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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Voice Lessons

A Sisters Story

Cara Mentzel; Foreword by My Big Sister Idina Menzel

St. Martin's Press

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

Lesson 1

HOW TO BREATHE


Dina—that’s what I called her then—was nearly seven years old, and I was three. We sat facing each other across a couple of feet of dirt, surrounded by crunchy fall leaves. The weather had turned crisp as autumn inched its way toward winter, and Mom had dressed us in turtlenecks—red and pink, with jeans and loose pigtails, our hair fuzzy around our foreheads the way it always was after a good night’s sleep. With imaginations as vivid as our shirts, we pretended we were witches making a potion.

“Pass me that pebble,” Dina said. I hopped up and grabbed the pebble. When I gave her the stone she dropped it into the dirt in front of us. Then she scraped a thin layer of sand into her hand and let it fall onto the pile as if her closed fist were the narrow neck of an hourglass.

“Now all we need is a big spoon to mix it,” she told me. I looked around and spotted a twig the length of a magic wand.

“I got it!” I shouted. I uncrossed my legs and bolted toward the twig, then returned with it.

“Perfect,” she said. Her approval sent a happy wiggle through my belly. She took the stick and moved it through the dirt in slow circles, her eyes fixed on the potion, my eyes fixed on her. She began to whisper, and her voice, a soothing spell, grew steadily louder.

“Ree-ma-ta-din, Ree-ma-ta-din,” she chanted over and over, and then set the stick down beside her. She reached into the pile of dirt and scooped up a small handful.

“Here,” she said, lifting her upturned palm to my chin, the dirt a tiny present. “Taste it.” My eyes widened. But not because I was afraid. I wasn’t worried. I wanted to eat it. I wanted to play my part, to please my big sister. I looked up at her, spellbound. I dabbed my tongue gently into her hand and tasted the dirt. I smiled.

I met Dina on August 12, 1974, the day I was born. She looked in my eyes and smiled, so I’m told. She kissed me. She held me on her little lap, close. She loved me.

Two weeks later I stopped breathing. My mother found me in my crib. I wasn’t blue, just pale and silent and still—too still, no rise and fall of my chest. She lifted me and hit me on the back—nothing. Again harder, again nothing. She laid me on my back, opened my tiny mouth, and placed a single finger down my throat. She withdrew her finger and with it thick and slippery strands of clear mucus. I took a breath. I wailed.

I was barely eight pounds when I arrived at the hospital, coughing. Short quick coughs, one on top of the other, each one quieter than the one before it, until I was empty and silent. Suffocating. Waiting and waiting on that next breath. Then, a gasping squeal. Only to cry or begin the litany again.

The doctors and nurses strapped me to a table and took X-rays. They splayed me like a chicken from the butcher and took blood from every possible vein, even in my groin—Dad fainted. They put tubes down my throat, up my nose. And they jammed instruments down my airway.

But as Mom tells the story, sometimes the doctors and nurses didn’t do anything. They ignored my cries, my choking, and she was the one, day and night, who cleared my throat and watched me suffer.

Mom was by my side constantly, rarely sleeping. Dad was between work, the hospital, and shuffling Dina, only three and half years old, to family or friends’ homes. An uncle was probably pulling a quarter out of her ear.

There was more coughing. More gagging. More blood. More needles. My trachea, narrower than a standard pencil, was bloody, bruised, torn. And a sterile packaged scalpel waited, like a threat, on a sterile tray next to the sterile makeshift oxygen tent where I lay. Tracheotomy?

They told Mom and Dad I had a newborn cough.

I continued to cough and wail, a raspy, rattling cry. Day, night. Day and night.

They changed the diagnosis. I had cystic fibrosis. If I lived, it would probably be until I was twenty or twenty-one years old.

They changed the diagnosis again. No longer did I have cystic fibrosis. Instead, my mother was a “nervous” mother and I had a “nervous” cough. They urged her to take Valium. She refused.

“We’re done here,” Mom finally said to the doctors. “I’m not letting my daughter die here.”

“You can’t take her out of the hospital,” they insisted. “We’ll file an injunction.”

“I don’t give a shit,” Mom replied.

There was a rescue mission. Our neighborhood had a rescue squad saddled with the task of ensuring neighborhood safety. In the name of safety, they agreed to shuttle me to a new hospital. Mom bundled me up. She walked down a hall past an army of giant egos. She walked down another hall. Entered the elevator. Entered the lobby. Walked out the doors and met three burly firefighters and their ambulance. She handed me to them and they helped her into the back. Dad pulled his car up next to them. He’d drive in tandem.

