Grandma Sullivan told me when I was 8 years old that I couldn’t sing: “Peanut, you can’t carry a tune.”
It was my brother’s 10th birthday, and she’d made his favorite angel food cake with the powdered cocoa frosting, the lightest chocolate frosting ever, whipped high with the prettiest peaks. Grandma didn’t whisper or make a big deal; she simply leaned over and told me from that point forward to just mouth the words to “Happy Birthday.”
She wanted to save me some future embarrassment. I looked around the table. Everyone was still singing. I wanted to sing too. But even though I was a little girl, I figured why start crying and ruin it for everyone. Maybe Grandma was right: Just pretend to sing.
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I turned 50 this year. Anyone who tells you 50 is the new 30 is not a woman about to or just recently turned 50. While I lament my diminishing hormones, depleted collagen, and inflamed joints, I do love my newfound zero-tolerance policy for bullshit. My own included.
Here’s another example of me getting on board with someone else’s truth about me, and it also involves the number eight. (This will make my husband sound like a cad of the highest order. In fairness, he swears he was joking.) I was in my mid-30s, my best-looking decade, when my husband proudly proclaimed over margaritas at a Tex-Mex place that I was an eight. As in an eight out of 10.
We are still married.
So, I can’t sing and I’m kind of pretty. I think that is true. Why hold anything against Grandma and my old man? See, I’m the real jackass in this story. Lying to yourself, especially about something you have a burning desire to do, makes no sense.
I’ve told myself that only certain types of people can write. While there is no one but me to blame for this, I have sought and found “evidence” to support it. Girls like me aren’t writers.
“Girls” like me. The word choice alone is a clue that I have told myself this particular lie for decades.
In my mind, and this dates back to middle school, cute girls from nice families with Hello Kitty pencils are allowed to write. Boys who play guitar and know the words to all the U2 songs could be writers. People who graduate from Yale, they can write. If you have an MFA from a lesser school you can write or at the very least you are allowed to try.
No teacher ever seemed to take an interest in me, my mother used to tell me my head was filled with sawdust, I was a lazy student. Nothing about me seemed smart. I don’t feel smart. Writers are smart. I can’t be a writer.
I need to earn a living or I’ll starve. I like eating. I can’t be a writer.
And finally, my father’s inspirational speech when I was 10 years old: “Some people just gotta work. Not everyone is a movie star.”
Looking back, I realize that, like Grandma, my father was trying to spare some future feelings. But what I took out of that conversation was I was an average girl, that I wasn’t special, that I didn’t have a point of view. He was placing me in the hierarchy and advising me to not want too much for myself.
Given that I am only an eight out of 10, that I can’t sing, that I am a little chubby and not that smart means I’m probably in the “some people who gotta work” category.
I pride myself on my willingness to accept the truth about myself, especially if it concerns my limitations. But I was unwilling, worse, unable to see the truth about myself. I wanted to write. I wanted to be a writer. But I invented a whole story about why I couldn’t. From the time Grandma silenced me, a giant vague sinkhole steadily filled with longing opened it inside of me. Once more, I looked around, and everyone near me seemed happy, so I figured why get hung up on that impossible dream? Just move forward. Ultimately, I thought to myself, I’ll stumble upon something I could earn a living at that didn’t feel like selling my soul to the devil.
I remember when my husband, Dan, and I first started dating, he was a 30-year-old bartender in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and I was a 26-year-old Girl Friday at the D.C. office of Lehman Brothers. My main responsibility consisted of answering a phone that barely rang. The devil may not have owned my soul, but he was certainly holding it hostage.
Not for long. Dan and I bought an “as-is” ramshackle house in Adams Morgan where we found, no joke, a stash of white powder in a baggie hidden in a window frame.
This was D.C. in the early ’90s, before neighborhoods with names like NoMa were created. In the 25 years we’ve been together, we have lived in and rehabbed five houses. Our mutual love of polishing up old things propelled us into our current business, our beloved antique store, GoodWood. I felt the devil loosening his grip.
So much so that we found we needed help with accounting, and I hired an actor who was a part-time bookkeeper. She was smart and pretty and confident, all the traits I admired in women. I confided her in one day over QuickBooks.
I want to write, I said out of nowhere. I figured maybe we were kindred spirits. She was an actress who kept books. Maybe I could be an antique store proprietress who wrote.
She replied smugly: Writers write, Anna. You are successful at what you are doing. Not everyone is an artist. I gulped down the egg-shaped lump in my throat. I wanted to cry. I leaned hard on the inner fortitude developed by the 8-year-old who never sang again and the 30-something who accepted her B status on the beauty charts.
It took all my best efforts to not cry in front of her. She didn’t ask me if I wrote. She just assumed I didn’t. Because girls like me aren’t writers.
Girls like me are too busy overcoming our average-ness. Charming our big bosses, glossing over the loan applications, always trying to make ourselves look better on paper – take a chance on me is our motto; we’re working hard to not feel like imposters when we land a handsome boyfriend or a job with benefits.
How dare we want more than we deserve. How dare we sing.
I’d been trained to accept my shortcomings with grace. But I thought a fellow female artist would recognize me. Clearly, I had the wrong uniform. I screwed up the handshake, and I didn’t speak the language. What I feared was the truth, and the bookkeeper/actor confirmed it. Girls like me aren’t writers.
The thing is the little voice that sings inside me, sings into that vague hole of longing; it keeps repeating what the actor/bookkeeper said. Writers write, Anna.
So, even if I only do it alone, in secret, and in the cover of dark, I do it.
—Anna Kahoe hails from Wheaton, Maryland. In the late ‘90s, she crossed the border via the red line Metro to Washington D.C. You are likely to find her working alongside her husband at their shop, GoodWood.