When my son Jimmy was 9 years old and and his brother John was 7, they decided to go into show business. St. Valentine's Day was fast approaching and Sister Frances Carmel, the principal of the parochial school they attended, had announced there would be a talent show in the school gymnasium on the evening of that date. They had approximately three weeks to get their act together, and since they were starting from scratch, they needed all the time they could get.
Rehearsals began immediately and were held in their bedroom, with all furniture shoved to one side for maximum performance space. Their sister Judy, 11, was the only person tolerated at these practice sessions since she'd been given the job of prompter, voice teacher and drama coach.
Ours was a big old-fashioned farmhouse with a vast upstairs. My stars of tomorrow had ample privacy, therefore, to go through their routine without disturbing their dad or me, tucked away as we were in the large kitchen-family-room downstairs. Consequently, we knew little about their act or the caliber of it, aware only that they were going to do a recitation, a song and a stunt.
They were not noted for their literary talents or for their singing skills. Nor were they known particularly for their gymnastic accomplishments, the most spectacular of which was the ability to cast themselves on the kitchen floor and assume the shape of a twisted bicycle frame when it was time to do the dishes or carry out the garbage.
But they were eager to surprise us with their thespian versatility and would not permit us to see them perform until the night of the talent show. It was just as well.
On the evening of Feb. 14 we gathered in the school gym with all the other parents and friends of the performers. While I did not actually pray that my sons not make fools of themselves, I took comfort in the knowledge that God knew my views on the subject. And so my husband and I waited, suffering a stage fright that seemed to have leap-frogged Jimmy and John but which left us feeling we didn't have much to look forward to.
The evening's entertainment got under way with one of the eighth-grade girls giving a demonstration on how to prepare a delightfully easy-to-make-and- delicious-tasting party snack. The procedure consisted mainly in degutting a huge round loaf of bread, mixing the clawed-out dough with chopped onions, celery and mayonnaise, and putting it all back into the loaf cavity.
The most intriguing thing about this act was not so much the uniqueness of the recipe but the fact that the demonstrator, to the tune of Farmer in the Dell, sang the instructions as she performed the task at hand _ and every line rhymed.
Then came a fiddler from the fourth grade who played, appropriately enough, I Love You Truly, completely and totally off-key all the way through. A feat in itself.
Next was a quartet of sixth-grade girls dressed in red crepe paper dresses shaped to reasonably resemble hearts, who gave a rousing rendition of You Gotta Have Heart. And while their performance did not earmark them as future Hall of Famers, they ranked high in spontaneity and intestinal fortitude.
And so it went on into the evening, with the young participants performing their acts in a most serious vein and the audience reacting in an absolutely converse manner.
I glanced around the gym from time to time and saw remarkable displays of self-control as parents and guests listened and watched straight-faced. Here and there, someone would be seized with an apparent fit of coughing; here and there others were covering twitching mouths with their hands in a pseudo-effort to stop hiccupping; still others found it necessary to adjust a shoelace or bend to pick up an imaginary article that supposedly had dropped to the floor.
But nobody laughed outright at an inopportune time, and I took heart at this wealth of friendly tolerance. No matter how deliberately serious their act, I knew my sons would not be laughed off the stage.
They were the last to perform and they lost no time in getting on with it.
"Rats!" roared John, clenching his fist at the audience. "They fought the dogs and killed the cats!" Weaving an imaginary path across the stage, he took everyone on a graphic journey behind the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
This time the audience could not contain itself. The little blond, blue-eyed boy, whose angelic appearance belied his tough and vociferous rendition of this beloved children's poem, brought down the house. Bewildered by the crowd's reaction but not subdued, John continued until the end of the piece, prancing and shouting his way across the platform. Judy, standing in the eaves, did not have to prompt him once. He could not have heard her if she'd had to.
And then it was Jimmy's turn and, like John, he lost no time getting started.
Waddling onto the stage in an exaggerated bow-legged stance, he yodeled as he rode along on a horse that wasn't there. His yodeling resounded in every corner of the gym and I wondered how I could have missed hearing him at home.
His voice lost nothing in volume as he yippey-aye-ayed his way into the lyrics of When the Work's All Done This Fall.
Once again, it was too much for the audience that had controlled itself so admirably for most of the evening. Now, all succumbed helplessly to an overwhelming mirth. Surprised but undaunted, Jimmy continued to pantomime riding a horse while bemoaning in falsetto voice the musical saga of a lonesome cowboy and spicing it up with a sporadic yodel here and there.
Finishing his song and ride, he extended an arm in the direction of the curtain to his right and John, on cue, bounced across the stage once more. Singing in the same high falsetto voice, which was truly his for his voice had not broken yet, Jimmy began the melody Judy had taught him: You Go to My Head. The first words of the song were barely out of his mouth when John hurled himself into the air and stood on his hands. This time I left nothing to chance. I prayed outright that he'd be able to remain standing on his head until the end of Jimmy's song. And he did.
They won first prize, a large, red, heart-shaped box of chocolates, and, although they couldn't understand why everyone had laughed at them, they were content to win under any circumstances. Their pleasure heightened more when, at the end of the evening after refreshments had been served, the president of the PTA asked them if they would perform their act at that organization's next meeting. "Boy," said Jimmy, rubbing his hands together, "we're on our way."
My sons' theatrical careers never got beyond that initial talent-night show and the subsequent PTA encore, for a few weeks later a minor hockey league was inaugurated in our area and both boys joined it. Soon I was hearing talk of aspiring Gordie Howes and John Belliveaus, and I smiled at the fickleness of growing pains. Yesterday it had been show business, today it was ice hockey, tomorrow it would be yet another dream to pursue.
And though Jimmy and John did not become theatrical personages or famous hockey stars, neither did they become wrestlers, transport drivers or brain surgeons, all of which they had aspired to at one time or another. They became, instead, end-products of their boyhood dreams, all of which had been tried on and cast off until finally one was found to be a perfect fit.
Today they are engaged in occupations that contribute to their own well-being as well as that of others, and this mother's heart is grateful for little boys who weren't afraid to dream and, in the pursuit of those dreams, find what they sought.
Joan Rutledge of Clearwater is a free-lance writer and retired teacher.