A nurse, a nun, at the new hospital met Mom and Dad at the entrance; Mom was holding me in her arms.

“Mrs. Mentzel,” she said. “If Cara so much as yawns, we’ll be there. I promise.”

Mom and Dad cried. The nurse reached for me. “It’s safe to sleep now,” she said to them. “Your daughter is going to live.”

I hadn’t seen my sister in ten days. She’d barely seen Mom or Dad. A close family friend was probably fanning out a deck of cards in front of her, “Pick a card, any card,” she’d be saying.

They had an accurate diagnosis within twenty-four hours. I had pertussis—whooping cough. Mom had it when I was born, but didn’t know. There were twelve hundred cases in the New Jersey metro area that year.

I hadn’t seen my sister in a month. Finally, I went home—we all went home. My sister and I were together again. She looked into my eyes and smiled, so I’m told. She kissed me. She held me in a rocking chair, close. She loved me.

Home had changed for my sister. Mom was on high alert. Was Cara still breathing? Did Cara cough? Mom hunted every germ in my surroundings and wouldn’t let my sister have friends over. “Don’t touch the baby,” Mom would say. “Wash your hands first.” “Be careful with your sister.” “Can you go check on your sister?”

Back then I guess I was the center of attention, but not in the same way as other babies, who go home from the hospital and their older siblings have to step aside a bit. I was the center of attention because I was sick. Because fighting the whoop was all I knew, and even when it was gone it left me weak in its wake. My family was in a perpetual state of fear over losing me. And though I can’t be certain, I suspect my sister also feared being left again.

It took nearly a year for me to fully recover. And by then illness was more familiar to me than health. I’d become Cara so little, Cara so weak.

Cara so fragile.

Cara who needs to be rescued.

But every new experience was an opportunity to tip the scales back toward health. By the time I was one, I’d played on a Florida beach with my big sister in the moist ocean air. I’d giggled and gurgled and squealed and watched her do her big-sis magic, building castles on the shore. I would need Dina, her and her magic.

* * *

In my earliest years, my family lived in New Jersey, but it wasn’t long before Dina and I were making potions out of Long Island dirt instead of New Jersey’s finest. Dad worked in New York City’s Garment District selling little-girls’ pajamas. Our dresser drawers overflowed with them. But Dad’s commute was over two hours, and moving to Long Island would cut that time in half.

Our new house—Mom called it a town house—was located in Woodbury. It stood side by side with white, gray, brown, and brick homes, all shoved together like kids in a class photo. We went to see it one day when it was still under construction. I stood in the center of its bare skeleton and looked around. Instead of walls there were vertical slats of wood every two feet or so. There were no windows and yet I could see the sky. There were no doors and yet Mom pointed to rooms. My new house appeared to be made of life-size Tinkertoys and the thought made me curl my toes inside my sneakers.

“Dina, this is your room,” Mom said, motioning to the left. “And, Cara, right next door is yours.” Our two rooms looked like one giant one and I imagined our toys on the floor, our blankets on the beds, our clothes folded in piles on a dresser—I breathed a sigh of relief as I stared at the stage for what I believed would be one big, shared childhood.

Dina and I explored the house. We dared to walk through “walls” and jump over stacks of two-by-fours piled on the floor.

“Where are we now?” Dina shouted over to Mom, who, apparently, was in the master bedroom.

“You’re in the bathroom,” Mom answered.

“The bathroom!” Dina repeated and her eyes lit up.

“The bathroom!” I copied. We read each other’s minds and simultaneously pretended to sit on potties. We made potty jokes. We were giddy. When Dina reached for imaginary toilet paper and turned around to “flush,” I squealed.

We were on the top floor of a house that seemed to stand on stilts. There were no comforts of home, no sidewalks or bicycles, no friends, no memories. I could have been afraid. I could have been lonely. But I wasn’t, because fear and loneliness were fleeting when I was with Dina. I loved to hear her say, “Cara, over here!” as she called me to her. I loved when she bossed me around. I knew that one day soon she’d push me down that new street on my Hot Wheels and shout, “Don’t drag your feet, lift them up so you’ll go faster!” I knew she’d pull me by my hand down the block, and carry our money to the ice cream truck. I knew she’d call for me, shout at me, push me and pull me, because I was hers and she was mine. I may not have been able to picture where the rooms in that house began and ended, but I could picture Dina with me. And in that would-be bathroom, I could hear the make-believe flushing sound from our pretend pair of toilets, and see the water swirl down the white porcelain drain. I looked up at her as she spoke.

