My Big Number

By Adriane Berg

Yesterday evening I attended a fundraiser at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey. Students from the County high schools were selected to play for the annual Jennie Haver Memorial Scholarship. My daughter’s (she is 18) boyfriend was in the jazz band.

The finale was selections from “The Music Man,” as performed by the kids from Central. They were wonderful. The leading man made me think back to Robert Preston, when I first saw the REAL “Music Man.” I have seen several versions since, but Preston’s will always be the real one for me.
My Dad was a CPA and an attorney for almost every theatre on Broadway. Imagine it. A little girl, seven or eight years old, dressed up in scratchy crinoline, walking into the majestic theatres of New York and getting a box seat, or sometimes 5th row center.

I got to see Ethel Merman in the original Gypsy, Walter Pidgeon in Happiest Millionaire. I saw the original Most Happy Fella, First Impressions with Hermione Gingold, and Bells are Ringing with Judy Holliday. Most of the kids at the Hunterdon concert never heard of any of these people. But these are the greatest memories I have of my Dad, when we went hand in hand, a very big man and a very small girl. He would die suddenly of a stroke three years later.

In those halcyon days, I knew every word of every song in every Broadway show of the 50’s. I still do.

Then came 1957 and fourth grade, I tried out for my school musical. Children were not expected to take, nor could most of us afford, music lessons, and you didn’t get into a play just because you auditioned. You had to try out and be good. If you weren’t, even the teachers could be unthinkingly cruel.

I confidently walked in front of the three faculty members who headed the PS 244 Elementary school drama club. They sat in judgment of each who dared apply, like today’s American Idol judges, with everyone being Simon Cowell.

Most of the kids approached the three like a defendant approaching the bench, or the Cowardly Lion approaching the Wizard. Not me. I knew I was good. Merman was on my shoulder. I sang. I stunk. All the judges laughed at me, and I never sang again. I mean that—I REALLY never sang again. I mouthed the words in 1965 at Senior Sing; I bit my lip instead of singing to my kids.

I love music and can’t stop moving and dancing to any music that I hear. Once, on a Rite Aid line, waiting for my thyroid pills the Musak was playing. I saw myself on the security camera unconsciously bopping away. Everyone else was standing nicely, like an adult. Maybe it’s like when you lose your sight, you get to hear better. I have no voice, so I also get to hear more.

Flash forward to last week. I own a marketing company and I can sense that the next frontier in business is Asia. The next step for me is to learn Chinese.

I find myself in the Time Warner building in NYC. I spot the Rosetta Stone booth. I have a minute. I shyly step in. The guy is great. He takes lots of time with me on the tonality of Chinese. The graph says I am not mimicking the sounds correctly. Chinese is a singing language, he explains, based on duplicating four notes. If you can’t sing, you can’t speak Chinese. The computer is just like the fourth grade teachers, except it doesn’t laugh.

So I will never speak Chinese. Or will I? I decide to take the long road to happiness. It may take years. First, I will take singing lessons, and then start Chinese with Rosetta Stone. I have been to China and Malaysia and I will take another trip to Asia, for an immersion course.

This I think is successful aging. I am proud that I am cognitively fit to do this. I know that my CogniFit exercises are part of the mix that gives me the taste for such a challenge. CogniFit is the brain fitness exercise program I use to stay sharp. You know their slogan, “Did you CogniFit Today?” I know it sounds self serving as I am a spokesperson for the brand, but I cannot separate my personal goals from my mental relatedness. Can you?

I am learning the words to “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” I have no grandchildren. But when I do, I want them to hear my voice.