When I was about nine years old, I was a member of an organization called the Falcons. We were Socialist youths under twelve. We wore blue shirts and red kerchiefs. We met once a week (or was it once a month?). To the tune of "Maryland, My Maryland," we sang:
The workers' flag is deepest red
it shrouded oft our martyred dead.
With the Socialist ending, not the Communist one, we sang the "Internationale." We were warned that we would be tempted to sing the Communist ending, because at our occasional common demonstrations there were more of them singing. They would try, with their sneaky politics, to drown us out.
At our meetings we learned about real suffering, which was due to the Great Depression through which we were living that very year. Of course many of my friends already had this information. Their fathers weren't working. Their mothers had become so grouchy you couldn't ask them for the least little thing. Every day in our neighborhood there were whole apartments, beds, bureaus, kitchen tables out on the street. We understood that this was because of capitalism, which didn't care that working people had no work and no money for rent.
We also studied prejudice--now known as racism. Prejudice was particularly sad, since it meant not liking people for no reason at all, except the color of their skin. That color could happen to anyone if they'd been born to some other parents on another street. We ourselves had known prejudice--well, not us exactly. In Europe, that godforsaken place, our parents and grandparents had known it well. From a photograph over my grandmother's bed, my handsome uncle, killed at seventeen because of prejudice, looked calmly at me when I sought him for reminder's sake. Despite its adherence to capitalism, prejudice, and lynching, my father said we were lucky to be here in this America. We sometimes sang "America the Beautiful" at our meetings. Parents were divided on that.
At each meeting we paid 5 [cts.] or 10 [cts.]--not so much to advance Socialism as to be able to eat cookies at four o'clock. One day at cookie-eating time, our comrade counselor teacher, a young woman about eighteen years old, announced that we were going to do a play. There would be a party, too. It would include singing and maybe dancing. We began to rehearse immediately. She had been thinking about all this for a couple of weeks. The idea had matured into practical action.
Our play was simple, a kind of agitprop in which a father comes home; he says, "Well, Sarah, the shop closed down today. No more work! And without warning!" The mother is in despair. How to feed the children! The children's breakfast bowls are empty. Some boys carry the furniture (lots of chairs from the meeting room) out to the hall. Eviction! In the second act, neighbors meet to drag the furniture back, proving working-class solidarity. They then hold a rally and march to City Hall at the back of the room, singing the "Internationale" all the way. The event would have to take place in the evening after supper in case some father or mother still had a job.
I was one of the little empty-bowl children. Every day after school I worked in the bathroom mirror at the creation of a variety of heartrending expressions. But my sweetest contribution would be the song
One dark night when we were all in bed
Old mother Leary took a candle to the shed
and when the cow tipped it over
she winked her eye and said
There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight.
This song had been chosen to show we had fun, too; our childhood was being respected.
Before supper that important night, I decided to sing for my mother. When I finished, she said gently, lovingly, "Gracie darling, you can't sing. You know you can't hold the tune. The teacher in school, she even said you were a listener. Try again--a little softer..."
"I can so sing," I said. "I was picked. I wouldn't of been picked if I couldn't sing." I sang the song once more.
"No no," my mother said. "That girl Sophie, Mrs. Greenberg's Sophie? She has no idea. She has no ear. Maybe deaf even. No no, you can't sing. You'll make a fool of yourself. People will laugh. For Sophie maybe, the more laughing the better."
"I don't care. I have to go. I have to go in a half hour. I have two parts."
"What? And I'm supposed to sit in the audience and see how your feelings are hurt when they laugh at you. When Papa hears--well, he wouldn't go anyway. That Sophie, she's just a kid herself."
"But, Mama, I have to go."
"No no," she said. "No. You're not going. Just to be a fool. They'll have to figure out what to do."
Guiltless but full of shame, I never returned to the Falcons. In fact, in sheer spite I gave up my work for Socialism for at least three years.
Fifty years later I told my sister this story. She said, "I can't believe that of Mama--that she would prevent you from singing--especially if you had an obligation. She wasn't like that."
Well, I had developed a kind of class analysis, an explanation which I think is pretty accurate. Our parents, remarkable people, were also a couple of ghetto Jews struggling with hard work and intensive education up the famous American ladder. At a certain rung in that ladder during my childhood they appeared to have climbed right into the professional middle class. At that comfortable rung (probably upholstered), embarrassed panic would be the response to possible exposure.
"Exposure to what? What are you talking about?" my sister asked. "You forget, really. Mama had absolutely perfect pitch. For a person like that, your wandering all over the scale must have been torture. I mean real physical pain. To her, you were just screeching. In fact," my sister said, "although you've improved, you still sound that way to me."
My sister has continued to be fourteen years older than I. Neither of us has recovered from that hierarchical fact. So I said, "Okay, Jeanne."
But she had not--when she was nine--been a political person and she had never been a listener. She took singing lessons, then sang. She and my brother practiced the piano like sensible children. In fact, in their eighties they have as much musical happiness in their fingertips as in their heads.
As for my mother--though I had no ear and clearly could not sing, she thought I might try the piano. After all, we had one. There were notes on paper inside a nice yellow book that said Inventions by Bach on its cover. Since I was a big reader, I might be able to accomplish something. I had no gift. That didn't mean I must be a deprived person. Besides, why had the Enlightenment poured its seductive light all across the European continent right into the poor endangered households of Ukrainian Jews? Probably, my mother thought, so that a child, any child (even a tone-deaf one), could be given a chance despite genetic deficiency to become, in my mother's embarrassed hopeful world, a whole person.