From the time I was a little girl, I wanted to do two things. I wanted to paint pictures, and I wanted to make music. I remember the jars of fingerpaint colors that my mother bought me, and the yards of butcher’s paper she would spread across the crackled yellow surface of our kitchen table with a stern admonition not to get paint on the floor. Of course I did, and of course, she forgave me, and so I painted my muralistic renditions of our house and my neighborhood under the sun or the moon as the mood struck me.
As the years passed, I traded those fingerpaints for pristine watercolor ovals tucked into thin metal boxes. I had graduated by then to dogs and cats or the animals that decorated my mental menagerie. The Frumpty was one such, part lion and part fish. A rather poor animal whose tail could not aid him on land and whose roar kept getting drowned in the water. Or the Gullering, whose wings were so vast that she could not lift herself off the ground to fly, but who could soar forever if thrown from the top of a mountain. These offerings of my imagination decorated the refrigerator door in an unending succession of riotous color.
At some point, I abandoned the imaginary for what my eyes saw every day. The colors and textures of nature fascinated me. Still do. So I tried to paint the images in front of me. Sometime before I reached high school, on one of our many field trips I discovered what painting really was and realized that I could not do it. That although the vision burned inside of me, I could not paint or draw to save my soul.
It was much the same with music. I had always danced. Tap. Ballet. Jazz. There was something in my blood that let loose with the notes that floated from the speakers of the record player or from the instruments of a street band. I could hear melodies in my head that I wanted to write when I should have been doing homework, and one of my greatest joys in life was kicking off my shoes and turning on the radio so I could dance all over the house. I do that to this day when no one is watching.
I was in the glee club from the first day it was offered at my school, and once I was a freshman, discovered the A cappella choir. I had sung from the time I was old enough to lisp Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but during tryouts that day, I heard voices whose range and tone I could not hope to emulate. I made the choir all four years I was in high school, but repeated exposure to some of my choir-mates taught me something. I had a pleasant singing voice and while nowhere near pitch perfect, could carry a tune decently. But that was all. Several more years with a rock and pop group as a lead singer and wannabe songwriter taught me something else. The music that lived inside me would stay there.
Years later, as I struggled through college while my kids were starting high school, I turned in a paper in my comp class. It was about a little boy whose family lived in teepees in the forested lands of the northeast during weather so cold the trees cracked with it. A few days later I received the paper back. There was no grade on it, only a note that said, “See me after class.” Dread words for any student, especially a non-traditional one like I was. My stomach was in knots throughout the remainder of the evening, and once the other students had filed out of the room, the professor sat down in the chair next to mine and picked my paper up from the desktop where it lay.
I’d been scribbling for years. One more attempt at letting loose the passion that lived within me. Snippets of stories and poems that I would use to decorate the covers of my notebooks. Stray bits of paper stuffed into pockets and purses, into drawers and three-rings. Most had been shoved away to lie alone and unread, crumpled into wads or folded into geometric shapes to become the inhabitants of abandoned shoeboxes at the back of my closest where even my mother would not find them. Even though I would never let any of them see the light of day, I thought some of the stuff I had written was pretty good, so this after-school meeting had me rattled.
“Is it that bad?” When I dared look at her, her eyes were kind, but in my imagination, they pitied me.
“Are you wondering why there is no grade?” she asked me, and when I nodded, she said, “I didn’t know what to give you, because an A seemed inadequate.” I looked at her like she was crazy. I know I did because she smiled at me for a moment, and then she said, “It’s that good.”
With her words, this wonderful woman, whose face I can see but whose name I can no longer remember, showed me a way to unlock that fire inside and set it free. I felt a subtle shift then, a lightening in my heart and mind of the dark I hadn’t even known was there. Because she helped me to realize that I could still do the two things I had wanted since I was a child. But I would paint with words. The page would be my canvas, and the stories I would tell, those would be my music.