Choir Mom

Christopher DeCou

© Copyright 2018 by Christopher DeCou


Photo of Korean lanterns and banners.

Dawn was sitting in the corner at the small table. She has light brown hair, though as she admitted in her smooth drawl, “I just got my hair colored yesterday. I knew I had to get cleaned up before meeting you. I met David and Katherine for lunch on Sunday, and had to apologize so many times for my appearance. I looked awful. I haven’t had it recolored all summer. I’m just vain enough, I have to make sure my hair is colored right.” She is fond of describing herself as “matronly,” and I can’t think of a better description. She commands a room, always prepared for any and everyone, ready to solve any crisis, be a shoulder to cry on, offer a word of advice. She is not tall or imposing, but her presence always impresses.

This might be her last year in Korea, and she has started to delegate her responsibilities among the foreigner and ex-pat community. “Over the past few months, I have tried to step away from the organization. I am doing less these days. Well, I am doing less of what I was doing, I’m now just picking up some other neglected areas,” she explained. Dawn has no official role for the community, but she is vitally important. She has been integral to one of the most cherished organizations of the Seoul arts community, the Camarata Music Company (CMC), a nonprofit music organization, dedicated to promoting music and theater, and bridging cultural divides across the city. She has contributed to many other initiatives and organizations with just as much zeal, yet her passion remains in music, “I don’t know what I would have done without Camarata.”

That’s where I first met Dawn. I moved to Korea to teach history and social science and landed south of Seoul in a small city of five hundred thousand – provincial by Korean standards, since anything not Seoul is the boonies. I had visited the metropolis numerous times, but had few opportunities to connect to community. At the beginning of winter that first year, a local friend who knew that I enjoyed singing, told me about a choir in Seoul. They had two different groups, one auditioned, which sang throughout Korea and the city; and the second, open to anyone and with three performances a year. I was ecstatic and overjoyed to audition. I was accepted into the first choir, and began a three-year association with a weekly 4-hour commute.

That first rehearsal, Dawn was the grease that made the wheel spin. Although Ryan directed the choir and the organization, she ran logistics, called and ordered dresses. She took the director’s desultory comments and wrote a coherent outline and schedule. She met with Ryan throughout the week to work on planning. When we had events, she was the one who figured out transportation and where everyone was. For the larger choir, she organized registration, managed tickets, and so much more. She took on responsibility to aid Ryan, and became indispensable to the organization.

We affectionately called her our choir mom. If anyone had a problem, they called Dawn, and she came to the rescue. She always considered others and sacrificed herself and her time. Since Korea was not her first international experience, she knew the feelings of loneliness that can overwhelm one during the holidays. She would take on her particular matronly role of hostess, and orchestrate wonderful parties. After the spring concert, she would often host an event for the organization. She invited everyone to her house. Her husband would do the cooking, and discuss the most recent Congressional debate, all the while showing off his latest kitchen utensil. She would meander among the guests, glass of wine in hand, ensuring everyone had something to eat and was enjoying themselves. For that night, their flat would become a shelter or halfway house for transient waifs, globetrotters, CEOs, and everyone else.

Life was not always so convivial. Dawn grew up around Charlotte, North Carolina, home to the Bible Belt. She was raised in the conservative, evangelical world. No drinking, no pants for girls. One should live apart from the world, rather than in it. She grew her hair long, but her sisters were allowed to cut and trim it. Others in their church were not so liberal. They made sure to let her mother know what they thought of her loose children. Once, when in early high school, she had the opportunity to travel with her father to the national assembly. This was the convention when all bigwigs from across the denomination came together to discuss church policy.

It was her first time to fly, and she was so excited. She put on a nice dress and high heels for the journey. Her family was not well off, so she was not wearing anything too expensive, but she was proud of her dress. They flew to Dallas for the meeting; and when she and her Daddy arrived, they were overwhelmed with the heat. It was summer already, but the city was experiencing a huge heatwave. Her shoes couldn’t take the heat either. They were some of those cheap heels with plastic blocks. As she and her father walked along the pavement, the plastic started to melt. By the end of the day, they were dripping and worthless.
At the convention, the denomination was becoming absurd with their new rules. Her father wasn’t so strict. She saw him more as a “Bible teacher” than as one devoted to finding regulations from the Bible. It was he who allowed for more leniency in their family. She would come home and talk about how everyone saw her as different. She was becoming the “girl who wears long dresses.” Most of the other girls had short skirts or pants, but she was forbidden. Her father felt such sympathy he told her not to worry about it. He would take her to the store, and they would buy her some pants. Her mother was not happy, but her father put his foot down, that he would not allow his daughter to be left out and feel so alone. It ended up being too late anyway, because by the next year, she was already “the girl who always wears long dresses.” She wouldn’t be able to lose that reputation until she went to college.

