THE GIRL SHE MEANS TO BE
originally appeared in Get Born! magazine, Fall 2010
“Tell yourself…how lucky you are,” my daughter Lily sings, raising her fanned hands at her sides on the last note, like a peacock displaying its tail. She’s eleven, and standing on her own small stage—otherwise known as our ottoman—just opposite the kitchen counter where I dry dishes.
When she sings that last note, her voice sounds strained, stretched too far, like a soap bubble blown until it breaks. “Can you sing it a little lower?” I ask, putting down my dishtowel. “Maybe after singing with the other kids at camp all day, you’re trying to sing like them, which might be a little high for you.”
She responds by drawing her right arm and left leg up into an arabesque and lingering there. Then she leaps off the ottoman, runs to the stereo, and queues up the song again.
The next morning is Audition Day at Theater Arts For Kids, a three-week summer day camp that culminates in a full-length musical theater show. It’s three weeks that Lily pretty much spends forty-nine weeks of the year anticipating.
What Lily Did the Week Before Theater Camp:
1) Laid the next week’s worth of outfits across her bedroom floor in a chorus line.
2) Gave me a shopping list of items for the lunches she’d planned: cherry tomatoes, sliced cheddar, cookies without nuts, chocolate soymilk.
3) Played the soundtrack for this year’s Seussical, the Musical endlessly on her stereo, in the car, on her iPod.
4) Paused the iPod long enough to ask, “Have you talked to Susan about who’s driving to camp on Monday?” (I could almost see the checklist in her mind, hovering there between her brown ponytails.)
This summer is Lily’s fourth at camp, the summer she plans to rise out of the ensemble and claim a lead role. It hasn’t been her dancing that’s held her back in the past; it hasn’t been her acting nor her big-eyed charisma. It’s that voice of hers.
Picture this: a two-year-old girl with bobbed hair and blue eyes so big they stop people on the sidewalk. She looks up at you and says, “I love you, Mama,” in the voice of Demi Moore. Like a character from Our Gang. If you are the mama in question, you may feel your heart soften enough to pour over popcorn. That gravel-in-honey charm of Lily’s voice has stayed with her as she’s gotten older. And while it’s worked for singers like Janis Joplin and Lucinda Williams, it hasn’t helped Lily. Her voice has roughness where she wants it to have range; it’s been hard to hit the notes that she hears in her head. During her first summer at theater camp, performing as one of Fagin’s boys in Oliver!, her voice crept down from the stage and out to us in the tenth or eleventh row, beneath the higher voices of the other orphans. A low cricket’s rasp beneath a flock of songbirds.
But this summer will be different, Lily is sure, because she’s been taking voice lessons for nine months. She’s done her warm-ups and scales and Doe-A-Deers. She can hit higher notes now, she’s lost some of the rough edges—she’s smoothed out her voice the way I smooth back her hair three times a week, into a flawless ballet class bun.
When Lily queues up the audition song again, I remind her to be Mayzie, the character she longs to play, a Dr. Seuss-inspired songbird with a showy tail and a showier attitude. A bluesy saxophone starts to wail from the speakers and my husband stands beside me to watch. Suddenly it isn’t Lily standing on the ottoman before us, it’s Mayzie, and her voice is lower and her hips are swaying and she has all the presence of Barbra Streisand sashaying down that curved stairwell in Hello Dolly! Chris and I flash smiles at each other that say, “She has a chance at this!” and I let Lily raise my hopes with her own.
Where Lily Dances:
- Down the cereal aisle.
- In swimming pools, improbable as it sounds.
- Across rainy cobblestones outside tapas bars in San Sebastian, Spain, an umbrella in her hand.
- In most parking lots.
- Between the stove and the sink, as I try to get dinner on the table.
- Anywhere she finds a few feet of open space before her.
I’ve never had to encourage Lily to dance; more often I’ve had to discourage her, as when she is jigging before the yogurt at Whole Foods, her clogs clomping up a racket. She dances constantly, continuously, as if she was never taught, as if her bones and muscles knew how all along. And yes, she’s had years of dance classes: Toddler Dance, Creative Dance, Ballet Levels 1, 2, 3 and 4—but even tennis coaches and ski instructors comment on her grace, her body’s ability to do just what they ask.
