My Mother's Voice

Since Mother's Day I have been reflecting on my singing career and motherhood. Prior to Sunday my memories where more of my late mother, who herself was born with a gorgeous operatic voice.
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Since Mother's Day I have been reflecting on my singing career and motherhood. Prior to Sunday my memories where more of my late mother, who herself was born with a gorgeous operatic voice.

I knew she sang some as an alto in church choir and the Mendelssohn Society in Philly. I remember sitting in church many times with my dad, (who later at age 58 became a Methodist clergyman) playing with his long fingers as he held the hymnal down at my level and towered above me. He often used his index finger to help me follow along, even though I could not yet read. My brother often joined mom in the choir as he also was born with the gift and they each would occasionally have a solo.

I distinctly remember a day about 20 years ago standing in my parent's kitchen listening to a recording of my mother play in the background. It was one that she made in the 1950s when one could go into a studio. She sang "Through the Years" and "The Lord's Prayer." Her voice teacher accompanied her. Until that time I had not known of the recording nor of the true talent she had. My father had dug it out against her will and she retreated to the kitchen sink with the distraction of finishing the dishes.

I followed her when she fled and as she stood there with her back to me I saw her bend over the sink into a puddle of tears. She had trouble talking and I was so worried as she rarely cried in front of me. Then it came out. She said she wrestled with continuing to try to sing and having a family. She gave up and focused on raising my brother and me and taking care of the household and dad. This revelation stunned me. All I could do was tell her how beautiful her voice was, and that had she not done what she did I might have never existed. She nodded agreeing that she was so moved that I could be a singer and she could share every step of the way. (Did I mention I had the most supportive parents anyone could wish for?) We both had a total meltdown. In some ways I felt guilty about her not realizing her dream. This was an amazing moment made all the more amazing because I could hear my singing voice in her own. (At her funeral I played this recording. Many people had no idea about her talent.)

We were a regular suburban middle class family for the first 11 years of my life. My exposure to music was pretty much at church or folk songs with Dad or my brother on guitar after dinner using the big black Lomax songbook. Curiously, Mom was always in the kitchen and not participating. (To this day I am a closet folk singer and collect all sort of folk music.) The large combo console black and white TV/record player were in the living room. When helping to cleaning the house (I dusted) mother would play musical soundtracks. The two I remember the most were Oklahoma and The Sound of Music with Mary Martin. I could probably draw the covers of each as they were memorized by me. The one opera we had was Carmen with a sultry Risé Stevens on the front. On Good Friday Mom would play the Brahms Requiem and draw the curtains.

Apart from this and a couple trips to hear my brother at school programs, that was the extent of my musical exposure. I do have a cute memory of going to hear guitarist Andres Segovia at the Academy of Music, and in my young age of fidgeting I would run around the outer hallway opening each door to the balcony and think I was looking into a different theater. I also remember seeing the Mikado but I could not tell you what it was about. Of course, we always sat in the very top balcony and I was petrified I might fall into the auditorium.

In hindsight, I see that my parents exposed us to a few things and hoped we would find our own way. They were from small towns in rural Pennsylvania and had moved to the big city to expose themselves to culture. They only had high school educations. My father was an aspiring artist who went to The Philadelphia Museum School of Art on the GI bill and yes, mom was an aspiring singer. After they died, I found a book they had purchased in 1941, the year they were married, about the culture one needs to know. They not only held onto it but were self-educated.

I was certainly not a child prodigy or a product of stage parents or early music lessons. Heck, my first voice lesson was when I was a senior in high school. The only time I felt something forced upon me was when my parents could finally afford a Kimball spinet piano. I had arrived home from seventh grade to find it prominently placed in the living room and both my parents telling me I would take piano lessons. No discussion. I fled the room. I did take piano for quite a few years but always felt horrified at the recitals when I was the oldest and stalled in John Thompson Modern Course for the Piano Book II while the little kids were mastering Beethoven. I finally saw an opera when I was an usher in Santa Fe. (My father was in the National Park Service so we resided in Catoctin Mountain Park, MD and Santa Fe after leaving suburban Philadelphia.)

Yes there were a few performances in my youth -- my own church solos, girl scout chorus and musicals in the first two years of high school. I even sang the national anthem at the crowning of the Frederick County Dairy Princess. However, I was never quite secure having been thrown out of eighth grade choir for singing out of tune when it really was my friend Lizzy standing next to me. There was one unexpected exciting performance in those years. President Nixon and his family including Tricia and Julie's husbands and Mamie Eisenhower came to our little Thurmont Methodist Church and my brother and I were chosen to sing a duet. I was a nervous wreck if one can be that at age 13. The stern secret service agent posted at the choir loft door said, "Just remember you are singing for God and not the president."

Today our children are exposed to so much. My son was in multiple countries the first year of his life traveling with me. I was not even on a commercial airline until I was 13 and never out of the country until I was a young adult. I was exposed to just a little in childhood and look where I ended up. Thanks Mom (and Dad!)

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