The big woman’s anger exploded in a loud outburst. “Girl! You're just plain stupid, like all you dumb crack babies. Just 'cause you're five years old don't mean you any smarter than when you were born. All I do is clean up after you. Git outta here. I don’t want to see you one more time today. Now go!”
Celia scrambled off her chair where her spilt milk ran over the edge of the table onto a filthy linoleum floor and scurried out the kitchen door, ducking under the slap Mrs. Hammond aimed at her. She ran as fast as she could down a dimly lit hall to the tiny room she shared with three other foster kids. She grabbed her dolly off her cot, went into a dank closet, and pulled the door shut. Sitting in the dark, rocking the thrift-shop ragdoll in her arms, she started singing a soft lullaby, making up the words and melody as she went.
It was a year later when Candice Kane, a dedicated county social worker, rescued the foster children from the Hammonds and found new homes for them. Celia had the good fortune to be accepted by the Bensons, an African American couple whose six-year old daughter had died of leukemia two years earlier.
“We’ll take good care of this pretty little girl. Don’t you worry one single minute about that,” Mrs. Benson told the social worker, crouching down and enfolding Celia in her ample arms.
Celia’s first day of kindergarten was a disaster. Her lack of social skills and below average intelligence were obvious to the teacher and revealed why the little girl was at such a loss. She sat alone in the corner of the room, trembling with fear and confusion. At Candice Kane's urging, the next day Celia was moved to a special needs class with other kids like her and was taught by an understanding and dedicated teacher. When Miss Kane visited the following week, she was optimistic that everything was going to be okay. Her job was to make sure it was, and she intended to do just that.
Twelve years passed quickly. Patient tutoring each evening by Mr. Benson, who was a high school history teacher, along with Mrs. Benson getting Celia into her church’s youth choir, and Miss Kane’s hawk-like attention to the girl, ensured that Celia did the best she could under the circumstances of her limitations. But in spite of the use of crack cocaine by her mother while pregnant, and neglect during the two years before Celia went into the foster care system, Celia slowly but surely blossomed into an impressive young woman, proving the value of unconditional love and constant emotional support. Everyone involved considered that Celia had attained a level of achievement that reflected her innate capabilities.
But, as sometimes happens in blessed lives, even as good as Celia's situation was, a life-changing event occurred when she tried out for the high school freshman choir. When the director called her in for an audition from where she had been waiting in the hall with a dozen other kids, she was nervous and scared. Mr. Clemson, the director, greeted her without looking up from the form describing each candidate's qualifications, seemingly anxious to get through the auditions as quickly as possible.
“Miss Bloom, please sing the song on that sheet music there on the stand.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t read music. Can I just sing something I know?”
His frown was a mixture of irritation and curiosity.
“It says here that you’re in a church choir. How can you sing in a choir if you can’t read notes?”
“After I hear a song once I can sing it.”
“Well, that may be acceptable for some church, but it's not in my choir. When you learn to sight-read, come back for an audition.”
Celia was devastated by the choir director’s cursory dismissal. Music was a mainstay of her life. The one passion that brought not only joy, but also a feeling of self-worth, a feeling that there was at least one thing she could do as well as the other kids. She left the audition room in tears.
When Miss Kane learned about Celia’s rejection, she took matters into her own hands and called her friend, Lenny Brown. Brown was the director of the city-wide gospel choir and was always on the lookout for talent. He'd made it big in the Chicago jazz and blues scene forty years earlier, and now, even as he approached seventy, was a sought-after keyboard player and teacher. His work with the gospel choir was a labor of love, his payback for the good fortune that had come his way.
Brown looked up when Celia walked through the door to the church basement room the gospel choir rented and waved her over to where he sat at a piano playing chord progressions. The puzzled look on her face caught his attention.
“Jazz,” he said. “You like the sound?”
“I’m not sure. It’s different from anything I’ve heard before. I mostly sing church music. I like gospel most of all.”
“Then you’re in the right place,” Brown said in a friendly manner. “Miss Kane said you don’t read music, but that you have a good voice; and a good ear, too. But, before we get to the singing, I’d like to know a little about you. Take off your coat and have a seat.” He got up and pulled a nearby chair closer. We don’t have to be in a hurry.”