What Lily Has Learned From Musicals:
- The history of the Depression, early statehood, and child labor in London.
- Words like larder, Geritol, isinglass and adieu.
- To appreciate the melancholy solo as much as the splashy dance finale.
When she doesn’t get the part of Mayzie, she cries. She tries not to, because we are giving the neighbor girl a ride home from camp, but her eyes flutter and the dam cracks. A few tears trickle down. She manages to hold back the rest as we drive, but watching her from the rear view mirror, I know she’ll break once we get home. Two months earlier she received a rejection letter from the local community theater group. They didn’t want her for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat–although they wanted fifty other kids for the chorus, including several of her friends, some of whom had no singing experience. Last summer she didn’t get the part of Dancing Laurie in the theater camp’s production of Oklahoma—apparently her talents as a dancer couldn’t compensate for her voice, and she watched bitterly as the girl who was chosen struggled to pull off a string of chaine turns during rehearsals. I watch her blinking, emotionless face through the rearview mirror and worry over what comfort I can offer this time.
Lily is lying face down on her bed when I knock on her door and tiptoe in, her cast list crumpled like a used Kleenex at her side. She’s been cast as a Bird Girl, one of a trio of backup singers. It’s a good part, bigger than an ensemble role. But Lily didn’t want to be a Supreme—she wanted to be Diana Ross. She wanted to be Mayzie.
Short of tragic illnesses and accidents, nothing is harder than watching your child’s heart break. Bring on the temper tantrums! Give me potty slipups, disagreements over screen time, slammed doors and I hate you’s any day. Those I can handle. Watching your kid wilt with disappointment is something else. Especially when you realize that it’s your job to lift her back up, to find some light to shine through the cracks in her heart. What do you say?
What I Say:
- “I know you didn’t get the part you wanted.”
- “I’m sorry, sweetie.”
- (Timidly) “The Bird Girls are a big part…”
What She Says:
- “I never get the parts I want! I hate my voice!”
- Nothing. She cries rasping, angry sobs.
- (After a pause) “The other Bird Girls are thirteen and I’m just eleven.”
With this last line I hear hope creeping in and suddenly I can’t keep sitting, as I have been, on the floor with my hands folded as if this will keep me from saying too much. I get up on my knees. “The Bird Girls are onstage a lot. Think of all the dancing you’ll get to do!” Then I’m standing, telling her how much her voice has improved, how I’m sure the director has noticed. “You’re not in the ensemble this year,” I point out, my own voice rising higher with hope.
“I know.” She sits up slowly and takes the cast list into her lap, smoothing it. “We’re the third characters on the list, before Mr. and Mrs. Mayor, even.”
“I wonder what our costumes will look like.” And she’s off, imagining feathers and sparkles. I smile, hug her, walk out into the hallway and into my bedroom. How many times will a cast list make her collapse across her bed in tears? It’s a sight that makes me certain I can feel my own heart in my chest, not cracked but aching, like any other muscle that’s been worked too hard.
The movie version of Hairspray came out this summer, and it’s the only soundtrack that Lily gives more airplay than Seussical. She plays it so often that even her five-year-old brother knows the lyrics. (Sort of. Singing along to Michelle Pfeiffer’s “Miss Baltimore Crabs”, he sings the line “But I screwed the judges” as “But I smeared the duchess.” Thankfully.)
In the film, teenager Tracy Turnblad wants to dance on The Corny Collins Show at her local television station. She’s a good dancer, but she’s, well, chubby.
How Tracy’s Parents React to Her Wanting to Audition for the Show:
- Edna, her overweight mother, says, “No. Dancing is not your future.” And later, to Tracy’s father, “Those kinds of people don’t pick people like Tracy, or girls like us. They’re gonna hurt her, Wilbur.”