The convention could have made that even worse. She and her dad were sitting in the pew during the speech, when someone raised clothing for discussion. He was concerned the young people were too liberal and licentious. He called for the Assembly to require only muted color clothing. Ostentatious colors distracted from the gospel and Jesus. The floor opened, and her father looked at her with such incredulity. Finally, someone raised the relevant point about missions. He asked the audience to consider how they expected to discuss these problems in places around the world, where color was such an integral part of their culture. For instance, in Africa. Have you seen how they dress in Africa? Do you want to go and tell those people they can’t wear their tribal clothes for them to become Christian? Point made, her dad sighed some relief. Thankfully, the convention tabled the discussion and didn’t pass it. But when Dawn reflects on how strict her upbringing was, she sometimes wonders how she got out of it all.

One of the things that changed her the most was probably the man who would later become her husband. They were high school sweethearts who had a long romance. They met through mutual friends: Dawn was friends with someone that one of his friends was dating, even though Waller was in his senior year. They all happened to be at the table together and were chatting, and the conversation turned to various topics about love and romance. For some reason, Dawn commented that she had always wanted to receive a love letter. She had this old-fashioned idea that she would fall in love with someone who would write beautiful love poetry to her, and words would be the thing that united them. After she had said that, Waller replied that he would write her a love letter. She was surprised and didn’t believe him. She told him, “No, you don’t have to do that.” He insisted.

The following day while she was at her locker, Waller walked up to her, handed her a letter, and said, “This is for you.” She was so surprised and flattered. She opened it and found it covered in writing. He had filled the pages with tiny scribbles, filled with Shakespearean references, literary quotes, flowery language. She was amazed at his mind. She later found out that he had spent his entire math class writing it. When the teacher called on him, thinking that he was not paying attention, he called out the answer, and went right back to writing the letter.

Dawn explained that this wasn’t the moment she realized she loved him though. It was only later after they started dating she learned how much she cared about him. Several of their friends were hanging out together, watching the film Brian’s Song. The lights were off, and they were huddled in front of the television. When the story ended, the girls were all crying and weeping. They all rushed to the bathroom to dry their eyes. They returned, and the guys switched on the lights and turned on some music to try to lighten the mood. Several of the couples started dancing. So, she asked Waller if he would dance with her. He flat out refused. She asked why, and he said he didn’t want to. She was a little disappointed, but she sat down next to him. Not long later, he got up and went to the kitchen. She followed him, and found him there preparing some food. He was starting to cook something. But that was not what she at first noticed. Instead it was that as he was gathering the things, he was swaying and dancing to the music. Standing in the doorway of that kitchen, she knew: he was the person for her. She realized it wasn’t that he didn’t want to dance, it was that he was afraid of dancing in front of the others. That shyness and vulnerability drew him to her. “I’m a sucker for someone in need,” Dawn explained with laughter.

Despite her feelings, their romance took a strange detour. Because Waller was a senior, he went off to college, and Dawn remained in high school. They broke up and gave each other freedom to meet other people. Dawn tried to date other guys, and wanted to treat them on their own. But she always ended up comparing them to Waller, even when she tried not to. Once, she became very ill. She went through successive illnesses, mono, strep throat, etc. and her tonsils could take no more. She had to have surgery and have them removed. Waller had found out that she was sick, and had called. He said he wanted to come and see her, and see how she was doing. She asked him not to come. Her dad was by the side of her bed, helping her. He told her she needed to take the medicine, and it was “flavored worse than any of those cherry throat medications.” She vomited, spilled it all over herself and her dad. She felt and looked so bad; she didn’t want Waller to see her like that.

He came anyway. He stood in the doorway, she was crying, hair a mess, spit all over her hospital gown. She thought this was it. He would never want to see her ever again. Years later, he told her: that was when he knew he loved her. They married as soon as she graduated college.

Singing is one of the main motifs to Dawn’s life. I remember the first time I saw Dawn perform during one of our Chamber Singer’s concerts. The choir left the stage, and the soloist stood alone. The piano started, and I immediately recognized Gershwin blues. From the first note to the last, Dawn captivated the audience, held them on edge with her voice and emotion. A friend once said asked me, “Who is that lady in the middle of the choir? She is so electric, and has so much emotion. When you guys perform, I can’t help but watch her, because she is so in love with the music.” In that performance, her voice channeled everything as she placed herself within that melancholic melody. Tears streamed down my face, when she sang those intense final notes. The song’s heaviness became palpable in the room.

