My dream, from the age of twelve on, was to become a singer.
Unlike my parents, I was musical, and when, in fifth grade, my friend Margie started taking violin lessons at school from visiting music teacher Miss Perchett, I took up the viola. I’d wanted, a couple of years earlier, to start piano lessons when Kathy did, but we didn’t have the money or space for a piano in the Raymond apartment. I also had a pleasing voice, good pitch, and loved to sing in harmony. (Whenever I sang around the house, however, my mother would effuse about her sister Dory’s beautiful voice—as though mine didn’t compare.)
Nevertheless, in sixth grade I was chosen for a role in the school musical but then came down with tonsillitis and missed rehearsals—so I wound up in the chorus. Actually, I was relieved by this outcome because that spring, for the first time, I’d become paralyzed with performance fright at my dance recital and, onstage, forgot the choreography of the piece a classmate and I had created together. I’d had to bumble my way through it to the end.
That was the year, as I’ve said, that my parents divorced, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I was humiliated by my sixth-grade teacher, and my best friend Kathy dumped me. In a tailspin, I began to drop out of one thing after another. Though Miss Perchett had told me she would “boil me in oil” if I ever quit the viola, I did. I dropped out of Camp Fire Girls too, partly because I didn’t feel confident about being able to earn enough beads to decorate my felt bolero. And when our dance class ended after sixth grade, I didn’t go on to study dance elsewhere, like my friends Mary and Margie, because of my pigeon toes. I also stopped playing sports. I’d been the most daring and competitive of all the girls when we played dodgeball, our major athletic recreation at school during the winter months. I would run right up to the line across the middle of the auditorium that divided our two teams—and catch the fly ball, no matter how hard it was thrown at me, then lob it right back. But in high school, when we started playing softball, I would hide at the end of the line of batters, hoping to avoid ever having to come up to bat at all.
Still, there was one ray of hope at the beginning of seventh grade at Murray High, which was a combination junior high and high school. I have a vivid memory of standing on the riser in the music room in the midst of a large group of kids auditioning for the chorus. When my turn came, the choir director exclaimed, “Listen to that voice! It’s like a bell!”
When I found out that my friend Mary’s older sister was taking voice lessons, I knew that’s what I wanted to do too. It would be another decade before I would be able to, however, and when I was forced to quit after ten months of intensive study—because my father rescinded the small allowance he’d promised me for college—my voice teacher warned me, “If you quit now, you’ll never sing.” I begged my mother for the money to continue—it was my last semester at Cal, and I was already working part-time at the language lab. But she refused, screaming at me, “You want everything—and you want it now!”
Just as her father had refused to help her achieve her dream, my mother refused to help me realize mine. And so history repeats itself. But I’m getting ahead of my story.