naw, I can’t sing.”
From there, we discuss his entire soap operatic childhood from the South to the Northwest, the use of “y’all” to distinguish Southerners from the rest of the riffraff, and the delectability of canned whipped cream, especially with nobody around to share breakfast’s five courses with.
Before I join the service already in progress, he tells me, “My mom’s not a great singer either.”
“Really? Wow, I don’t feel so bad.”
Not sooooo bad.
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