Sitting next to the piano, Celia began speaking in a hesitant voice. “I’m a foster kid. I live with Mr. and Mrs. Benson. I like it there. They’re not like the ones I was with before" She looked down at the floor, the raised her eyes back to Brown. "I’m eighteen-years-old and a freshman at Central High. I’m older than the other freshmen because I had to repeat third grade two times. . .They say I’m a slow learner because something’s wrong with my brain."
She looked back at the floor, was silent for a few moments, then raised her head and said, "Mr. Benson helps me with homework, so I keep up okay now."
She looked around the room then said, "I like to sing. It makes me feel good . . . They said my mama was a singer. Maybe that’s why I like to sing . . . My mama died when I was little. I don’t remember her . . . Miss Kane said I should talk to you about your choir. The director didn’t let me into the one at school. He said because I didn't know notes.”
Lenny stared intently at the girl for a long moment, then, breaking the awkward silence, said, “Uh . . . how do you manage in your church choir if you can’t read music?”
The look on her face brightened. “I listen to a song, then I can sing it. It just comes to me,” she replied without hesitation.
“You must have a pretty good ear, then. You memorize the words, too?”
“Yes, sir. My memory for music is good—better than for other things.”
“Well, in that case, why don’t you sing one of the gospel hymns you do at church.”
“We’re working on ‘Down by the Riverside’ for next Sunday. Would that be okay?”
“Yeah, sure. It’s a great old spiritual. Mahalia Jackson recorded it way back in the day. Whenever you’re ready.”
As soon as Celia sang the first line, “Gonna lay down my burdens, down by the riverside,” Lenny knew he was witnessing something rare. As she continued, he was astonished by what he was hearing: the sound, the purity, the power, as if she were channeling Mahalia herself, maybe just a little bit sweeter, but still strong, thrilling, and uplifting at the same time. But there was something else, too. Just as he had felt a remote familiarity when he first laid eyes on her, he had a similar feeling about her voice.
Suddenly it came to him.
“Oh, my God,” he exclaimed after Celia sang the last note.
“Did I do something wrong?” she asked in a trembling voice before he was able to say anything else.
“Yes, it sure was. In fact, it was a lot more than just okay. You have a wonderful talent. A gift. I’d be happy to have you in the choir. I’ll teach you how to read music, too.”
Her face lit up and she let out a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank you, Mr. Brown. I was hoping you'd accept me. I was worried about not being able to read notes.”
“Don’t be concerned about that. But . . . there is something else I want to ask you. What do you know about your mother? What was her name?”
“My birth certificate says it’s Florence Washington. But my last name is Bloom, like my father.
When Celia revealed her mother’s name, Lenny was temporarily speechless, overcome with emotion and memories.
After he recovered, he said, “Celia. I knew your mother. Actually, I was the one who discovered her. It was 1985. I heard her do a solo in the Greater Salem Baptist Church.
“You knew my mother?” Celia asked, her voice wavering.
“Yes, I knew her. She was an amazing singer. A natural. I introduced her to the Chicago blues scene. In no time she was making a name for herself, performing with the best of the local bands. She developed a reputation as a talented vocalist.
“What was she like?”
“She was a wonderful woman. Smart and hard-working. But her career took a nosedive after she fell in with a bad crowd and got into drugs. Nothing I or any of her other friends could do about it.”
“Was she a good person?”
“Yes, she was. The best. A mother you can be proud of. I still miss her,” he added after a moment, unable to disguise the sadness in his voice.
“I miss her too,” Celia said.
“I remember when you were born.,” Brown said. I lost track of you when the agency took you away. You must have been about a year old. By then your father was long gone. Florence died a month or so later.”
After a long silence, and with tears in her eyes, Celia spoke. “Thank you for telling me about her. Knowing who she was makes me want to take up where she left off. Do you think I could?”
“Yes. I think you have what it takes,” he replied.
“Will you help me?” she asked softly.
“It would be an honor . . . and a privilege,” he replied as he wiped away his own tears.