If you want to know something about me, just ask.
If you want to know me, ask me to sing.
Singing opens my heart; sharing a song makes me feel whole, solid.
When someone shows me a flash mob video of people breaking out in song in public squares, I become emotional. I wonder what that would feel like to let loose with a big number in a crowded shopping mall. There are so many less conspicuous ways to be known. Why sing?
Maybe it has to do with a story my husband tells. He claims that he used to hover around the corner just outside the door of the little kitchenette in the graduate dorms where we first met. He peeked in and listened as I washed macaroni and cheese out of my hot pot and pink melamine bowl, singing my closest version of Linda Ronstadt’s version of “The Water is Wide.” Joe can describe, in detail, the clothes I was wearing (turquoise sweat pants), the style of my hair (wavy, shoulder length), and the shoes on my feet (none).
Other times, when I thought no one was around, I’d sit in the corner window that overlooked the residence hall courtyard, guitar perched up on my leg, singing “The Galway Shawl” like I thought a native Irish girl would sing it. Joe could hear me from his desk a few rooms away and come closer, stopping far enough back so as to not be seen. He says I made him fall in love with me, casting a spell with my Galway Shall.
Maybe it goes back to what may be my only genuine memory of my mother’s mother, not a story someone retold to me. Grandma was seated among a few other grownups at her big dining room table. Six-year-old me always wanted to be with the grownups, and I stood at the corner beside her chair. She put her left arm around my waist, drew me closer, and said “Will you sing ‘You are My Sunshine’ for us?” I looked down at my feet, lost among white roses on a room-sized rug, chewing a fingernail. She asked me again, with a little tug at my waist. Please, she smiled. I held my head up and sang my best version of Mitch Miller and the Gang’s version of “You Are My Sunshine.”
Grandma and her grownups listened all the way through, and clapped when I was done. At that moment, my grandmother knew everything she needed to know about her eldest granddaughter: I was brave, I was smart, and I could sing.
When no one else was around but Mom and five-year-old me, she’d put on a Mitch Miller album and hand me the jacket, filled with pages of words to every song. Mom would putter in the kitchen singing, and I would sit cross legged on the linoleum in front of the huge Zenith stereo console cabinet, balancing the album songbook on my knees. My finger followed the print on the page as I pretended to read and sang at the top of my voice. I never even noticed, but one day I actually was reading every single word. Mitch Miller and the Gang not only taught me to read, but introduced the fundamentals of harmony and ensemble work. I’d spend hours, propped up on bare knees, leaning in against the brown woven speaker cover, trying to crack the code of harmony—and I did.
Maybe the reason my heart loves to sing is because the thing I liked to do most as a child was the thing people most often tried to stop me from doing. A little kid who goes around singing as if no one was listening can turn out to be a real thorn in the side of those who actually are. Against the resistance, I grew determined to sing wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted—when I was big.
“Just watch, ” I’d tell them through tears. “I’ll be famous some day!”
Then I grew up, and claiming freedom to sing was not as easy as I once thought it would be.
Consistent with every chapter I’ve ever seen on Middle Child Syndrome, my early days were spent under an invisibility cloak, the child that often went unnoticed. Especially when I wasn’t singing.
But as an adult, I’ve discovered an invisibility antidote. Imagine a vaporous ghost, barely visible, and pretend that ghost is me. When I sing, and especially if someone joins in, a gradual emergence of a more crisp and solid self materializes. This alchemy has been a hard image for me to nail down. It’s kind of funny if you think about it—nailing down a ghost. It brings to mind an American idiom I’ve heard about trying to nail Jello to a tree. Only in this case, I’m nailing down a ghost with a song, over and over again.