In junior high in the late 40’s, there was in me a consistent conflict between who I thought I was and who I thought I should be. So I went about the business of inventing myself. I dressed like Mary, laughed like Kathleen, tied my thick curly hair in a pony tail like Nancy’s, ignoring the fact that her hair was straight and much better suited to a pony tail.
Sometimes I would hear something, see something, and tell myself, “I can do that, if I only try hard enough.” I watched Esther Williams swim. She was graceful, with a dazzling smile as she languorously stretched her arms in a backstroke. If water got in her mouth, she gently blew it out.
I grew up on Lake Michigan, with waves and undertow, not suited to languorously backstroking and blowing. Nevertheless I tried. Too often there was so much water in my mouth that I resembled a whale spouting rather than Esther blowing. Diving like Esther was out of the question. There aren’t diving boards on Lake Michigan, and if there were, my instinctive fear of jumping to my death kept me off them.
One day, before junior choir, I heard a friend of my mother’s, Peggy McKee, practicing. She was on vacation from New York, where she sang professionally. Her voice was rich, warm, expressive. Listening to her, I was transported. Could I sing like that? Could I make people feel the way I felt listening to her?
Why not? She had to start somewhere. I practiced. I belted out Old Man River. (I knew the words.) I decided I was a contralto, like Peggy. My sister, Ann, held her ears, and begged me to shut up.
We had one bathroom, shared by four people. The bathtub had claw feet (when claw footed bathtubs were not stylish), and no shower. Hair washing was done in the bathroom sink with countless cups of water poured over my head. I would gaze in the mirror, arranging my soapy hair in the style of Marie Antoinette, and sing rising scales. Well, almost scales. They got a little flat in the upper reaches. I would imagine myself living in Manhattan, catching a cab for rehearsals, dressing in elaborate costumes, being adored.
“Peggy doesn’t sing at the Met,” my mother told me. “She sings professionally at big Manhattan churches.”
“She’s good enough to sing at the Met,” I said, starting another trill.
“Very few people are good enough to sing at the Met,” Mother said. “Kay, it is possible to admire someone, without having to compete with them. You can love good singing, and still not be able to hold a tune.”
Eventually, with a lot of family pressure, my singing career ended. Sometime later I took up the cello.
While at a music camp I heard Mary Ellen playing Malaguania on the piano. Wow. I had never heard the piano sound like that. Could I do that? If I memorized it? And practiced hours every day? Could I play just one piece like that? Well, that’s another story.