- Wilbur, her father, says, “…you go for it! This is America, babe! You’ve gotta think big to be big. Follow your dream.”
Walking by Lily’s closed door with an armful of her brother’s misplaced toys, I hear her singing along with Tracy. “Oh, oh, oh, give me a chance, when I start to dance, I’m a movie star.” Lily can’t match Tracy’s pitch; she can’t reach half her range, yet her voice has the same yearning. I keep walking down the hallway, listening to Lily and Tracy, wishing I could be more like Wilbur, but feeling Edna’s fears.
What I Think As I Watch Seussical:
- In her high-heeled character shoes, orange mini-dress and bee-hived hair, Lily looks like she’s fifteen.
- She’s beautiful.
- She’s more beautiful than the girl playing Mayzie.
- She’s more beautiful and charming than the girl playing Mayzie.
- I’m not even seeing the girl who plays Mayzie on that stage. It’s Lily up there in that pink dress, and her hips are swaying and she has all the presence of Barbra Streisand sashaying down that curved stairwell in Hello Dolly!
- I wish the rest of the audience could see Lily in that pink dress.
- I wish this because it would make Lily happy.
- It would also make me happy.
Most mornings I remind Lily’s five-year-old brother to brush his teeth; I remind her fifteen-year-old brother to get off the computer; I remind Lily to feed her rabbits and to practice her singing.
A Few of My Naggy Lines:
- Have you practiced your singing today?
- You want so badly to do well at your auditions. Just practicing for ten minutes a day would make a difference.
- Just going to a lesson once a week, without practicing, isn’t going to help your voice get better.
- I’m not going to pay $35 a lesson and wait in the car for a half hour with your brother if you’re not going to practice.
- Have you practiced your singing today?
In the fall after Seussical, I hear myself saying these lines more often. To be truthful, I’m not sure how much practicing will help. Lily will never have the high, crystalline voice of the kids who nab the theater camp lead roles. But can’t she take the voice she has and polish it, over time, like a pebble in a rock tumbler? I wonder over the balance between practice and natural talent. Lily’s dance teachers speak of her expressiveness, how this is something hard to teach, something Lily just has. And watching her dance across a stage, with such ease, such presence, as if she’s lit equally by footlight and from within, I’ve always agreed. Lily’s talent for dancing seems as much a part of her as her blue eyes or the dimple in her cheek. But then again, she’s spent hours each week at dance class, for years now. She’s practiced.
What I want to say to her, but don’t, is that it would be easier to concentrate on what comes easily. It would be easier to focus on dancing and to let the singing go.
I listen through Lily’s door as she practices. Her singing sounds half-hearted, appeasing. When she comes downstairs, I toss off yet another naggy line. Yes, I understand the universal parenting theorem: a child’s willingness to do something is inversely proportional to a parent’s suggestions that they do it. Still, I can’t help myself. It isn’t really the thirty-five dollars and the waiting in the car that makes me nag; it’s that image of Lily withering in tears on her bed after receiving a cast list. So I keep nagging, willing her to give her voice the same attention she gives her outfits and her lunches while she waits for camp to start.
How My Mother Was Like Edna Turnblad When I Was A Kid:
- She was softhearted (if not soft-bodied).
- She couldn’t bear to see me have my hopes crushed.
- When I did, she put her arms around me and cried too.
- Unable to bear my hopes being crushed, she didn’t encourage me to try what seemed out of my reach.
- She ironed a lot.
My father wasn’t as ebullient as Wilbur Turnblad, but in his own quiet way he encouraged me to attempt what I longed for, improbable as it may have seemed. One afternoon when I was in high school, I struggled to come up with a routine for my pom-pom girl audition.
“How can someone who has never been a pom-pom girl make up a pom-pom routine?” I wailed, defeated.
Thinking back on it, I’m not sure that becoming a pom-pom girl was my father’s dream for his previously bookwormish daughter. Nevertheless, he wadded up a couple of dishtowels and started trying out potential moves. “Here’s something. Sometimes you can hold the pom-poms still, and you can move around them,” he said, and then demonstrated, holding the dish towels in front of his face and peeking his head from behind them, first to the left and then to the right. He was absolutely earnest. It’s one of my favorite images of my dad, all six feet and four inches of him, smiling from behind dishtowels, my own cheerleader.
