Always be my baby
I’ve spent a lifetime nearly shattering the eardrums of those around me — and yet, I sing.
My voice couldn’t be scratchier if it were baked in the desert for a year, but that’s no longer a source of embarrassment. Decades after being ousted from chorus classes, I take a gulp of air and let out my inner diva. She’s brash and only marginally talented, but she aims to entertain.
As my sister would tell you, I have quite the reputation for my energetic — but tone-deaf — performances. A modern Florence Foster Jenkins, say, with an Old Bay twist.
On a family road trip in the ’90s, Katie and I alternated between playing “spot the blue car”-type games, coloring and reading around the Southwest. When we tired of that, I pulled on my headphones and zoned out like the teenager I’d soon become. My cassette player held one of my prized possessions: Mariah Carey’s “Daydream,” the 1995 album that became the soundtrack of that summer.
I have a serious soft spot for “Always Be My Baby,” a tale of first love that transports me back to Waldorf’s old skate rink. Mariah crooned as the subject of my fifthgrade affection, Matt, invited a petite classmate with frosted hair to join him for couples skate. Like the sad sack in every romantic comedy, I watched chin-in-hand from the sidelines.
That may have been the first time I was passed over for a blonde, but it wouldn’t be the last.
This moment was good for something, though: it inspired one of my earliest experiments with fiction. In my purple Minnie Mouse diary, I spun a tale so outlandish that 31-year-old me can’t help but be impressed. I wrote that not one but two young men, including Matt, had asked for my hand during couples skate, when the overhead lights dimmed and the disco ball burst to life. How could I turn them down? Just had to divide the time equally and all. It was only fair.
Did I mention I can’t actually skate?
I’m not saying Mariah made a liar out of me; let’s just chalk it up to youthful daydreaming. I was great at that. As the Sniders cruised toward the Grand Canyon, I played “Always Be My Baby” — and the mental replay of that made-up skate rink moment — over and over. And I sang. Loudly. When my sister wants a guaranteed laugh, she will impersonate my very Mariah-esque vocals from the backseat of that rental car.
“You’ll always be a part of me,” she deadpans, lips barely moving, face impassive. “I’m a part of you indefinitely. Boy, don’t you know you can’t escape me —”
“Ooh, darling, ’cause you’ll always be my baby!” I’ll finish with a flourish, unwilling to accept I actually sounded that awful.
But how would I know? Our voices sound very different to others. And most of my performances happen as I drive alone with the windows down, warm air rushing in to drown out my actual vocals. I like listening to male singers like John Mayer because I can mimic his style better than, say, Adele.
My Adele could shatter Plexiglas.
But you know who would never knock me? Never joke about my catastrophic choruses? The one to whom I am (mostly) perfect: my son.
Since his birth, I’ve put aside my fears of damaging his baby eardrums to sing to Oliver. It’s funny how rhymes we haven’t heard in years — “Hush Little Baby,” “Old MacDonald” — come floating back when a newborn blinks up at you.
My favorite has always been “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” I sang it while rocking an inconsolable Oliver in our creaky nursery chair; I sang it while cradling him on walks up and down the hall, once a 3 a.m. duty I traded off with my husband.
Oliver is 16 months old now and quite the performer himself. He’s accustomed to the warm spotlight shone on him by his doting parents and relatives. Kid is a ham. Ollie recently learned it’s common to clap at the end of a musical performance — or any performance, really — and usually starts the applause, watching as a group of grown people all mimic one toddler. This delights him to no end, of course.
Ollie was unusually fussy the other night. Probably teething again. I lifted him up and swayed around the living room, something we haven’t done in ages.
“Twinkle Twinkle” returned. I sang softly, my voice rising and falling against the backdrop of the evening news. Oliver’s fussing stopped as he watched me, his face just inches away. He listened.
When I was finished, a beat passed. Then Ollie clapped.
I’ve been moved to tears many times in my life: by births; by deaths; by a good, sappy Hallmark commercial.
But I’ve never felt the swell of pride I did when my son applauded that short, scratchy performance on a random weeknight.
He’ll always be my baby.