Monday, July 12, 2010

My Dog Spot

I’ve always been skeptical of those financial articles that estimate how much it costs to raise a child. I wonder if they’ve really thought through everything that ends up getting purchased over a parenting lifetime. For example, does this estimate include batteries or Band-Aids? Those items have separate lines items on the budget around here. What about Barbies? With or without Dream Houses? And birthday party gifts? That’s another thousand or two right there, even if you don’t pay the extra dollar for the Creative Kidstuff giftwrap.

Looking back at the outlay over the past fifteen years, it’s easy to identify the biggest and most wasted expense. Lessons. Any parent of modest financial means knows how hard it is to say no to the little darling who suddenly must have guitar lessons, or karate lessons, or ice skating lessons, or whatever. Equipment is bought, class times are written on the calendar, and the long trudge to mediocrity begins, enlivened only by the inevitable team “banquet” (there’s a misnomer for you) or interminable recital. I’ve sat outside countless practice studios and athletic fields in my day, hours ticking by and my butt spreading on the plastic seating, while my children engaged in pursuits in which they never, even after years of practice, demonstrated even a minimal level of proficiency.

In other words: The lessons were paid for, but nobody learned anything.

Which is why I was numb to the whole process by the time Mary Katherine declared that private voice lessons were going to be in order, and soon. True, she’s been singing, pretty much nonstop, since she arrived on planet Earth for her current incarnation. Each morning her little infant pipes would greet the dawn with a set of sweet warbles. When she could walk, she realized that a half step up to the dining room was, in fact, a stage, and she began to mount an unending series of productions that might best be called simply “Mary Katherine! The Musical.”

I’d grown so used to hearing her singing voice that I realized I was unable to form an opinion about its quality. It was just part of the whole Mary Katherine Package, and I’d never thought to consider that it be an actual talent, let alone one that required private lessons.

So she started working with a voice teacher.

And it worked.

The first inkling came about a month after she started taking lessons. We were all hanging out and doing homework when she began to sing something called “Beautiful Candy.” But, like, she really sang it. With volume and diction and the whole works. Emma and I stared at each other in amazement. Could Mary Katherine actually be, well, talented?

She kept up with the weekly lessons, and she kept getting better. After years of watching my children’s progress charts consist solely of flatlines, I began to see an upward trajectory, with each week bringing a new level of achievement.

Hold on, there, cowgirl, I told myself. There’s still the recital to be gotten through. Sure, she sounds great in the kitchen, but put her in front of an audience and she could start honking like a goose. I decided to reserve judgment (a new thing for me; it was kind of fun, really).

Recital day dawned and we gathered at the studio. Emma, who maintains a primary residence in Sporty World, gaped at the assembled performers as if they were from another planet. When a teacher suggested to the singers that they step into a private room to start “vocalizing,” Emma turned to me for a translation. “It’s like warming up before the game, doing some stretches and drooling.”

Long stare. “It’s ‘dribbling,’ Mom, not ‘drooling.’”

I went back to my crossword puzzle.

We filed in. The first singers grimly made it to the last bar of their songs, dignity relatively intact. Then it was time for Mary Katherine’s first number, “Now is the Month of May.” Old, English, heavy on the fa la las. Halfway through, it was clear that she had forgotten all the words to the next verse. Without skipping a beat, she filled the vacuum with a megawatt smile and an endearing little shrug. The kid did everything but wink. The audience chuckled. She finished. Not bad, I thought.

More singers. Her next song. She positioned herself in front of the crowd and, before giving her starting nod to the pianist, she did that smile thing again, giving the crowd a look that managed to be confident, funny and endearing, all at once. It seemed to say, “I’ll probably forget some lyrics this time too, but don’t worry, we’ll have fun together.”

“My Dog Spot” is not generally what you’d generally call a crowd-pleaser, but she killed with it. Suddenly I was seeing little gestures and shoulder wiggles that I’d never seen before. She must have picked them up in her former life as a Big Band singer. She seemed to be having so much fun, and, by the end of that silly little tune, so were we.

She had two more numbers after that, and each time she came up, you could feel the crowd collectively moving forward in their seats. They loved her. I thought about that. Other people loved her, not just her relatives. The best part, for me, was that all the things I had seen over the years, all the joy and goodness that radiated from this little person, were clearly available for others to appreciate. It seems to be an immutable law of the universe that You Can’t Not Love Mary Katherine, and the crowd was ready to obey.

When the recital was over, I was speechless, which is not my usual state of being. But all I could do was hold her close and kiss the top of her head and whisper, “good job” in her ear.

I had, finally, gotten my money’s worth.

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