In the movies, I’m at my dying aunt’s bedside, a band of loving cousins surrounding me. I’m singing a song she used to sing with my mother and other aunts and uncles a long, long time ago. When they’d sit around the kitchen table, harmonizing, laughing and simply embracing life. And I, a little girl, would sit on rotating laps, listening or trying to sing along.
[Me at 5, singing with my family.]
In the movies, when I sing this old song to my dying aunt, there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house. When I finished, she’d lovingly touch my hand and whisper, “I’m so proud of you, Bethy."
In the movies, after she died, it would propel me to work harder, to take what I learned from my upbringing and blaze my own trail, kinda like Coal’s Miner Daughter. Wild success would follow and when I accepted my first Grammy, I’d thank my aunt. And I’d get choked up, which would only endear me to the public that much more.
But life is not like the movies…again.
I know, I know. It rarely is. That reality check has been delivered to my table time and time again, thank you very much. But sometimes, I’d like to catch a fleeting glimpse of that dreamy Technicolor world before reality smashes through my screen yet again.
In reality, I’m at my dying aunt’s bedside, a band of loving cousins surrounding me. I’m singing a song she used to sing with my mother and other aunts and uncles a long, long time ago.
In reality, earlier that morning, I worked on one of those old tunes so I could make her happy during her dying hours. Hoping desperately I wouldn’t cry when I sang it, I gave it my best shot, while sitting on her bed. She sang with me a little and filled in the words when my mind went blank from grief and sadness.
In reality, when I was done, the room was silent, with one cousin sniffling in the background. (So far, so good. Kind of movie-like, right?)
Then my aunt, with her eyes closed and a weak smile on her face said:
“You never really did much with that voice of yours, did you?”
In reality, I laughed. I laughed at the inappropriateness of her response. The timing. The incidental cruelty of it.
“You know what your problem is, Bethy?”
“You start things and then you just go phhhtttt.”
“Aunt, you don’t really know about anything I do. I’ve been performing and creating for a long time now. And I….”
And I went on to explain the myriad of ways I’ve “succeeded” that would fit her limited mental picture of success. The weird little TV show I produced with a band of amazingly creative friends, the years of fun and freaky experimental theater, my online writing success, my band, my extensive choir work. But somehow I knew she didn’t quite conceive it because she hadn’t seen me on American Idol or Dancing with the Stars.
On a bad day, I wonder if I buy my own story. So hard it is, to be an artist. Nobody really understands your stupid little path, including yourself at times. And unless you’re part of the 1% that succeeds, you’re forced to cling to some fading bohemian dream, insistent that it must mean something, right? Right? That it matters to express yourself. On a bad day, it seems like an act of great futility and grand self-delusion.
On a good day? On a good day, you believe in yourself more than anyone could because you’re forced to; there's little to no external validation to bolster this search. You begin to express yourself not for recognition or notoriety (because you’ve given up on that ego trip a long time ago) but because, like a real artist, you feel you must.
You are your own rock god and super hero. You become star-struck, even if it's just for one fleeting moment, with yourself.
Even you can’t imagine you could reach such depths. It's well-earned self-respect that no one will ever be able to take with a careless comment. Ever.
In reality, my aunt died. And she’s not a bad person. She actually cared deeply about my "success" and my creative abilities. She did believe in me somewhere amidst her limited perception.
At least I’d like to believe that. That's how the movie ends in my mind.
The song I sang to my aunt:
Karaoke as Cheap Therapy