In November, Lily starts planning our homeschool group’s talent show. The show has been an almost annual event, organized by different mothers. This year, when no adult seems willing to take on the job, Lily finds a clipboard and she and her friends get to work.
How Lily Prepares for the Talent Show:
- Writes emails describing the event, which she forwards first to me, for spelling and grammar feedback.
- Organizes acts on her clipboard, shifting them around so there aren’t too many pianists in a row.
- Hits up the teenagers in the group, when none registers to perform.
- Finds extension cords.
- Adds her name to the list of performers, as the one and only singing act.
She plans to sing a piece she’s been working on with her voice teacher—“The Girl I Mean To Be,” from the musical version of A Secret Garden. Also, with two friends she’ll dance a routine they’ve devised about good and evil, set, improbably, to music from West Side Story, Mary Poppins, High School Musical and Star Wars. Secretly I’m disappointed that she won’t dance on her own, as she has in the past, to a ballet of her own choreography. I’ll miss seeing her up there, her delicate limbs moving to her own rhythm, as if she’s signing her name in cursive in the air above the stage.
Admittedly, I’ll miss having my friends see that too. I long for them see her up there, not singing but dancing: filling every corner of the stage, her glow spreading out over the audience, reflecting off of me. But this is Lily’s talent show. A show of the talents Lily’s chosen for herself.
I want to help her. I want to make dishtowels into pompoms for her; I want to make her voice into ribbons of honey. But Lily isn’t asking for my help, and my help hasn’t helped. I worry that she won’t practice her song enough before the show, but I have the sense not to say anything.
What I Say to Other Mothers After the Talent Show:
- “I can’t believe Mark and Noah got that duet together so quickly!”
- “Sarah is really getting good. How much does she practice?”
- “When Dan played, I felt like I was at a piano bar. He can skip waiting tables in college and play piano instead!”
What Other Mothers Say to Me:
To be fair, the auditorium is chaotic after the show, as we all stack chairs, sweep, and try to keep the littler kids from climbing on tables while assuring hungry teenagers that there will be lunch once the room is cleaned up. The mothers are busy, maybe too busy to talk performances. Then again, maybe they don’t mention Lily’s singing because a compliment eludes them.
I surprise myself by not caring. Instead of their assurances, I have my image of Lily up on that stage, no instrument to hide behind. She stands tall with her dancer’s poise, her chin high, her eyes steady. “The Girl I Mean to Be” is a song of longing, a girl’s wish for a place to find her inner self. As Lily sings her voice wavers in places; it stretches to reach the right notes. Her voice is imperfect, but it’s an apt imperfection, one that somehow underscores the meaning of the song. “I need a place where I can go, where I can whisper what I know, “ Lily sings, only her longed-for place isn’t a secret garden, it’s a stage to sing on, and she’s found her way up there. Despite anything I may or may not have said.
Lily has been working on songs from Beauty and the Beast with her voice teacher. It’s only February, but already she’s learned that this will be the theater camp production this summer. One Monday she bounces into the backseat of the car after her lesson, and tells me it went well. “ But I probably won’t get the part of Belle at camp, because a lot of her songs have high parts.”
Responses I Could Have Given:
- Tell her I’m proud of her for being realistic (because her words relieve me and all my Edna Turnblad fears.)
- Say, to use a line from Wilbur Turnblad, “What are you talking?” Say, “Of course you can be Belle if you want to! You have four months to work on it!”
- Say, distractedly, as I am trying to convince her younger brother to strap into his booster seat while I back our Volvo through a parking lot the size of a 4-square court, and on to 51st Avenue: “Well, you never know.”
Response #3 is what walked out of my mouth, unpondered, as words so often do for preoccupied mothers. And maybe, in the end, it was smartest response I could have given her, the response that put the outcome in her own graceful hands.