Singing in Church

For a long while, more than anything else in the world, I wanted to be like Cher.  As I’d watch her on television on Sunday nights with Sonny, and later when she ventured out on her own, she was the ideal of womanhood for me.  I set about starving myself and growing my hair, and in the process I would pantomime for hours in the mirror, getting all her mannerisms down pat.  Thus it was with devastation that I received the news from my Mom: I could not sing.

This came on the heels of my Dad telling me I sounded “just like Cher!” and asking my permission to record my lovely, diminutive voice.  He counted down, “3, 2, 1…” and put the record on softly in the background, so I could follow the timing.  It was pre-karaoke.  Afterwards, I listened and was embarrassed that I sounded nothing like Cher.

“Of course you do!” Dad encouraged. “I couldn’t tell you two apart!”

As the week went on, the scene rolled around in my mind.  How could I be the next Cher when I couldn’t carry a featherweight tune?

“Mom…  I can’t sing!”  I finally blurted out, late one afternoon, as Mom was busy top dusting.

“Here, help me for a minute with this.”  Mom wasn’t listening.

“Mom, I can’t sing!” I repeated emphatically, trying to jar her attention toward the subject of my distress.

“That’s okay.” She looked up and her gaze softened to sympathy.  “You know what?  There are plenty of things you can do.  Who cares if you can’t sing?  You have other talents.”  Mom seemed proud of this summation.

“No. No… ” I was crushed.  Mom was supposed to tell me I could sing, that I wasn’t hearing myself right, that no one liked their own voices, not even Cher.  She was supposed…. to lie.  That’s what I wanted.

For years, I carried this with me.  Every time I felt inclined to sing aloud, I felt a knot of embarrassment rise up and strangle my vocal chords from within.  What came out was chirpy and weak, worse than before.  Not only was I a poor singer, but I was getting worse!

I took comfort in the art of lip-sync.  Milli-Vanilli hadn’t yet turned lip-syncing into a public disgrace.  Maybe I would be so talented, so… Cher… I could famously mime others’ records.  I practiced this for hours in front of my bedroom mirror.  Until one day, my disco dreams faded like a pair of monochrome bell bottoms.  That day, I was out with friends, humming down the highway, giggling.  Some random parent at the wheel, the radio was blasting KFI’s finest.  I took in the view and, unconsciously, lip-synced along.

“What are you doing?!” One of the girls giggled at me.  “You’re not really singing!  What are you doing?!  That’s weird!  You’re weird!”  The girls all laughed.  From that moment on, I took care to not mime unless it was just me and Mom in the car.

My bravery slipped, and I rarely dreamed of fame any more.  My courage extended to church, where I karaoked the hymns.  Most Catholics sang quite loudly.  They wouldn’t notice.  And some young Catholics were quite quiet and sheepish.  Some were busy looking concerned and pious.  It was a safe bet no one at Church would point and laugh.

As I mouthed the hymns I wanted to belt out, I’d cast my eyes upward when Mom began to sing.  If Mom had a gentle and sweet speaking voice (and she did), she had an even better singing voice.  She always knew the words and always sounded like an angel on high.  It was amazing.  How I wished I sounded so sweet.

In high school, I joined choir and glee club.  I even was given a solo once.  But mostly I remained silent, and those were the times the choir instructor said we sounded best.

Years passed, and one day moxy overtook me.  Navigating down the highway with Mom, who could no longer drive, my forty-year old self began belting out song after song.  One after another they came from the bottom of my heart, without a choked inclination.  I felt the words into my soul.

“Ave Maria, Where did you go? Where did you go?
How did you know to get out of a world gone mad?
Help me, let go of the chaos around me
The devil that hounds me, I need you to tell me
Child, be still, child, be still…”

Mom sat in the passenger seat, nodding her head.  Though she couldn’t drive anymore, she was still lucid, and we were enjoying our day together.

“Oh, honey,” she remarked, “You have the most beautiful voice!”

“No. No…” I protested.

“Yes, you do.  You sound better than the record!”

“But I thought you thought I had a bad voice.  Once you said…”  I recounted to Mom her remark about my having other talents.

“Oh, honey,” Mom explained. “I just didn’t want you to do something you felt self-conscious about.  I knew you had a beautiful voice.  But I also knew what a little artist you were, what a writer you were… so many talents God gave you.  That’s what I was pointing out.”

I always sang for Mom in the car after that.  She would smile and sometimes nod her head to the music.

with Mom at Cher’s final concert – Hollywood Bowl, in 2005


Halloween, 2005, dressed as Cher


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