When I was just a girl, I used to look for the first star every night to make my solemn wish. From outside the living room window or on the front sidewalk of apartment B-4 at Sherbrook Apartments, I would cast my gaze heavenward and dream aloud the wishing star mantra, “Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” Every night it was the same wish. An eight year-old with cat-eye glasses, long braids, and pigeon toes despite the orthopedic saddle shoes my parents paid way too much money for, I didn’t dream of being pretty like my rich, blonde cousins Tammy or Becky. I didn’t dream of getting an Easy-Bake Oven like my friends at school had either, and I didn’t even want a cute little monkey like my brother’s kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Meizenger had for a pet. My seven year-old self had one wish and one thing I thought I could do well, and it was this wish that kept me looking to the skies every night during my formative years. “I want to sing!” I would whisper with faith and fervency to the first glimmer of that glorious and powerful wishing star. “I want to sing!”
I knew that singers were usually beautiful, and I didn’t think any of them were pigeon-toed and wore cat-eye glasses, so I figured I just had to practice harder to become better at it. I remember singing over and over until my lungs ached, and my head was dizzy from falling back on my mom and dad’s big bed, rehearsing what I was sure would be my signature tune, “You can trust your car to the man who wears the star, the big, bright Texaco star!”
I practiced a lot, not just the Texaco jingle, but church songs, campfire songs, and even the songs I learned in school. I got a two-line solo in the Christmas concert, singing the first verse of, “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” and bringing the rest of the chorus in for the refrain with my rousing, “Oh-oh!” But my dad was tired that night, so he wasn’t there to see the concert. A few months later, while seated next to my brother, Joe, in the back seat of our family’s blandly beige 1964 Ford Galaxie 500, my mom asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. My brother, the firstborn and a son to boot, said exactly what every Roman Catholic parent wants to hear, “I want to be a priest.” The gasps of delight were instantaneous and the praise hearty. When the applause died down and Mom asked me what I wanted to be, I was confident. “I want to be a singer.” The car became so silent it was as if I’d instantly lost my hearing. Then my father’s booming laugh filled the cab of the car as he said, “You? You want to be a singer with that shrill, squeaky, high voice of yours? Guess again, kid!” And to my mom he repeated, incredulously, “She wants to be a singer!”
My dad was a man of few words, and even fewer specifically directed at me – the girl child. Hearing him mock my one and only dream in life felt almost the way I’d felt when I stuck my sweaty, small fingers into the light socket while playing with the nightlight one night. And, like the jolt of shame I’d felt from the light socket that I never dared speak of to my parents who might punish me for playing with the nightlight instead of sleeping, I was instantly shocked into silence. For years I didn’t want to open my mouth and sing – even at church where my mom told us that you should sing louder to give God back whatever gifts He’d chosen to give you. If I sang, I only did it when absolutely no one was around, like when I walked through the field behind the apartment house and stood near, but not too near the railroad tracks so I could sing full-throated and without fear of retribution when the rumbling train chugged by.
And it wasn’t just my singing that was silenced that day in the back seat of the beige Ford. I’d been practicing writing, too, because Mrs. Huttleston had said I was a good writer. But if I couldn’t sing, then maybe I couldn’t write either, and Mrs. Huttleston might have just been being polite telling me she liked reading my stories. She was, after all, a good Catholic, and she’d been my brother’s teacher first, so she probably just wanted to make sure she stayed in good with the family, so my brother would pray for her when he became a priest. I stopped writing, too, and I even stopped wishing on the first star. What was the point?
Years later, the family moved to a new town, and I was invited to join the Frolickers, an exclusive group of the best girl singers in the school. But the group rehearsed at the same time as Beginning Band, and my dad said that I had to play the clarinet in band instead because singing wasn’t going to do anything for me. Besides, he’d paid a lot of money for that stupid instrument, and Joe had already given up the saxophone they’d bought for him, so I was going to play that clarinet whether I liked it or not. I did play, and I didn’t like it.
