My heart pounded as I drove Jeanne, my birth mother, back to her Airbnb. “I can’t believe that my BIRTH MOTHER is in the car with me!” I repeatedly screamed in my head. And then a tugging sensation developed at the base of my throat as I thought about the phrase, “Birth Mother.”
I couldn’t unscramble what was happening at the moment. I’m sitting next to a stranger in my car, my birth mother. What does that even mean? I have a birth mother? Jay is my…was my…is my—who am I…what am I doing? My situation is an excellent example of an enormous, multidimensional hot mess.
“Can we stop by the liquor store? I need some wine.” Jeanne laughed.
“I see we think alike! Trader Joe’s! Here we come!” 30 minutes and four bottles later, Jeannie and I were drinking, giggling, and cooling off in the dry late-night summer SoCal heat outside at her Airbnb.
“So!” Jeannie said. “Time for a quick test.”
“I took one already. I mean, that’s why we’re meeting.” I said, laughing. Jeannie laughed so hard that wine few out of her glass. “You know how to make me laugh, and I love it! But really, my sisters asked me to give you a test…a singing test. They want to know if you can sing. All of us can sing we had/have a group, the Brooks Gospel Sisters. So they and I want to know if you can sing too.” I took a large slurp of wine. I knew this moment would happen this weekend, and I was fearless and ready to sing for the first time in my life.
Since I could remember, my parents were told by various teachers and church choir directors that I had a beautiful voice. My brother Jermaine and I were often asked to perform at family events. I remember my Kindergarten teacher, Miss Kat Jackson (no relation), taught Jermaine and me a really cute 1936 jazzy jam. “If I Had Rhymn in My Nursery Rhymes,” by Jimmie Lunceford.
We’d sing this song at school performances, family reunions, and on long road trips. I was a confident singer, and I’d harmonize to any tune whenever I could, especially church hymnals. However, as I got older noticed that no one in my family could hold a note. My mother, bless her heart, sounded like a cat in heat, and my dad..well, music notes ran away from him. He told my brothers and me that he sang in a band in college, Lincoln University, an HBCU. Dad said, “My voice was so unique that I would begin signing, and THEN the band would join in. I was smooth!” My brothers and I still laugh at that story. When I questioned my folks about why I’m the only one who could sing, I was told that my Grandma Jackson and my great aunts could sing, and that’s probably where I got my voice. However, it still didn’t add up…my parent’s voices were pretty bad…(sorry mom! 💖)
Around 12 years old, I joined the church’s Junior choir. I remember rehearsing the song “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” I was trying out for the solo. I loved this hymn, but the music seemed to be written for someone with a very high-pitched voice. Instead of asking for help with the key, I shrugged my shoulders and rolled with the rehearsal. Well, I guessed I rolled pretty well because to my surprise I was given a solo. However, I was deathly scared. “How am I going to hit those high notes?” I asked myself. The song began, I started sweating, and the church became cold. As I tried to push through my fear, I looked at the choir director, and she signaled for me to begin singing. The sound that came out of my mouth was everything but angelic. My voice squawked like a Sparrow that was choking with a broken wing. I remember looking at the church members and my family. Confusion and shock blanketed their faces. An elder of the church, Ms. Kate Johnson, shouted, “Take your time, Baby! Take your time!” and then a Deacon responded by chanting, “Weeellll! Amen!“
I. Was. MORTIFIED! That moment haunted my ability to sing for decades. I only sang in the shower or with my brothers and only at home.
I went out on a limb in college and began competing in several pageants (and won a few!). I sang for the talent portions. But the broken-winged Sparrow (no longer choking) still lived inside of me. I learned to look at the spotlights on stage and to pretend that no one was watching. That tactic helped me to push through my fears and “get through it,” but I could tell I still wasn’t signing with my authentic voice. When I got off stage, I’d be disappointed but reminded myself that I sounded fantastic considering I come from tone-deaf parents! Tone-deaf parents….ha!
At 33, I got married and became pregnant a year later. I’m not sure what sparked this idea, but during my 3rd trimester, I decided to get voice lessons. I studied under the fantastic vocal coach and actor Scott Harlan for a few months. Scott ran me through a few vocal exercises and asked me to sing a song. I thought back to my moments in the Junior choir and decided to belt out “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” Scott heard that I was struggling to hit the upper notes, and so, on his piano, he changed the key for me. That was a magical moment! I sang in a way that I never sang before. The Sparrow’s wing inside me was still broken but I was happy. And you know what else? Scott said that I had perfect pitch! Me? Pitch perfect! I learned a lot of songs during my 3rd trimester (my favorite was “My Funny Valentine”). I felt free while holding my giant belly and singing, and I fell in love with my unborn son, Tyson. And unbeknownst to me, I sang to my unborn baby every day up until birth, just like Jeannie had sung to me…pitch-perfect.
I asked Jeannie what we should sing? After a few back and forths, we settled on Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do For Love.” I whipped out my phone and pulled up the song on Youtube.
We looked at each other, smiled, and began to sing in harmony, instinctively switching from the top and bottom notes. (I wish I has recorded the moment.)
I guess you wonder where I’ve been
I searched to find a love within
I came back to let you know
Got a thing for you and I can’t let go
My friends wonder what is wrong with me
Well I’m in a daze from your love, you see
I came back to let you know
Got a thing for you and I can’t let go
Some people go around the world for love
But they may never find what they dream of
I closed my eyes in the next few verses, leaned back, and flowed.
Wha choo won’t do, to do for looove
You tried evry’thaang but you don’t give uuup!
In my woooorld only yoooooou!
Make me do for love! what I would not doooo
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” Jeannie said with head cocked to the side. I smiled. “How did you do that?” she continued.
“How did I do what?”
“How did you know how to switch parts! And— I’ve been singing with my sisters for years trying to get them to do you what you just did. And you did it instantly—the harmonizing the vibrato the—GIRL all of it! How did you know how to do that!” Jeannie said.
“I, I, I don’t know,” I said in a bit of shock. “I’ve never sung like that before. I didn’t know I could sing like that either. But now that I’ve heard your voice in person, it makes sense. I, I, I, I mean…you are the one..the ONE who gave me my voice…”
Jeannie stared at me. Holding back her tears, she said calmly, “I’ve got to call my sisters and let them know that you passed the test. You are definitely a Brooks.”
I took another long drink of wine, but this time from the bottle. We both laughed.