“Don’t forget to wash your hands,” she said and motioned over to the future sink.

It didn’t matter whether Dina fed me dirt or told me to wash it off my hands, I looked up to her. She took care of me, and I was happy to let her.

One night not long after we’d settled into the new place, a limousine pulled up in front of the house. I saw it from the kitchen window over the driveway. Dina came running downstairs and joined me. We both stared at the strange car. It was long and black and the size of our parents’ two cars put together. Mom had told us earlier that we needed to get dressed up for dinner in the city with Dad’s clients, but she never mentioned a limo. Dina and I wore matching black patent leather Mary Janes and the kind of kids’ tights that slacked at the crotch and needed to be pulled up every five minutes.

We flew down the stairs to the curb. A driver came around the car to open the door for us, but I beat him to it. I slid in and tried out all the seats. They were plush and cranberry colored, more like opposing couches, and I half expected a coffee table to emerge between them. Dina and I took seats that faced the rear because it was more exciting—the seats in our cars faced forward. Dad sat across from me and stretched his legs out in front of him. His feet were a size thirteen—large feet are a noteworthy Mentzel trait—and I reached my miniature foot toward the sole of his shoe. Dad had curly hair like mine, but it was dark brown like Dina’s. And he had a full beard. With his olive skin and blue eyes, my dad was good-looking, but with all that hair he learned to approach babies with caution, or he made them cry.

That night, like every night, Mom was put together perfectly. She was Farrah Fawcett with ash-blond hair feathered around her blushed cheeks. She wore a white silk halter top and full black slacks that swayed over her heels as she crossed her legs. She sat next to my dad, and placed her hand with its red fingernails on his thigh.

As excited as I was to be in a limo, I was annoyed that we were headed to dinner with Dad’s clients. They would tell me that I was cute, maybe even pull gently on one of my curls. We’d go to a fancy restaurant—the kind with cloth napkins instead of the paper napkins I could blow my nose into. I’d wish I could eat dinner under the table with Dina, but instead I’d try to be polite and yawn through my nose so no one would notice.

I was happy but confused when we ended up at the Hard Rock Café and Dad’s clients didn’t show. I was even happier when, after dinner, our limo pulled over to another city curb. There was an awkward pause while Dina and I scooted over to see where we were. Out the window was a crowd and over their heads was a large marquee.

“Surprise!” Mom said. “We’re going to see Peter Pan.

“Are Dad’s clients coming?” I asked.

“Nope,” Dad said and laughed.

Dina and I were confused. We spent a few extended seconds puzzled as we pieced the evening together.

It wasn’t until the limo driver came around and opened the door for us that I finally understood. We exited the car to the energy of an amusement park, to the brilliant colors and bright lights of Broadway. There were posters of a jubilant Sandy Duncan with her blond pixie cut, wearing green tights and shorts, her green vest and T-shirt, and her brown suede—let’s be honest—fanny pack around her waist. The posters hung against the building, each one like a supersize invitation to a party, the Peter Pan party.

Soon there were tickets, and then ushers and playbills inside a palatial theater brimming with children who, on any other night at that time, would have been in the bathtub. Mom leaned in to us. She pointed. “That’s the mezzanine,” she said. “Over there is the orchestra. In the very beginning, they’ll play the overture. There’s the set. See the letters and numbers on the seats…” She liked to bring our attention to things, never wanting us to miss anything, and I appreciated that about her. I also liked that Dad was nearby. I once overheard someone ask him if it bothered him that he didn’t have sons. “Never,” he said, simply. I twisted around in my seat, the velvet kind with a flippy bottom that my butt would sink through if I let it.

The theater grew darker and my eyes grew wider. The overture began with a few notes from the song “Never Never Land.” The music poured from the pit at the base of the stage and I wondered how all the musicians could fit down in that hole. The orchestra weaved through fragments of songs, but after a few minutes it became harder and harder for me to wait for the show to start. I looked at Dina, who stared expressionless at the stage, and wondered if she’d lost her patience with the overture as well.