My brother never did become a priest. He tried, believe me. He was accepted into a seminary college, and there was a huge graduation party when he finished high school, and my parents were too busy getting him ready for school and attending his parents’ weekends to come to any of my school concerts and plays. I did start singing again; I even had my dad’s blessing, sort of. The church needed someone to sing for the Folk Mass on Saturday evenings, so one Christmas, since my brother had proven himself to be unreliable with musical instruments, I received a small, Harmony guitar. I found a book of music and taught myself to play chords, and soon I was the free, passable guitarist and singer for Masses every weekend. I don’t ever remember my dad telling me I sang well, and even though plenty of other people did, I never believed they were being anything other than polite. Even when I was chosen as a member of the All-State Chorus, a feat that was deemed practically impossible for a girl in those days, my parents didn’t want to make the trip for the concert. After all, my brother had been chosen the previous year, and they’d already gone to his concert, hadn’t they?
Despite not being able to move my dad with my musical abilities and my voice, which some actually said was heavenly, I kept singing. The farther from my family I moved, the more confident I became in my own singing, and the louder and stronger my voice became. Though I was the first non-music major selected for an exclusive choir at my small college, my parents didn’t want to drive three hours to come hear me sing when all they had to do was go to church for that. Besides, brother Joe was having trouble in the seminary, and it was really more important that they go to his parents’ weekend activities instead. The opportunity for a parents’ weekend would never come again; Joe was kicked out of the seminary for smoking weed, and I ran out of money and couldn’t return to college until many years later, as an employee.
Somewhere in all the disappointments, I lost my voice – not literally, but figuratively. I could still belt out a song and change the temperature in the room simply by the way I sang, but if the people that really mattered weren’t interested in hearing it, why would anyone else want to hear me sing? Almost overnight, I turned into that eight year-old, sitting in the back seat of the beige Ford, watching my dreams melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. I gave up singing and dreaming and decided it was time to settle for a life without music and the mystery of navigating the sharps and flats.
Giving up my voice meant giving it to someone else and becoming a reflection instead of standing in the spotlight. And when my alcoholic husband wanted to hurt me the most, he would aim the glasses he threw at me towards my throat or encourage a fight that would leave me hoarse and unable to speak for days. How fitting that what finally prompted me to leave an abusive relationship was a series of, what else, voice mails, that threatened my life and rendered me speechless and afraid to come out of the shadows for weeks.
My twenties may have been the decade when I lost my voice, but the end of that decade brought with it independence and the offer of a job as a disc jockey at a radio station. The girl whose voice had been too screechy and high for my dad to imagine as a singer was soon waking up the Seven Valleys of New York State as “Weekend Wendy – Bright Eyed and Bushy Haired,” and was soon voicing ski reports for the entire state. Slowly, but surely, the girl who’d given up her voice was learning to speak again. It was only a matter of time before she tilted her head back to the evening sky and wished upon the evening star for a chance to sing.
When that chance came, the first few notes were wobbly as a child’s first steps, but by the time the first verse was over, more than a few of the audience members looked up from their drinks to see where all that power was coming from. And, while my dad didn’t want to come out to hear his daughter sing in public; after all, he’d had to listen to me in church for all those years, I simply stepped outside the building a few minutes before the show was scheduled to start, and I looked up to find that beautiful, shimmering first star.
“Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may. I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” I breathed deeply and sucked in the chilly winter air. “I wish I could sing. Sing loud. Sing soulful. Sing in a way that makes people cry and want to dance and sing along. I may not ever be the Texaco Star girl, but dear wishing star, I have this moment, and I have my wish, and I have my wishing star. I promise you and I promise me, I will never allow someone to steal my voice again. I want to sing and soar until I have no vocal cords left to make a sound. And when that happens, I still won’t have lost my voice because I’ve learned that I can express myself with words and on paper, and I can change lives, my own and others, by not being afraid to use my words. Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish for all little girls who are told their voices are squeaky and high that they won’t believe it the way I did. I pray they’ll just open their mouths and sing louder, stronger, and with more passion. And most of all, I wish and hope that they will find a way to believe in themselves and always use their words and their voice to show the world their power and to celebrate the beautiful and exquisite creatures they are.”
And as the other stars began to flicker in the darkening night sky, I walked back inside with shiny eyes and a full heart and began to sing.