As a child, I detested Valentine’s Day. It involved pink, my least favorite color, and demonstrative love and affection, neither of which I liked. This was despite my mother’s best efforts. I was, for several years, her only daughter, yet I ran away from both hugs and frilly dresses.
Where I poured my young heart and soul into were song, dance and Whitney Houston. I cut my dancing legs and my bellowy mezzo on Houston songs. On Saturday afternoons, I had a standing date with spandex, my own intrepid choreography and a stack of Whitney Houston tapes. I was certain “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” was the most perfect dance number ever created.
Valentine’s Day and Whitney Houston collided one memorable year when my mom decided to give my dad a special Valentine gift: a vocal recording of herself. Long before Garage Band and personal digital recorders, there were only two ways to make a cassette tape of yourself. You either borrowed your child’s Fisher-Price tape recorder with the attached microphone, or you went to the mall. The malls in the '80s had recording studios (with great names like Record America USA) where you could sing vocals, karaoke-style, over a pre-recorded track and come away with a cassette tape of your very own.
It wasn’t cheap. The single-song recording ran upwards of $20, but the whole set-up was a hit with teenagers and young singles who wanted to immortalize their love through a ballad. My mom, eternally young at heart, thought this would be the perfect gift.
To understand this, you have to know the context of Mom’s gift giving. She loves giving surpriser gifts. When you open up a package from Mom you never know what you’re going to get. It could be an antique magazine, a ukulele or a bird whistle. In college, when I got an internship at National Geographic Magazine, she bought me a full-fledged safari suit. A jungle safari suit, for my desk job editing online copy. Last year she bought my dad, who doesn’t kayak, a massive inflatable kayak. She forgot, however, to buy the oars.
But this cassette recording was a big deal. We traipsed with her, all of her children, to the mall for her debut performance in Record America USA. After much deliberating over a song, (“Unchained Melodies” by the Righteous Brothers? “You are my Only One?” by James Taylor?) Mom finally landed upon “The Greatest Love of All” by Whitney Houston.
It was a natural choice. We were big Houston fans. Mom loved a good beat for dancing, but “The Greatest Love of All” was her favorite. Together we had watched the music video of Houston all alone on a stage, meeting with her younger self into a confident, powerhouse singer.
Mom was ushered into a practice studio where she was supposed to rehearse one time through the song before making her recording. The store was jam-packed that day, and the soundman ran a tight ship. A whole line of teenagers waited behind my mom for their chance to shine in the sound booth.
Finally it was Mom’s turn. My brothers and I were excited. We crowded around the studio door to hear her sing. It wasn’t necessary, of course. One of the perks of this particular establishment is that as you recorded, your song was broadcast live throughout the store and down the hall. Half the mall would hear Mom sing.
Her beginning was pitch-perfect. Her voice ran clear and smooth, like sap from a tree. My siblings and I looked around the store proudly. This was our mom! Were others appreciating this talent?
Then things began to unravel. Mom missed a key entrance, the beat before “The greatest love of all ” We cringed. She was getting further and further behind the beat and she wasn’t even halfway through the song.
Then, out of nowhere, came a man’s voice. Mom was singing a duet! Wanting to be helpful, the soundman, some invisible Oz-like voice from the next room over, had grabbed a mic and joined the song.
Now, “The Greatest Love of All” would make a decent duet if you were paired with, say, Nat King Cole. But there was a reason the soundman from Record America USA was operating the buttons from the sound booth and not taking center stage.
By the end of the piece, Mom’s supportive fan base was rolling with laughter. It just kept getting worse and worse. Not only that, but the great moment had been immortalized in a $20 piece of plastic.
The tape never made it into Dad’s hands on Valentine’s Day, but the memory has been etched into the family lore. When Mom called to tell me Whitney Houston died, her first remark was, “Remember that song I sang for Dad?”
I did remember, just like I will always remember the safari suit, bird whistle, lotion, old magazines and other gifts that come from Mom. Her Whitney Houston moment was just another reminder to me that the actual gift doesn’t matter as much as the fact that, even after many failed attempts, she never stops giving.
That is the greatest love of all.