It’s a tall feat to keep a theater full of children seated for over two hours unless the show is at least as fun as recess. Peter Pan was better. Nothing could beat the excitement of Peter when he slipped through the Darlings’ bedroom window and taught them how to fly. He sang, “I’m flying,” and bounced into the air. “I’m flying,” and hung above the stage, jumping and running and flapping his arms playfully. He didn’t fly prone with a furrowed brow like Superman. He didn’t fly for speed or with a sense of urgency. He flew for fun—no chores, no bedtime, and no school to weigh him down. Peter did what a theater packed with children dreamed of doing, what Wendy, Jon, and Michael Darling wished they could do, too. Then he grabbed a handful of fairy dust from his pouch and blew it onto the children. “Think lovely thoughts,” he told them. I can think lovely thoughts, I told myself. I want to fly.

I felt so much a part of the play that I might as well have been on the stage in my favorite footsie pajamas because I’d forgotten where I was and the limitations of my seat. I stood up, my hands gripping the top of the seat in front of me, as the Darlings swung high above the stage, back and forth like pendulums. Then, unexpectedly, Peter flew straight out from the stage over the audience, and there was a collective gasp—a collective joy. My mouth dropped open. I watched as Peter swung over my head with his arms spread wide. When I caught my breath, I noticed Dina was up on her feet, too, beaming, her head following Peter back and forth through the air. The two of us, delighted. The two of us, dazzled.

On the limo ride home, Dina and I rambled on about the show. I wanted to be Tinker Bell, which was a little strange because Tinker Bell was a tiny light that darted around the stage. Dina wanted to be Wendy, which was much more understandable. Wendy was pretty and precocious and had a starring role.

We were in one of over a hundred cars filled with children who had just left the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Children telling their parents how they wanted to be Peter, or Wendy, or even Tinker Bell, how they too wanted to fly and star on Broadway. But that night was different for us than it was for other families. That night we were the exception; one of us would eventually star in another fairy tale production on the Great White Way. Like the flying boy in green named Peter, one day Dina would become the flying green witch named Elphaba in Wicked.

Sometimes I think Dina must have come out of the womb belting “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” like Ethel Merman, but my mom tells me that wasn’t the case. “Actually, she cried like most babies.” If you asked my mom when she realized Dina could sing, she’d say that her dad, my grandpa Nat, knew first. He was the one to introduce Dina to her earliest make-believe audiences. She used to hide behind our black velvet couch with a toy reconditioned to look like a microphone.

“Introducing the ONE, the ONLY, Idina Mentzel!” he’d announce in much the same way one would announce the heavyweight champion of the world. Dina would hop up from behind the couch, her microphone in hand, her hair in disarray from “backstage,” and a big smile on her face.

But usually, when asked to pinpoint when they knew Dina could sing, and not just sing, but sing with a talent beyond that of her peers, Mom and Dad would tell you about the Brickman Hotel. The Brickman was a resort in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York, also known as the Jewish Alps or the Borscht Belt. The resort was part of a smattering of hotels in the area frequented by Jews in the 1970s, all of them so similar that they blur together in my memory. Typically, each had a golf course, swimming pool, tennis courts, often a pond with pedal boats, lawns dotted in goose shit, and, of course, a kids’ camp for parents who wanted to take a day off from parenting.

At camp there was lots of glue and sparkles, lanyard bracelets, and string tricks played with partners, like Cat’s Cradle. But one year there was a talent show for the older kids. They practiced all day, and their efforts culminated in an evening performance for their parents. They jumped rope, hula hooped, and sang and danced. And then it was Dina’s turn. She walked to the rounded edge of a small stage—perfect for a comedian and his bottle of water. She took her time and waited for the room to quiet. Then, with a thick Long Island accent and a vibrato unexpected for a seven-year-old, she began to sing a capella, and her voice stilled the room.

“The sun’ll come out, tomorrow…”

A few heads turned, as adults checked to see if anyone else was noticing what they were hearing. Dina continued, louder, forcing all eyes back toward her.

“You’re always a day away…” she finished, and a stunned room clapped. A couple of people stood up, and according to Mom, one guy even shouted, “Encore!” When Dina sang she was captivating. Her voice was beautiful, but it was also big—several times bigger than what was expected from her gangly, forty-pound stature. And her voice had power. Even though she was only seven years old, about as mature as her newly forged front teeth, her voice had the emotional depth, tone, and timbre to really move people. That night, the first of countless audience-rousing performances, Mom and Dad understood their daughter in a way they hadn’t before. Lots of little girls sang, but Dina didn’t just sing, she was a singer.

