When my sister and I were kids, we went to a small Methodist church on the outskirts of Wichita Falls, Texas. We usually tried to get out of going, feigning stomach aches that were miraculously cured a couple of hours later. But most of the time, our excuses didn’t work and we ended up, starched and uncomfortable under a couple of layers of petticoats, sitting on the folding chairs and sharpening our daydreaming skills.
Mother would be next to us. She spent much of her time worrying that the church pastor, Brother Jim, was a communist, or pinko, because he sometimes liked to talk about how nice world peace would be. It was the 1950s and, if you lived through those times, you probably recall communists were everywhere, particularly in the pulpit of small, weatherbeaten churches on the Texas prairie.
When Mother wasn’t worrying about Brother Jim, she turned her attention to the church organist, Jean Barney. Mother hated Jean Barney because she didn’t play the organ very well. “That Jean Barney!” she’d mutter later. “Did you hear how badly she played the organ today? It was a disgrace! I could play the organ better than she can.”
My father, sister and I would all nod, because it was necessary to nod every time Mother made a declarative statement. Sometimes, our father would also say, “Mmmmmm-hmmmm,” if Mother was particularly vehement and he wanted to emphasize a point.
You might wonder why Mother didn’t clear Jean Barney off the organ bench and play for the congregation herself, but Mother was in her early thirties then — and I’m sure she felt the time for her dreams had already passed. So, she focused on me.
“Once we get our piano,” she’d say, squeezing my hand, “you’ll take piano lessons. Then, after a couple of years, you can take organ lessons.”
We got a piano, finally, when I was in junior high, and I took piano lessons from an ancient couple who lived in a ranch-style house with four pianos, including two grand pianos. They were very serious about music and, clearly, felt they deserved a better student than the likes of me. The woman spent hours on the phone with my mother, complaining about how I wore too much eye makeup and didn’t practice enough (even though I diligently over-estimated my practice hours week after week). What she failed to mention and what my mother didn’t want to notice was that I was completely lacking in talent. I had no ear for music.
“We can take you to the church and the organist can give you lessons,” my mother would say every few weeks. By then, we’d moved to a bigger, better church with a decent organist and a minister who wasn’t a communist. “Won’t that be wonderful?”
I don’t recall what I said to those ideas. I probably nodded, as usual. I’m not even sure when those dreams slipped away from Mother. Maybe it happened when she listened to me pound on the piano and complain about practicing. But somehow, gradually or suddenly, they disappeared.
I never really thought about it much till my own kids were young and I would tell them excitedly how we would have a playhouse built in the backyard. I’d always wanted a playhouse when I was a kid and knew it was the ticket to a happy childhood. “We’ll put it over there!” I’d enthuse. Both kids would stare back at me, bored. Forget the playhouse. They wanted a trampoline.
Funny how it happens, those lingering dreams you try to graft on to someone else’s life. Looking back, I probably should have built myself a playhouse. After the kids got sick of the trampoline, they might have enjoyed it.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)