In the week leading up to Mother's Day, we'll be sharing a handful of personal essays written by The New Victory Theater/The New 42nd Street staff members. We gave them instructions to interview their moms about how and why the arts were integrated into their childhoods and received back these touching stories! For young mothers and parents looking to introduce their own children to the arts, join us for Baby Rave happening May 7-18 at the Duke on 42nd Street! Happy Mother's Day!
by Hillary Reeves
Not one of the first and not quite the baby, I grew up stuck somewhere in the middle of a busy, bustling home of seven kids. Occasionally when I talk to people about my big, patchworked family, I’m asked, “did you feel like you had enough one-on-one time with your parents?” The question makes me laugh. One-on-one time? What does that matter?
Constantly at odds to make ends meet, my mother generally had 3 to 4 jobs at a time. I can remember lying in my bed late at night and hearing the specific sound of my mom’s keys jingling in the driveway, a gigantic keychain shaped like a teddy bear creating her signature chime. It was after dark, but knowing she was home always helped me sleep tighter. She’d sneak in my room and kiss me goodnight, only to wake before the sun rose the next morning so that she could pack lunch for all of us and get us ready for school.
Now that I’m an adult working a 40 hour week, I can’t wrap my mind around how my mom did everything she did. Perhaps I could account for each of the hours in her week, but to then understand how she did it all for at least thirty years of her life, with a smile-- I feel amazed, as though my mom posessed some otherworldly power that enabled her to make me feel so selflessly loved in the midst of constant to-dos.
My mom had a lot of jobs, but her career was that of a nursery school teacher and director. “I taught young children for almost 40 years, starting in my teenage years,” she told me recently, when I sat down to chat with her for this article. My mom is one of the most motherly people I’ve ever met. She joyfully spent most of her life taking care of her own kids, but also hundreds more in my community.
If you asked, all of her students would remark on the incredible kindness, patience and forgiveness she exhibits toward each and every child she meets. She plays down her skills with an intense anti-ego, but when you push her on certain topics, it feels like dusting off treasures that have been stored in a dusty attic, hidden from the world for way too long.
For example, when I asked her more about how she incorporated the arts into her teaching, she offered this seamless solution: “I discovered that singing would be control in the classroom. When I became director of the school, teachers would often call me into their classroom because the children were out of hand. I'd walk in and would hear the teacher yelling or threatening ‘that's it! No outside time!’ I would start quietly singing or chanting anything...putting any words to a rhythm or tune. Let's put our toys away, so we can go out and play, or Billy pick up anything yellow, Jane pick up anything blue -- anything would work. Young children love music and singing, but it’s so handy in getting command of a classroom. The more repetitious a song was, the more the kids would latch on and you’d have undivided attention.”
It wasn’t until recently that I really took note of the extent that my mom incorporated the arts, especially music, into my life.
Occasionally, if you get my mom in a specific mood, she’ll talk about each of her kids with a mystical glint in her eye. It’s almost spooky the way that she pinpoints my youngest sister’s poignant ability to empathize with anyone or anything. Or, her psychic sense that my second sister, Jill, would be a world traveler. When I ask her about me, she tells me she always had a sense that I’d play an instrument. She says, “I knew music was in you.”
I had a try at the piano and a go at the violin, but singing was always where I landed.
“Before you could talk,” my mom often tells me with pride, “you would sing entire songs. In particular ‘Unforgettable’ by Nat and Natalie King Cole. You didn't know the words but knew every note right on key! It was crazy amazing. So I got you into the children's choir as soon as I could. I think you were two-and-a-half when you started.”
“I finally was told how good you were when you played Moses in the church play when you were eleven.
My mom still describes seeing me on stage as Marion the Librarian in my eighth grade production of The Music Man as “one of the best days of my life.” I still feel uncomfortably humbled by this idea, remembering how unnatural it felt for me to perform in front of so many people. Because of this, and because of all the sacrifices she made, I’d always assumed my mom wanted me to pursue performing as a career.
I should have known better, of course. When I talked to my mom about this, she admitted, supportive as ever, “I don't think I ever planned on it being your profession one day. I just wanted you to enjoy it then. I think you did.”
I’m a lot like my mom, and I inherited a love for music that stuck to my bones more than it did with any of my brothers or sisters. She taught me to follow my gifts, to work tirelessly (and always with a smile), and to have fierce independence. And those lessons-- learned in the moments she spent in our shadows, or while she worked well past sunset-- mean way more than any amount of one-on-one time ever have.