Unlike my mom and dad, I don’t have a singular experience to point to and say, “That’s when I knew my sister was a singer,” or, “That’s when I knew she’d be famous.” There was no beginning to singing. Dina always sang, we sang. We played and we sang and often at the same time. As long as I was with Dina, I didn’t know there was a difference between the two.

The Annie album was a fixture in our childhood. The record jacket was bright red with large white bubble letters centered in the middle that read “Annie.” Against the “i” stood a cute girl in a red-and-white dress, with curly blond hair and her arms folded across her chest. (Later I’d come to know her as the Little Orphan Annie with signature red locks.) We listened to that album over and over until we knew almost every word to “It’s the Hard-knock Life.” We sang full-throttle, loud enough to drown out the music.

Once we saw the show on Broadway, images from the performance added fervor to our at-home renditions. We crawled around and pretended to scrub the floor with clumsy sponges and metal buckets. I liked to play Molly, the youngest girl in the orphanage. I sang with a pout, “Santa Claus we never see,” and Dina replied, “Santa Claus, what’s that, who’s he?” We sang and made up the words we couldn’t quite make out. Instead of “It’s a hard-knock row we hoe,” we sang, “It’s a hard-knock life you know.” But the words didn’t matter as much as the jumping around and singing. As much as the choreography and histrionics. As much as the pretending and the way we felt the story through the songs. Maybe Mom was talking on the phone in the kitchen and Dad was downstairs watching the football game, but that didn’t mean Miss Hannigan wasn’t in the house, too, ready to bust through the bedroom door and startle us. Singing was a way to make myself feel bigger, to imagine I was being seen. When I sang I felt significant. When I sang, I was with—and like—Dina.

I came to understand Dina’s talent in the same way a portrait is drawn, one line, one curve at a time: one performance for family and friends in front of the couch, one repeated verse sung from the bathroom, until eventually her likeness stared at me from the stage.

Mr. Roper was the music teacher at Baylis Elementary School. He was a scrawny, graying man always equipped with a conductor’s wand or a plastic recorder, and perpetually ready to lead classes in a clunky rendition of “Three Blind Mice” at the drop of a hat. Every year, with his piano and, I suspect, a bottle of ibuprofen for the inevitable headache, he directed the fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders in a musical. He cast Dina as the lead in each production: Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance in fourth grade, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz in fifth grade, and Laurey Williams in Oklahoma! in sixth grade.

Dina was waiting back in the music room when we found our seats for the production of her first big performance, The Pirates of Penzance. Mom made sure we got there early to claim our seats in the front row. I sat on a metal folding chair among many others placed in straight lines across the gymnasium floor. In front of me was a stage of plywood bleachers, and on the wall behind them were long sheets of butcher paper painted to look like a pirate ship. Families began to file in and take their seats. Mothers draped coats over chairs to reserve them as fathers parked the car. Mr. Roper’s productions were heavily attended, and before long the gymnasium was filled with nearly two hundred people.

Earlier, Mom had helped Dina get ready at the house. I stood in the bathroom and watched as Dina sat on the closed toilet and Mom combed her hair, dabbed eye shadow over each lid, applied a light layer of blush to her cheeks, and stroked lipstick onto her full lips. The makeup ritual was fun to watch, and I knew I could count on Mom to call me over and sweep a tiny bit of blush on my cheeks so I wouldn’t feel left out. Dad had had one of the seamstresses from his office make Dina’s Mabel costume. Intended to invoke the style of 1870s England, it hung to the floor in red and blue with puffy short sleeves and a bonnet. In that dress, with her rosy cheeks and the tissue paper ruffles of the bonnet framing her face, she looked like a collectible porcelain doll.

The lights went down over the audience and I waited. When the lights came back on, the stage filled with prepubescent pirates. They sang, and I waited. The stage filled with maidens, young girls lathered in makeup and melodramatics, and I waited. Finally, Dina snuck on stage, paused for her cue, and then pierced the silence with an operatic soprano-size “’Tis Ma-bel.” Then she sang the song that I had heard her practice in her room, in the shower, in the mirror, and in the car for weeks. She sang the song like she was pushing a feather through the air with each note. “Poor wand’ring one. Though thou hast surely strayed, Take heart of grace, Thy steps retrace…”

The show was fun. I was happy and I was proud. But every now and then I turned around and peeked at the dimly lit audience as they watched Dina. They saw her, but I saw them. I had an odd feeling. My body buzzed with excitement and yet there was a fixed, tight place in me, a pressed finger against my chest.

