I know this now. I can see that she suffered from this along with her other illnesses. I suppose that this helps me to have a little bit of compassion for her. It does not really help with all the things that she did to me. I lived with her verbal, mental, and emotional abuse for years. I have been in and out of therapy since I was 9.
Yesterday was Mother’s Day. We are supposed to honor our mothers on that day. Hmm . . . I’m sure that there are good things I could write about her. Unfortunately, when I was 17, she told me that she hadn’t liked me until I hit 16. That kind of negated what I had thought of as happy memories from my childhood. I know that I should not let that statement dictate what I can look at as happiness, but that’s easier said than done.
But, I do have this: she was my first voice teacher.
I have been singing my entire life. I sang vocal exercises with her when I was in my playpen. I sang in my first choir when I was 3—you had to audition to get in. (Who auditions 3-year-olds?!?!)
When I was 9, we went to see my first opera: La Boheme. I was hooked. I was going to be an opera singer. Mom had received classical voice training as a child and younger woman. (She was 34 when she had me, so she was 43 at this point.) She had picked up a lot of bad vocal habits in the intervening years, but she gave me a really solid foundation.
She had already taught me how to stand: Feet about shoulder width apart, one foot a little in front of the other, back straight, head slightly tucked. (That was the extent of her knowledge on stance. I learned more later.)
But then we got into proper placement and raising the soft palate to achieve high notes. We started working out of our Broadway songbook (I still work out of this book!) and her copy of Classic Italian Songs. (I still have this, too!) And, because I insisted, we worked on “Musetta’s Waltz” from Boheme. I was 9. Not something I would recommend for a child of that age, but I was determined. In later years, I discovered that my mother’s grasp of Italian pronunciation was, shall we say, not good. She did her best.
I found out that she was not really comfortable teaching me. She was afraid that she would pass her bad habits along to me. I must say that as a first voice teacher, I think she did a really good job. I loved the times we spent singing together.
When I was 12, we went shopping. Elkins (a small college town in West Virginia) had one department store at that time, so pickings were limited, but we found matching denim maxi skirts and blouses that coordinated without being too matchy-matchy. We then put together a show. I played the guitar on several of our songs, and there were even a few songs where I played the piano. I remember how proud I was to accompany her on the piano. Most of our songs she played the piano, sometimes singing, sometimes accompanying me. I loved doing that. I loved putting the show together. I loved the few performances that we booked.
She wanted to go into the local nursing homes and senior centers. There was one nursing home and one senior center. So, once we’d performed for them, we’d kind of used up our possible venues. Looking back, there could have been other places, but my mother wasn’t capable of finding them.
Months of planning, costumes, and practicing all used up in two performances. We were asked to do seasonal programs at the nursing home. This eventually led to a volunteer slot for me as a teenager. I would take my guitar into the wards and private rooms and sing for the patients. I also continued with the seasonal programs and parties. Sometimes I left my guitar at the office and helped with reading mail and writing letters.
I have some amazing memories of those times. I got to know a woman who was 103 years old. Zita had a great sense of humor. She had the rest of them convinced that she was stone-deaf. Yet, when I went in with my guitar and started singing for her, her hand would start to tap in rhythm, and once she actually starting, very softly, singing along.
Or there was Otto. He was a wizened little old man originally from Austria. He always wanted me to sing “Edelweiss” for him. And every time I did, he would sit with a lovely smile on his face with tears pouring from his eyes. He said that it reminded him of his home. I always thought how wonderful it was that a song from a Broadway show could affect him so deeply. Every time I work on “Edelweiss” with someone, I still think of Otto.
There was the woman who had had a Broadway career. She had been discovered by Frederick Loewe of Lerner and Loewe fame. Her family had come from Elkins, and when she retired, she had returned there. She was always fun to talk to. I wish I could remember her name. I remember everything else about her so clearly.
So, there are some happy memories about my mother. She helped to open the world of music and performing to me. She helped to give me the idea of how to find venues for performance. I know that living in small towns was not what she wanted. She felt stifled and frustrated. I know that she did the best that she could, even if that was seldom what I needed.
I’ll be playing some of my early repertoire on my Minnich Music Facebook page, so please be sure to check them out.
Happy Mother’s Day.