“After the Washing Up”

In my earliest years, I lived with my grandparents on a postage stamp-sized lot in a large steel city. Our working class neighborhood housed first- and second-generation immigrants, mostly from Europe, who presided over orderly homes, clean-swept streets and trimmed lawns. Meals were on a timetable, chores were a priority and affection was measured in acts of love and service — usually.

There were some rare evenings when the children in our house, all cousins and close in age, begged and cajoled my dear granny to let her hair down (after the grandpa had gone to bed, of course). When the kitchen counter was wiped and the last tea towel hung up for the evening, the quiet pleas would commence, and when we saw the twinkle in her eye, we knew the fun would soon begin.

Granny had left England as a teenager, but not before imbibing enough Gilbert and Sullivan to round out the decades to follow. Lifting the corners of her apron just an inch or two for effect, she swished about on stolid ankles, with our timid giggles soon turning to raucous laughter. D’Oyly Carte had nothing on our Mabel, and those private routines form some of our dearest childhood memories.

The recent sensation of Susan Boyle, Scotland’s chanteuse célèbre has caused many to recall similar hidden talents tucked around their own family trees. Following Miss Boyle’s stunning debut on Britain’s Got Talent were investigative pieces on the 47-year-old, revealing that she was the youngest of nine children, suffered from the usual setbacks attached to learning disabilities and was for years the primary care giver to her aging parents. She is a perfect example of humility, service and excellent priorities.

To add a bittersweet quality to the moving story, we learned that her mum always encouraged her singing, but despite investing in voice lessons, her subsequent grief over her mother’s death silenced all song. After two years of mourning, she took the stage, and within the first two measures of her chosen piece, the judges and audience were stunned.  Seconds later, they were on their feet roaring their approval. It was the perfect Cinderella story — goodness and virtue inspired her at that moment, and an unexpected gift was shared with the world.

Now many who have talent prepare themselves immediately to seek the venues that will showcase their gifts — usually the ability to sing, to dance, or to act. Some find fame; some fizzle; and others fall flat — with the finest becoming household names. Others, though, have different priorities; and what is unique about them is their choice not to shine.

It must be admitted that many who want to be discovered are constrained by family responsibilities, financial woes or cultural taboos, but what we have with darling Susan is her positive decision to put the needs of others first. She had dreams, but she also knew the value of filial piety — which made her eventual debut all the more delightful. Postponing it all those years didn’t make her bitter at all — but only added depth to her evident good nature.

While many assume that the inherent lesson is to avoid judging books by their covers, the more important consideration should be to assess how much of her captivating performance was technical perfection, and how much was actually the ineffable qualities that humility, self-abnegation and generous love added to her voice. Women who choose to serve others are gifts in and of themselves. If there are even more treasures to be bestowed, how much more will they be appreciated when deferred until after the washing up?

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