Travel and Healing Bronze Winner: The Secret Acts of Talent Show People

by Kevin McCaughey

I brought my ukulele on our Caribbean cruise.  Every afternoon my mother and I sang old standards in the cabin, while my father reclined on his bed, reading Robert Ludlum and wagging the book to the beat when we got to a rousing number like “Five-Foot Two.”

It was December of 2002, and my mother was seventy-four.  She hadand still hasa fine singing voice.

What she couldn’t do was a lot of other things.  She had broken her leg not long before, so walking any distance was tough.  Adult-onset diabetes denied her the sweets she adored.  Worst of all, she forgot things.  If we stopped for the day at an island, the experience was gone by dinnertime.  She couldn’t even follow conversations.  Her way of staking a claim in them was to interject questions, often the same questions, again and again.

This was the reason for the daily uke sessions on our cruise.  When she and I sangmy sister Christy sometimes joining in, and Dad letting his toe keep beatmy mother was the centerpiece.  She was the star.  When I sang a melody she fell right into harmony.  The old tunes tapped something deep inside her memory, and the words and melodies welled up to the surface.

Cole Porter’s “True Love” was our best numbermy Mom’s harmony crisp and pretty, the words simple and easy to recall.  A forty-year-old guy, his Mom, and a ukuleleit sounded like pretty good material for the cruise Talent Show.  Kind of funny, but something to remember.  So we auditioned.

A talent show is a strange thing.  The less talent, the more show.

At our 11:00 a.m. audition, there were ten or so of us in the front row of the 500-seat Top Hat Lounge, looking up at the stage where, in the evenings, stars with nearly familiar names actually performed.

The first to audition was an elderly crooner in shorts and tube socks who sang “You Belong to My Heart,” acappella, until he broke down into a visceral coughing fit.

My mom leaned toward me, “Which song are we singing ”

“‘True Love’,” I said.  We had been it practicing all week.

Next on stage was Dennis, a bald 68-year-old who had the sheepish look of a man caught at the pornography racka fitting expression, for someone determined to subject the audience to unaccompanied drums.  He pounded “Wipe Out,” for three minutes, then he stopped and leaned forward, very low.  We thought it was a bow and moved to clap, but he’d only dropped a stick.  He carried on for another 2:20.

My sister asked, without sarcasm, “Do you think he’s developmentally disabled ”

My mother said, “Our song isn’t so long, is it ”

Then came Don from San Antonio.  He promised us a tall tale.  In it, a hunter recounts the killing of all sorts of dangerous creatures, and ends with the puzzling punch line: “And it wasn’t a good day for hunting.”

“What did that mean ” my mother asked.

“I have no idea,” I admitted.

So far: a coughing crooner, a drummer, a tall-taler.  That’s talent show stuff.

It got even better when the next talent, Rina Gonzalez, announced she would sing that lamentably undying luxury-liner-related ballad, “My Heart Goes On.”

Rina held the mic under her chin, head down, a scrunched lyric sheet in her hand.  Her denim skirt was little, and so her Pinocchio legs below.  Her hair was frizzy, parted, and fall-away, like Kenny G’s.  Despite the girlish look, she was probably thirty.

The band on stage played an intro.

My mom leaned to me: “How does our song begin ”

“It’s ‘True Love,’ Mom. One chord.  Then, we sing,  ‘I give to you and you give to me.'”  Showing irritation never made things any better with my mom.   She was perfectly aware of the problem.  And it was even more heartbreaking when she acknowledged it by saying, “I have no mind left.”

Not far from me, Rina’s husband had perched a video camera on a seatback.  He taped her, adoringly, as she wavered on and off the notes.

Rina was the peak of talent parody.  Well, yes, there was a man who played “Oh, Susannah” on a harmonica the size of two Chiclets, a church woman doing “Amazing Grace,” but neither were overly long or overly bad.  And Laurina, a pretty young Dallas girl, was simply too good, belting out her power-country-pop-ballad so that my ears nearly stung.

The only auditioners left were we McCaugheys and Eva.  I didn’t want Eva to crack.  I’d met her earlier in the elevator.  “That a ukulele ” she’d asked.  The correct identification of a uke always predisposes me to friendship.  She was a single mom and a beginning classical guitarist who was attempting her first performance.

Sitting on stage now, Eva did a longish 19th-century Spanish piece, in which she took her time changing the fingerings, but when she segued into “Greensleeves,” she played without flubs.

I tried to help my mother up the steps at the side of the stage, but she liked to do things herself, and the arm that I gave her was purely cautionary.

