Lucy Giardino Cortese
Are you the sister that sings or the other one? This question reverberates throughout memories of my childhood. Living with a sibling who rivals Sarah Brightman in reaching high Cs, my voice remains a consistent B flat. Blessed with an overactive self-concept, I sing loud and proud to the distain of music lovers throughout the First Coast.
Do you sing out in church? Do folks turn around to admire your canary lilt or scorn your duck-like warbling? Do you do backup for the Bee Gees on the car radio? At the red light do adjacent drivers roll up windows to drown out your rocking to “Staying Alive?” I confess. The only place I never get dirty looks is in the shower, for singing I mean.
My voice is like a kite that swirls around in the wind, but never quite soars. Think Little Engine puffing up the mountain. I think I can, I think I can, but no one else does. I am the one the scornful music teacher puts way in the back of class to drown out my enthusiastic but off-key renderings. But do I get the clue? No. I sign up for the high school chorale ignoring the director’s hint, “Don’t you want to join the band?”
I recall the annual cousins’ talent show. Hoofers, acrobats, a couple of knock-knock jokes. Awaiting my turn to perform, I channel Miss Patti Page, the Singing Rage (now I’m dating myself). I belt out “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” to the jeers and giggles of my kin. Uncle C flips off the lights to save my embarrassment. The audience howls as if that mutt is being chased by the Dog Catcher. Undaunted, I trill in the dark.
I am the only girl Sister Anne assigns to sing Alto with the boys during the Christmas Midnight Mass. “So the Sopranos stay can on key.” When you sing in church you pray twice. My invocations float to Heaven like musical renditions of fingernails scratching a blackboard.
On one occasion my sister, the one that sings, invites me to her church choir. Being a very clever music directress, T gives me an straightforward assignment–getting hymnals from storage. Sweating like a chicken passing a KFC, I peel off two layers of clothing in the closet. The door swings open to the delight of the regular hymnal-collector, an 78-year old widower. Standing in my unmentionables, I wonder if this is a direct sign from music-loving celestial cherubim.
When the parish priest asks me to direct the Sunday morning choir I am flattered. My lyrical bubble bursts with his subsequent comment, “So you’ll be on the other side of the microphone.” I change churches to protect the innocent, but still keep on singing.
I sign-up for the Sunday night choir, a folk group directed by a female Attila the Hun. Her attempts to make a silk purse from a sow’s voice cause great consternation. I shudder at admonishments flowing from her red-blotched face: “Don’t sing so loud!” “You’re totally off-key!” “Move to the rear!” (I think she referred to the back of church not the choir loft).
Then arrives that fateful night. It is my musical epiphany. My melodic Aha moment. My tuneful revelation. My kick in the bass cleft.
“I need a lector, I want you!” Father S demands. “But I’m singing in the choir tonight and…” Attila generously volunteers my services with “Take her, please!” As a cradle Catholic, I learned to say, “Yes Father,” without question. With a sigh, I put down my hymnal and go to the church sacristy. I quickly glance over the first and second readings. Before I muster a chance to decipher pronunciations of Mesopotamia and Phrygia, a voice commands, “Go now!”
Shakily I go to the altar and do what I am told. At the appropriate time in the liturgy, I approach the ambo. With a dramatic pause, I make eye contact with my audience. Not too many page turnings, coughs or rustlings affirm that I have the rapt attention of the congregation. I begin in my very best Meryl Streep. My elocution is velvety as chocolate ice cream dripping from a chubby toddler’s chin.
After Mass a strange man approaches me who I have never seen before, or since for that matter. “You read so well,” he says, “I can tell you really practiced.” With a head inflated like a Macy’s parade float, I confess, “Actually it was spur of the moment. But thanks for the kind words.” I turn to walk away.
Mystery Man touches my arm and I expect another compliment. His comments deflate Garfield in a slow escape of helium. “I’ve been listening to you sing in the choir for years,” he admits, “And you really read a lot better than you sing.” Who was that masked man? Did the choir director pay him to deliver this proclamation? Angel or devil, who is to say. Whatever, that infamous night I become a lector and give up my singing career forever.
Yet, when they announce the local auditions for The Voice, I think, just maybe…