But Dawn has not always had the chance to let music be the center of her life. Dawn grew up singing in the church, and she studied music in college. At that time, music became everything. As any music major knows, music performance demands an incredible amount of time during college. First are the private lessons, then the singing groups. Rehearsals, performances, travel, school. It is an intense way to spend college. Dawn loved music and was glad to do it. But after graduation, she and Waller got married, and she couldn’t get a music position. “Let’s be honest, can you really make any money doing music?”

That summer, she leafed through the classifieds and other job advertisements, and found a position as a secretary for a brokerage firm. She was a quick learner and made her case. In the beginning, the job was a challenge. But she grew accustomed to the new jargon and started working on the back end organizing documents and accounts. She knew she didn’t want to be an assistant forever. She investigated how to become a certified trader. She spoke to her bosses and told them, she wanted to study to get her brokerage license; and they supported her, but told her, she had to study on her own time. They agreed to help her and paid for her materials. Soon enough, she received a box with 30 or so books in it, and she hit the books. It took her two years, nights and weekends studying and preparing. She went to take the test and failed.

She was devastated. So close to the cut off. She knew she could do it. After all that time and effort, she wouldn’t quit. She decided to try again as soon as possible. She studied even harder. Reviewed all the concepts, went through practice tests. “When the big day came, I had this silly idea that if I feel good about myself, maybe I will do better.” So, Dawn got all dolled up. She did her hair, put on a nice dress, matching pumps, and shoes. She did her makeup and lipstick. She looked like she was going out for a nice evening date. She made it to the exam center, which was in a hotel, and sauntered in confidently. As soon as she got the exam, she scrambled to finish it and worked through the first three hours. She could barely think during the break for lunch, went back in and ran her pen along the pages for another three hours. She was exhausted when it was over, and decided to reward herself with a drink. Since they were already in a hotel, she went to the bar, and ordered. She felt great about her answers and was ready. The music started playing, she started swaying and then walked to the dance floor. She glanced down at her feet. And she was mortified: she was wearing completely different shoes on each foot!
She passed the second exam and became a Series 7 stock broker.
With her new license, she was promoted and started working for “Tom, a big guy, Jabba the Hut, sorta look, but a kind, caring man.” She helped the office expand and grow. When they opened a second branch, she was instrumental in organizing and logistics. She knew they would pass her up if she didn’t stand up for herself. She walked into Tom’s office, and said, “When you open the new office, I want to be there.” They listened, brought her there, and she became the new manager.

 She loved the job, and only ended up leaving because of being a new mother and her husband’s transfer to international offices.

After all these years, Dawn returned to her second true love: music. When she and Waller moved to Japan, Dawn started performing again. She had some scares while they lived there, a mysterious illness that took time to get resolved. But once they came to Korea, Dawn started finding more singing opportunities again. Like so many others, Dawn stumbled into Camarata. She started taking voice lessons again, rebuilding her voice and repertoire. She has continued to grow and flourish as an artist and singer there. Now she frequently sings around Seoul for small events in the international community, sharing her voice and passion for everyone.

Dawn has two of her own boys, one in college, the other graduated. They are the joys of her life, and she cares for them dearly. She loves to talk about what they are up to and tell stories about them from high school and when they were little, as any proud mother. Like the time they returned to the United States after living in Japan. For her one son, this became a way to open up and make friends. The new kids at school loved to hear about his life in Japan. For her other son, the move back to the States was traumatic. Kids made fun of him for talking about Japan and identifying with Japan. Her boys changed, and it was hard on her as a mother.

 We had long finished our meal and were just talking about life, love, and stories. In many ways, she has been a mom to so many, and I felt particularly touched. People used to ask me why I would make the commute to CMC every week. It was tiresome, rarely fun. I often arrived home after midnight, even later if there was a problem. And then had to wake up by 6 am the next morning to be at work on time. It was challenging. But it was almost always worth it. Once, she may have been the soprano who always wore dresses, but now she was the “choir mom.”

Christopher DeCou is a historian and teacher turned digital nomad and writer. He studied Medieval and Early Modern Studies and Chinese at the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago. After four years teaching in South Korea, he decided to pursue his dreams to cross the Silk Road, tell stories, and write history. Now, he spends his days writing the stories between the pages and watching distant sunsets over the Mediterranean. 

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