We stood behind a single microphone stand.  And I strummed the first chord.  We sang: I give to you and you give to me.

Mom sang right along with me.  The same notes.  No harmony.  The entire song went this way.

We finished and headed down the steps at the side of the stage.  “Do I sing harmony ” she asked.  “I usually sing harmony, don’t I ”  We’d done the song fifty times and never without harmony.  That’s what I want to say.  But she was already mortified.   “How could I do that ” She was still shaking her head as we rode the elevator.

“You sounded fine,” my father said.

“I have no mind left,” she said.

It was rare that she acknowledged the memory problem.  But I knew that each episode of forgetfulnessno matter how frequentwas terrifying.

Back in our stateroom, alone with my sister, Christy sister asked me, “What makes people do these things.  Play the drums or sing ‘My Heart Goes On’ ”

It was the thing I’d been thinking about all morning.  What kind of weird need to be noticed drives the talentless, the bungling, and the afraid onto a stage   I was also thinking, what if they are thinking the same, in their cabins saying, “What about that non-harmonizing ukulele guy and his mom   What’s with that ”

Whatever the case, every one of us passed the audition.  The real thing, showtime, came at 3:00 p.m. the very same day.  The lights in the Top Hat lounge went down, and the spotlights came up.  Two hundred cruisers filled the lounge.  Waiters from Romania and the Philippines prowled the aisles in pink coats, balancing trays on their palms.

On stage a pianist, bassist, and drummer wore bow ties.  The Cruise Director, who had not been at auditions, said we were one of the most talented groups he’d seen.

Things went well for a while.

The crooner only coughed once.  The drummer didn’t drop his sticks.   The tall-taler told his tale just as before, word for enigmatic word, and several of the audience, all seated togetherprobably his familyhooted with laughter.

Meanwhile, my mother fretted, whispered questions: “How do we start ”  “Do we repeat the last line twice ”  “I always sing harmony, right ”

Laurina from Dallas came on in a glittery red dress that showed curves all the way to her ankles.  She was all confidence and power.

I felt sorry for Eva, having to follow that.  She sat on a stool, positioned her fingers on the fretboard of her guitar.  I could see them shaking.  The Spanish piece seemed endlesstoo slow, too unfamiliar.  Do “Greensleeves,” I thought.  She had nailed it in practice.  But when at last it came, she got snagged on a chord.  Her fingers, in front of all these people, couldn’t cover it.  Keep going.  Don’t stop.  But she stopped.  She went back.  And she flubbed it again.  Here she stopped altogether and announced, “I’m going to go back and do that part again.”

The audience didn’t laugh, didn’t applaud, didn’t encourage.  No one made a sound.

We sat and took it, like a beating.  Two hundred of us.  Eva started again gathered momentumand flubbed the chord.

As she came off the stage and passed me, she said.  “That was the worst.”  I wanted to tell her, No, it wasn’t, but it was like when my mother said, “I have no mind left.”  What do you say to that

My eyes followed her into her seat where she went into the arms of her parents and her kids.  They held her.  In fact, the kids seemed elatedMommy was up there.

That made me feel better.  I put my hand on my mother’s.  I could see she was thinking hard.  Not hearing any of these performers.  Just trying to remember what song we were going to do, the first words, the harmony…

Rina Gonzalez walked onto the stage.  I couldn’t take an excruciating version of “My Heart Goes On,” not after Eva.  Not after seeing how much not screwing up mattered to my mother.

But this time Rina was bolder.  There were sparkles in her hair.  She sang out hitting the noteswell, close enoughwith her head held high.  I saw the light of her husband’s video camera just behind me.

That is the closest I have ever come to enjoying that song.

When she finished, the London Cruise Director asked, “Do you sing often ”

“No,” Rina said.

“Er, so why did you do this ”

The question my sister and I had been asking!  Why

“My husband asked me to,” Rina said.  “He’s my strength, my life.”

That was the truth.  Simple as that.  Talent show peoplemaybe not all, but mostgo on stage for others.  Yes, our performancescliché, bumbling, comicalare acts, but not really of the entertainment variety.  They are imperfect expressions of love.  But who says love has to be perfect   The important thing is that these acts are a way of staking a claim on memory, rather than just waiting for one to turn up.

I have a cassette recording of that talent show.  My mother and I are quiet on the tape, just two voices harmonizing to a ukulele.  It sounds good.

My mother remembers.  She doesn’t remember islands or sunsets, none of that part of travel.  But she knows we performed together.  That memory is solid, stuck.  For me too.

These acts go both directions.  As the song says,

…I give to me and you give to me…

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