"Mommmm, daaad, Mah-sha is being a podd-ellick again."
This was my younger four-year-old sister squealing on me as was her fondest habit. The fact was, however, that she had a bit of a lisp and could not speak clearly during her early years. She had particular trouble with "r" and thus could not pronounce either my name nor one of the two most often used labels that I had been stuck with by the time I was six years old. She was trying to say "smart alack". She had picked up from the adults that this was something "Mah-sha" often did that would get me into some trouble; being a smart-mouth.
At ten-months old, according to my mother, I began to talk. By the time I was six, my dad said I rarely shut up. That led to the second epithet of my childhood, "Mini". They called me Mini, which was short for Mini-Words. Mom said she nearly dropped me when, as she held me in her arms while standing on our very cold front porch waiting for my father to unlock the front door, I suddenly shivered and said to her, "Ooooh, I'm cold." Those were my first words. Not only a word, mind you; but a full sentence with a subject and a verb.
If you had known my mother you would instinctively know this story must be true: a) because my mom was the most intimidatingly honest person I have ever known, and b) because she had absolutely no sense of humor. So if she said it, it had to be a recitation of fact; not a story or a joke or a flight of whimsy.
When we had visitors, my parents (especially my father) liked to pull out a book of bird pictures and point to them one by one. They would quickly hold an impromptu demonstration for those willing to sit still that long, showing them how I could name fifty birds by memory ..... at two-years old.
So, talking in sentences at ten months, reciting dozens of birds by memory at two, and a full-fledged smart alack at six. Funny how that worked. If I was "on display" reciting a poem or singing a song for an audience, I was their little darling. But if it was just the family around, suddenly I was a smart alack. And I have no doubt that I was annoying.
But I was also confused as a young child, not understanding how the same behaviour that earned me smiles and applause in some settings, only got me withering glances and sharp admonitions to be quiet in other circumstances.
And so began my life-long habit of learning to read a room quickly, know whether I was to perform or be invisible: to decide instantly how to please the audience. I did not become a people-pleaser by happenstance. No, it was through rigorous and lengthy training and it turned out to be a hard habit to break.
My dad loved to take me to the neighborhood tavern with him in the early evening, when I was still a preschooler. He would stand me up on the shiny long wooden bar, and tell me what to sing for the patrons. I would sing on cue and people would smile and clap and more importantly, he would smile at me.
One summer evening the year I was four, a local talent contest was scheduled for the community park. There would be a stage, sound system, live musicians, and the whole nine yards. More to the point, it was announced that the first prize for the best performer would be a grand five dollars. Dad announced to mom that he had entered me in the contest. He knew a thing or two about singing contests.
Dad was a fine singer who, at the age of sixteen, had been offered a contract to sing on a local weekly radio program. He had won a singing contest in order to get the contract offer and he knew how this game was played.
So he taught me to sing a catchy tune called the Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy and on a balmy summer evening our family, along with seemingly half the town, strolled down to the community park for the talent show.
When my turn came and they called me onto the makeshift stage that had been erected for the event, they quickly realized that I was too little to reach the microphone. So they brought a chair for me to stand on. Still too short, they placed a wooden orange crate atop the chair, and then lifted me onto the whole precarious set up. Child safety laws had not yet been invented apparently. But I could now reach the mike.
The emcee told the band which song to play, and I belted out with great gusto my rendition of the song my dad had taught me. The audience laughed and clapped loudly. When I finished, I calmly turned to the emcee and asked politely, "Where is my five dollars, please ?" I just assumed I had won, because from my earliest memory I was told almost daily that I was a "winner".
The emcee chuckled and kindly told me that there were still quite a few others who had not yet performed. So I waited, but at the end of the evening, they called me back to give me "my five dollars."
That evening no one chastised me for being a smart aleck. What a relief.
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Do you recall being "assigned" a role in your family? Was it one you enjoyed or were you uncomfortable with it?