My career as a singer was really quite brief.
It began in my Sunday school class when I was about eight. My mother taught that class in a little Methodist church in Wichita Falls, Texas.
Wichita Falls is in North Texas and it’s best known for being a killer-tornado magnet. The skies blacken, then turn a greenish color, while the yellow tornado sirens wail and people dive for cover. They should go to basements, except that nobody there had basements. So you’d go to the designated safest place. In Wichita Falls, this changed from year to year.
One spring, we’d go to the carport and get in the car and fasten our seatbelts. Then we heard that was no good (tornadoes seemed to like cars — especially ’56 Chevys, which is what we had). So we began going to the new safe place, which was the bathtub. Bathtubs can be scary places when the sirens are blaring and you’re about to be scooped up like Dorothy and Toto. No wonder I came to prefer showers.
Also, we spent years opening the windows in our house so it wouldn’t explode with the dramatic air-pressure change when the funnel hit; later, we learned there was no scientific basis to that, either. Well, you live and learn.
The church, St. Mark’s Methodist, was small and red-brick and plain. Our family stayed there for a few years until my parents decided that Brother Jim, our minister, was a Communist, since he liked to talk a lot about world peace. Brother Jim was, my father said gravely, “a little pink.” That meant we had to change churches and go to another one that had a minister who wasn’t a Communist; if you know anything about the 1950s, you know that Communist agents were everywhere, most particularly in the U.S. government and in small Protestant churches in tornado alley. (No wonder Communism failed. Their spies were spread too thin.)
The only other exciting thing that ever happened at St. Mark’s was that one of its members, a perfectly quiet married woman with brown hair and a pinched face, ran away with her boyfriend and they later robbed a bank together. Her photo was in the post office on a “Wanted” poster, my mother told me. I recall once sharing a hymnal with this woman, which I found kind of thrilling.
But that is neither here nor there. When I wasn’t sharing a hymnal with a future felon, my life was pretty mundane and all I wanted was to be able to sing as well as my mother. I was too young to realize that anything more than strong desire lay between me and my most heartfelt dreams — so why not? When we sang hymns in the sanctuary, nobody could hear me sing, since the organ and the other congregation members were making such a big racket.
But when I was in the Sunday school class that my mother taught, I could really let loose when I sang. I remember standing with some of the other kids, belting out my favorite religious song. Its name escapes me, but the chorus is, Do, Lord, oh do, lord, oh do remember me … Hallelujah!
Every time the chorus came around, I was practically screaming it, which is what I felt the best singers did. Some of the kids were staring at me and so was my mother. I felt pretty sure they were admiring my voice. Driving home, my mother tactfully suggested that the best singer is not always the loudest singer.
I was a little stung by that, when I finally caught on. I could take a hint. After all, my family almost always communicated by hints when we weren’t communicating by sulking.
I quietly nurtured my singing dreams for the next few years. When we moved 100 miles south to Abilene, which didn’t have as many tornadoes, but had more churches, Mother tried to re-route my musical interests by insisting I take piano lessons. Those lessons and the piano teachers were stifling me creatively and musically, I felt, so I bided my time.
My next singing opportunity came up in the fifth grade, when our music teacher, Mrs. McGrew, announced she was holding auditions for the grade school choir. At last! I picked out the song I felt best showed off my talent — Daisy, Daisy. A few minutes before we left for the choir auditions, I halfheartedly invited George, the boy I sat next to in class, to come along. George was so clueless, he’d had no idea choir auditions were going on.
I felt even worse for him when he sang The Star-Spangled Banner a few minutes later. I’d already aced my own audition and was quietly mortified on George’s behalf. The national anthem? Couldn’t he have sung something with a little more pizazz?
I was so excited I had a stomachache the day Mrs. Magrew began to read off the names of the kids who made the choir. I sat and listened to the names of the kids who made the choir. Then I sat and listened to the names of the kids who made the waiting list. George was on the waiting list. My name was mysteriously missing from both lists.
“I remember George,” Mrs. McGrew said. She nodded at him an he blushed bright red. “George has a beautiful voice.”
Well, you know how it is when you’re 10 and somebody has just stomped the oxygen out of all your dreams. You rationalize. I decided my big mistake was to invite that little snake George to go to the audition with me. If he hadn’t been there, I probably would have made the waiting list. Also, upon reflection, my choice of song had clearly been flawed. Daisy, Daisy was a stupid song, unworthy of my talent.
The next year, when I was in the sixth grade, I sang Doe, A Deer at the choir audition. It was a good choice, I thought: simple and easy. If all those sappy von Trapp kids could sing it, what kind of loser couldn’t?
As you have no doubt anticipated, I was precisely that kind of loser. I retired my vocal cords and never auditioned for a choir or sang loudly again.
It took me decades to understand the lessons I’d learned. I’d been given a topic to write about again and again: failure. It’s infinitely funnier and more sympathetic than success; also, it happens with greater regularity.
Sure, I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket or a barrel. But, when I finally got around to it, sometimes I could carry a narrative.
(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read a somewhat related post about how mothers’ dreams for their kids always die hard