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)
Ruth — Was your mother ever proud of the writing talent that you actually did master? Hope so!
Cindy — yes, she was. But she always suspected my politics were a little like Brother Jim’s.
I think you are a few miles to the left of Brother Jim. Thank goodness!
Do you ever wonder where your liberal leanings came from having grown up in such conservative surroundings? It always fascinates me how some people can fall so far from the nest (not that that’s a bad thing at all!).
It’s a mystery to me. I’ve been surprised by how people turn out over the years — so many of them returning to their parents’ views. It has to be related to how you feel about your parents and also who you marry and befriend. Also, choice of profession and where you end up living have to weigh in to the mix.
Maybe you should still build that playhouse— for the cat’s sake!
He could send you out there to write when he grows weary of you being around day after day, procrastinating a column, cramping his style.
I laughed at the “let’s build a playhouse” idea. When Tim and I were first married and having kids, I dreamt about building a playhouse for my kids. Then I decided I was just going to to do it so I drew up some plans, scrounged some windows and and a door from my mother’s barn, and marked out spot in the backyard with string wrapped around pencils stuck into the ground. Then Tim got into the act. Pretty soon he was doing the hammering and I was relegated to handing him nails — I my mind I could hear him saying, “Nurse, scalpal” as he held out his hand. And I got furious. My project had become his project. We almost got divorced over that damn playhouse because it became so much more than a playhouse — it had come to symbolize all the crap that was being worked out in our marriage.
The playhouse got built, we didnt’ get a divorce, and my kids didn’t spend a single minute in that structure. Makes me laugh everytime I look at it. I also marvel that something we built almost 20 years ago still stands.
Rachel — I love that story. Have you ever written about it for publication?