My life’s one great frustration
Now well into the eighth decade of my life, with radio music and old books to keep me company most of the week, I think of my one great frustration—my inability to sing without going out of tune.
Then I recall that incident in 1932 when the Philippines was still a colony of the United States. My family was then living on Corregidor Island, then a part of the province of Cavite. After the Mass, we children were gathered by the Maryknoll sisters to be trained to sing in the choir. I recall a Maryknoll sister telling us earlier: “Your prayers will be doubly heard by the Omnipotent if you sing your ‘Pater Noster.’” So I readily joined the group.
From the choir loft that could be reached through a winding staircase at the back of St. Joseph’s Church and through the balusters, I could see the whole length of pews leading to the altar where we could hear the Irish priest, Father MacKenna, with his back toward us, intone the “Dominus vobiscum, oremus” and other Latin prayers.
With the huge foreign nun singing, then guiding us with her arms and head swaying this way and that, and at times cupping an ear to hear our small voices more clearly, I sang at first in a quivering voice; then, as loud as the joyful voices of the group, I sang the “Kyrie eleison.” The sister cupped an ear, ordered a repeat, and another. Then she stopped and pointed a finger at me: “You! Out of the group!”
Later, after so many words accompanied with just as many hand and arm gestures, the nun told me I could not join the choir because I was sin tonado—tone-deaf. With a discordant voice, I could not hold on to a note. No wonder then that my childish thoughts wandered, and my “Pater Noster” never reached the heavens, even though I had fervently prayed, “Dear Lord, I’m not asking for a voice like Deanna Durbin’s, only a voice that does not go awry.”
As if to compensate for my utter lack of singing voice—a big deal for me then—I would find out decades later that I had married into a family of music lovers. I discovered that my husband, Bernard, had been a choir boy in his church in Ermita, Manila, and could play the piano by ear. No wonder then that our babies drifted off to sleep faster when cuddled in his arms as he sang a lullaby or crooned the song “Danny Boy.”
When I earned my professorial status in college teaching—I handled comparative literature and the humanities—alas, I discovered that although I may have mastered the theoretical bases of the other arts in the humanities, I could not do much in music. So I called upon my youngest son, Jimi, already a classical pianist, to take over my class; he knew not only the theoretical musical terms but could demonstrate a falsetto, or a tremolo, and could distinguish a tenor from a basso profundo. For his fee? Hah, not my hour’s compensation but a free lunch in the college canteen!
Once when I had a chance to talk of my life’s one frustration to my other son, Gilbert, who must have done some readings on reincarnation, he told me something which somehow assuaged but not erased the frustration. Besides noting with a rather sly humor that I must be a new soul because I was not street-smart, he said: “Your former soul must have been in a body of a musician of note, or a great singer who must have made a great mistake or committed a grave misdemeanor in the music world. So you were sent back to be reborn and go through a retribution of sorts, like a great desire to sing but equipped with frozen vocal chords, or being tone-deaf trying hard to use the conductor’s baton. Now what is that I hear, Tchaikovsky or just ‘Indian love song?’”
Be that as it may, I’d rather heed the advice of my daughter, Georgina: “Ma, when you feel like you want to sing but your frozen vocal chords won’t cooperate, or you are trying hard to thump on that percussion thing, go get your pen and push it to sing for you.”
So now this pen-pusher sits back, to stave off hunger not of the stomach but of the heart—loneliness, without the need for Nietzsche to remind us, “[W]ithout music, life would be a mistake.” Then I listen and keep thumping to music over the radio, and try even to lip-sync with that foreign singer Eartha Kitt singing our Filipino native song “Waray, waray.”
Now a widow who stopped counting after I reached my 81st candle some years back—maybe five or six—I live alone with house helpers in Tagaytay City in Cavite. And my children, all having carved their respective niches in their own generation and upbeat world, would come up to visit once in a great while to buy me my favorite fruits, like the mango.
Ester Vallado Daroy, PhD, taught comparative literature and the humanities at De La Salle University in Manila. She has written short stories, essays and a novel.
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