I bought my first radio when I was in Middle School. It had taken a long time to save up the money as my allowance was only twenty-five cents a week, ten of which had to go to the church.
When my brother discovered Grit magazine, a weekly newspaper, I was able to earn more money. We went door-to-door trying to get subscribers. When the papers were dropped off at our house, we loaded them up in the baskets of our bicycles and road all over the rural town of Beavercreek, Ohio making deliveries.
That simple job allowed me to finally buy that radio. I listened to popular music and fell in love with Ricky Nelson, Glen Campbell and the Shirelles. I memorized the lyrics and when no one was around, sang along.
Music became my refuge. It took me away from my dysfunctional family’s woes. I felt the singers’ highs and lows. Their heartaches and joys.
When my family went on picnics, that radio came with me. I didn’t have headphones, so I could only listen when I had permission.
When my dad bought a record player, I used my earned money to purchase 45s and 78s. I didn’t have a lot of records, but those I did have brought me great joy.
I attended a Catholic School until the end of seventh grade. A boy, whose name I don’t recall, invited me to a dance at a neighboring Catholic school. This was my first experience with a live band. While they were just a little older than me, and to me recall, not that good, I was enthralled. And I wanted to sing.
That boy took me to dance after dance. Some were pretty miserable affairs with maybe ten people in attendance. Others had disco balls and flashing lights with great food. It made no difference to me: I had a wonderful time.
The next year I transferred to the public school and never saw that boy again. For some reason I was enrolled in choir. I had never sung in public except for the Gregorian chant at church. Imagine my terror when the teacher demanded that we stand up, one-by-one, and sing the National Anthem.
I knew I couldn’t do it, but I practiced in my bedroom. I was convinced that I was off-key and my voice cracked whenever I came to a high note.
When my turn came, I froze. My butt refused to come off my chair. I trembled so badly that I don’t think my legs would have held up my weight. (I had a lot of weight!) The teacher called on me. My eyes filled with tears and my body refused to stand.
The teacher smiled, encouraged me to try, then moved on to the next student. She never did make me sing in front of the class. She did figure out that I was an alto, however, by standing near me during class.
By now I had fallen in love with a variety of popular singers, including the Everly Brothers, Roger Miller, and The Temptations. I bought the teen magazines that featured stories about the artists and included the lyrics to all the top hits.
To my joy, I discovered fan clubs! With a simple letter I could request autographed photos! I sent off letter after letter and when the photos arrived, I taped them to my bedroom wall. All my favorites were there, and since I had the lyrics, I could sing with them, never missing a word.
I never took a music class in high school. I thought about it, but my focus was on getting into a university with a full scholarship. My courses were tough: lots of math and science. Spanish and Social Studies. No fun electives.
Another problem was that my younger sister had grown older and controlled what happened in our shared bedroom. It seemed as if every time I turned on my radio, she appeared and demanded that I turn it off. If I didn’t, she whined to my mother who’d then threaten to smash the radio if I didn’t comply.
My developing love of music stalled.
When I enrolled at USC sophomore year, I took my radio and a record player I’d bought with me. By then I had a fairly extensive collection of records which I played whenever my roommate wasn’t around.
My parents thought that having music on distracted me from my studies, but it was the opposite. Music calmed me. It soothed my fears. Playing favorite songs quietly in the background gave me the energy to put in long hours.
Although I thought about taking a Music Class, once again, just like in high school, it didn’t fit into my major’s requirements.
I dated a guy for a short time who loved music as much as I did. He took me to concerts at UCLA. We rode in his VW Bug with the radio blaring, screaming out the lyrics. He took me to used record shops where, with very little money, I bought tons of records. Thanks to him my collection grew.
He never took me to a school dance, though. When posters advertised a dance in my residence hall, I decided to go. Alone. It was hard for me to do this. I was still overweight and saw myself as ugly. I figured that even if no one asked me to dance, I could enjoy the music.
The cafeteria was transformed into a disco ball. Someone had hung up decorations all along the walls and streamers hung from the ceiling. I was amazed but also thrilled. The one thing I hadn’t planned on was the huge number of students who would come. The place was packed.
I grabbed some snacks. Listened to the music. Wanted to dance. But I was ignored. When OJ Simpson and his gang of football players came, I snuck out. I knew that this was not my crowd.
On campus was a Neumann Center that held Mass on Sundays. I had never heard guitars and drums at church before. There was something about the folk-style that called to me and before I knew it, I was singing. In public.
It wasn’t until many years later, when I my kids were away at college that I bolstered myself up and joined the church choir. I didn’t know how to read music, but one of the singers, Patty deRidder, who was also the First-Grade teacher at the Catholic school, taught me. She told me I had a beautiful singing voice and encouraged me to solo.
I never would have taken that leap on my own. However, one Sunday no other singers came to mass. That meant I had no choice. Oh, was I terrified! But I did it.
Next thing, I was a regular soloist. Sunday after Sunday I stood at the ambo and lead the congregation in the psalm.
I remember one time when I’d rehearsed the psalm at home, over and over until I knew it quite well. When it’s time, I climb the steps to the ambo. The pianist begins playing and I freeze. She played something different! I know that my eyes got huge as I stood there in shock.
I shook it off, then sang the psalm I’d rehearsed, forcing the pianist to adapt.
Over the years my taste in music has expanded. I love country, but I also love Christian and some contemporary pop. I am not a fan of classical unless one of my grandkids is playing it. And I definitely never thought I’d like rap until I saw the musical Hamilton.
Looking back, I can see the important role that music had played in my life. It calmed me when times were tough. It brought solace when I was down. It lifted me up when my spirits were sagging. Most importantly, it showed me that I could sing. That my voice was strong enough, sure enough that I could stand before my congregation and lead them in song.
I don’t listen to as much music now as I did in my younger years, but it’s always there in my mind, in my heart.
The journey to get here was long and at times challenging. I am grateful to the boy who took me to dances. To the teacher who saw how terrified I was. To the choir member who encouraged me. To all the various choir directors I worked with over the years who saw in me what I still struggle to see: that I could bring joy to others through my voice.