Blueprint of a Buried Voice.
I was 10 when I told my mom I wanted to be a singer.
It should have been no surprise. I took dance classes and regularly performed at malls, orchards, and in front of morning assembly at my elementary school. I was comfortable in the role of performer, and while I never sang in front of my mom like I did alone or with friends, I felt sure she knew.
My mother is the performer-type as well, but she lacked the opportunity to explore those interests until her twenties when she sought out jazz and tap dance classes. She only stuck with them for a few years before swapping them out for horse shows and then that for motherhood.
She mentioned her unseized dreams often when we were together in the car. A song would come on, and toward the end, she would announce, In my head, I can envision an entire routine to this. I can sing like that in my mind.
I have never seen my mother dance, but I have often heard her sing. At church, she belted louder than the other mothers in the pews, yet she never joined the choir. At home, lullabies flowed from her lips long after my brother and I were through with nursery. Her voice was sweet and low, like mine, a little scratchy and full of confidence that would come to rub me the wrong way as I reached adolescence.
My mother loved to listen to other women sing too — Joni, Celine, Reba, and Dolly. She especially loved talent yet to be discovered. An underdog. Someone going somewhere. At school, where my mother worked as the guidance counselor, she favored a young singer named Kenny.
Nearly half my size, Kenny was two years my senior with hair that reached well past her middle. She would stand alone in front of the entire school, a speck on the large white assembly floor, and open her mouth to a tidal wave of sound. My mother fawned. You better get her autograph! How does such a tiny girl create such an enormous sound?
While I have never been tiny, I have spent much of my life trying to minimize the space I take. As a girl, I slouched and spoke in soft, uncertain murmurs. I started my first diet at eight and beat my thighs in private disgust.
I felt most at home in my skin when dancing. When my limbs would merge with music and muscle memory would override thought. I was no longer trapped within my body but moved beyond it. I felt certain that singing in front of others would feel even better. With dancing, you are moving within someone else’s words, someone else’s music, but when you are singing, you are the music.
Some girls confide in their mothers the most mundane of things, but I kept my burdens to myself until one afternoon, in our beat-up Dodge Ram on the way home from my mother’s aerobics class, I said it. It balanced like a castle of cards in the air between us hovering amid the humidity and sweat. She found my eyes in the rearview mirror, her mouth a small, tight line, and I knew it had been a mistake.
She explained it was not like in the movies. It was not easy. It would not be easy for me. She did not elaborate, and I did not think to ask why. I felt ashamed for having spoken such a silly thing, and as my mother turned her attention back to the road, I looked out the window and held my silence like a consolation prize.
Then one day in third grade music class, Mr. Hamm announced we would each take turns auditioning for the choir. I sat on a small stool before his piano and stared down at my thighs spreading out from their tight cotton shorts. It all felt too much, and so as the music began, I braided my voice with the pitch rolling off the piano keys. I did not want to be rejected.
He stopped playing, met my eyes, and insisted, Sing louder. I tried to forget my thighs, the classmates behind me, my mother’s tight lips. I raised my voice, and his face softened. He let me in.
Soon after, with Mr. Hamm’s encouragement, I auditioned for and received the leading role of Sally Swordfish in the school musical, “A Fish Tale.” The role was heavy on lines and light on singing, but I loved it. I wanted more. When my dad told me the local theater was holding auditions for Annie, something inside me bubbled over — some feeling of possibility, of abundance.
That weekend, my dad took me to the store to buy a tape to practice singing along with. I had no training, no concept of my range, and so I picked out Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.”
We got home, and as I was racing up the stained carpet stairs to pop the tape into my machine, I overheard heated voices from the kitchen. My mother’s ringing out in indignation, You should have told me first! This is a terrible idea. She will be humiliated.
The abundance fizzled. I drooped to my room and cried more than I practiced, and later, when my dad came to tell me it was time for the audition, I went along as if nothing had happened. At the theater, I saw girls with booming voices, perfectly proportioned limbs, and confident smiles beaming out to moms in the crowd. During my turn on stage, as the music began to play, all I could hear were my mother’s words.
I lifted my voice — that inch-high contralto, undeveloped and wavering — and felt like a fraud. I got that shit over with as quickly as I could and slunk off-stage into my father’s warm embrace. We went for ice cream and did not talk about singing or feelings. We did not talk at all.
Ashley Trabue is a writer, artist, and educator based out of Nashville. Her work has been published in Hobart, Rockvale Review, Nashville Review, and elsewhere. Her first chapbook Vertebrae is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. You can keep up with her work at her website.