When the lights came back on, when the applause started and people stood up from their seats, I clapped so hard I bounced onto my toes a little. I found Dina center stage, holding hands in a long line with her cast members, a chain of cut paper dolls. They took a bow and there was a new wave of clapping. This time I stood on my chair, alternately waving at Dina and smacking my hands together until they hurt. But the feeling I’d felt earlier, the tight feeling I’d ignored, lingered. It lingers even now, but now I understand it in a way I couldn’t back then. Within my pride was a sense of loss. I was sharing my sister—not with a few friends from the neighborhood, but with too many people to count. Row after row of them. That night, even with my eyes still on Dina, I started to miss her as if she’d gone away, lost to the crowd the way a balloon is lost to the sky. She was no longer mine alone.

Dina had just moved on to junior high when I finally reached fourth grade at Baylis Elementary and had my first audition for Mr. Roper. He was casting the opening solo of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” for the school concert. I practiced near the front door of my house in our hallway mirror, an art-deco square large enough to see myself from the waist up. I watched myself sing there after school for days prior to the audition. I sang loud and proud like my sister did. I was eager and innocent and had no clue that there were things I couldn’t do. After all, I could ride a bike down the steep hill in front of my house, swim across the lake at camp, and run—I often won the field day 100-yard dash at school. Dina just opened her mouth and sang, and I assumed that’s all there was to it. But one day after school, Dina heard me at the mirror.

“Why do you do that with your voice?” she asked.

“What?”

“That thing. That thing where you hit a note and then drop down to another note. You do that every time, like two notes in one.” My stomach curled like a pill bug poked with a tiny stick. I didn’t understand what she meant. I think I was hitting the wrong note and then adjusting afterward to fix it. I instantly felt small, vulnerable, and my enthusiasm evaporated. I watched her, not sure I wanted to hear what she would say next, but also wanting the help she offered.

“Try it like this,” she said and proceeded to sing each note with precision. She wasn’t showing off. She wasn’t belting out with some crazy vibrato, trying to make me feel bad. She was problem-solving. But up until then, I didn’t know I had a problem. I sang it again, and again my voice dipped down after each note. She repeated the line and it floated in the air for a few seconds after she finished, the way her voice always did. I tried to match her, but I couldn’t stop doing that thing—whatever it was exactly. I felt like the notes wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to catch them. By the third time, it was clear to me that Dina was frustrated, and her impatience made me anxious. She repeated a little louder, “Like this.” My tears were on standby even as I willed them to stay put. It was no longer clear to me whether I was trying to sing or trying to please her, whether I was aiming for the right notes or for her to smile in approval. If hitting the notes was as effortless for her as it appeared, then how could she understand how difficult it was for me? She couldn’t. When Dina turned around and headed up the stairs, I looked back at myself in the mirror. I took a deep breath and tried to sing one more time, but the air was full of failure.

On audition day, the soloists went up to the front of the room one by one. Mr. Roper sat at the piano and played the same sequence for each of us. He had written the lyrics in red marker on large sheets of butcher paper for the class to see, and they hung over the chalkboard. I was staring at them when he called my name. I pulled myself out of my chair and turned my back to the lyrics—I knew them by heart. I looked up and saw the faces of my fourth-grade peers and became acutely aware of my own heartbeat. When the piano began, I nearly startled. I heard my chord and sang, “The butcher, the baker, the grocer, the clerk, are secretly unhappy men because…” My windpipe narrowed to a straw. I squeezed the words out off-key and uneasy. The line repeated an octave higher, “The butcher, the baker, the grocer, the clerk…” I sang louder, fighting it, chasing the notes, but every time I reached for them they moved farther away. The entire fourth-grade class stared. I don’t remember finishing. I do remember crying. The student teacher took me to the back of the room and offered me a Hershey’s Kiss.

In those thirty seconds of singing it was clear to me that no one would ever mistake me for my sister. Not Mr. Roper. Not my friends. Not me. No one.

I loved singing but was suddenly, and I feared irrevocably, embarrassed to utter a note by myself, to let anyone really hear me. I retreated. I backed away from solos and took my place in the chorus. When it came to singing, when it came to Dina, life had changed. The stage was pulling her away from me, and thinking lovely thoughts was suddenly a lot harder than it had been when Sandy Duncan sang about them.


Copyright © 2017 by Cara Mentzel

Foreword copyright © 2017 by Idina Menzel