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How I Rediscovered the Magic of Childhood

Friday, April 08, 2022

By Darcey Gohring

It’s Christmas 1980. I’m seven years old and standing on the upholstered footrest of my grandfather’s reading chair, which I have strategically positioned in the very center of my grandparent’s New Jersey living room.

Over my holiday dress, I’m wearing my grandmother’s fancy, pink bathrobe. On my ears are a sparkling pair of dangling faux-diamond clip-on earrings, around my neck is a brightly-colored, chunky necklace, and on my wrists are a glittering collection of bangle bracelets — all of which I painstakingly selected from my grandmother’s large drawer of costume jewelry a few moments ago. I wave my arms dramatically, my face trying to convey the depths of my emotion, as I belt out the song “42nd Street’’ from the musical by the same name.

My family is barely acknowledging this display. My mother is collecting scraps of wrapping paper from the carpet and adding them to a garbage bag she’s carrying in her hand. My two older sisters are sitting on the floor at the far end of the room, playing a card game. The only indication they can hear me is that they occasionally roll their eyes in my direction.

My uncle is talking to my aunt about gas prices, politics, or some other boring topic that adults seem to be obsessed with. And my grandfather is reading the inside cover of a book about World War II someone just gave him as a gift. Indeed, the only person in the room who appears to be watching me is my grandmother, who is seated on the sofa directly in front of me, leaving her no choice in the matter.

Suddenly, I decide I need to up the ante. When I sing the line, “sexy ladies from the eighties, who are indiscreet,” I lower my chin to the right side, tilting it demurely, and roll my shoulder the way I’ve Broadway actresses do.

“Darcey Eileen Doyle! Don’t roll your shoulder like that!” my grandmother shouts. “It makes you look like a hussie!” To my delight, this results in everyone’s eyes turning to me, so I do what I know I have to—sing the line again and repeat the motion with added flair.


This holiday scene embodies my childhood. Well, at least my private interior world. The outside me — the one at school— was a different animal. I was shy and timid, and my pale Irish skin turned blotchy shades of pink when any attention was unexpectedly called to me.

But behind closed doors, with the Broadway songbook, I was someone else entirely. Musical theater was my first love. The emotions it elicited were similar to the euphoric initial stages of any life-changing human experience. Two of my earliest favorites were Annie and Grease, and I put on performances of those musicals in our dingy, wood-paneled basement — to an audience of my mother and our fat, gray cat Scamper — more times than I can remember.

As a single mother raising three girls with a perpetually deadbeat ex-husband, my mother worked long hours. I vividly remember waiting impatiently for her to return home. As soon as I heard the backdoor open, I’d fly up the basement stairs and before she could even set down her briefcase, announce that “showtime” was in five minutes.

Even though I’m sure she was exhausted and most likely thinking about how she still had dinner to cook, she always indulged me for a few songs. I’d play them on a record player and sing along, dancing around the room and believing with every fiber of my being that she, too, could see the same theater I imagined was all around us.

I think now about the challenges she was up against and I know it offered the same escape to her as it did for me.

Because of our circumstances, my family lived modestly, but Broadway was the exception. My mother was an expert at the twofer TKTS Ticket Booth in Times Square, where you could wait in line the day of the performance and land half-price tickets to shows.

In those days, Times Square was not the same tourist destination it would become. It was a seedy place with X-rated peep shows and “gentlemen’s” clubs. Once or twice a year, as we navigated the sidewalks on the way to the booth, my mother taught me how to walk in New York City — eyes ahead, chin up, no eye contact, and move along as fast as your legs can carry you. The “I’m-in-a-rush-and-I’ve-got-somewhere-to-be” Big Apple strut.

In my middle and high school years, my love only grew as the Broadway stage exploded with blockbusters such as Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, and Cats. I fell in love over and over again. I saw those shows with my mother and went home and played the songs until I knew them inside and out. I think now about the challenges she was up against and I know it offered the same escape to her as it did for me. That time was ours. For a few hours, we were somewhere else.


I don’t remember the exact year the magic faded. Perhaps when I realized I was not born with the voice of an angel? Or when, as a young magazine editor, I was tasked with laying out the pages of the arts and entertainment section and realized my name was never going to be on any of them? Or maybe it was after my twins were born and I was knee-deep in bottles, burp cloths, and diapers? I can’t be sure.

By the time the twins were teenagers, and I was spending almost all my free time on sports fields lugging around coolers of Gatorade and bags of “healthy” snacks, the magic was completely nonexistent. Fantasy had left the building. Life had happened and cold, hard truths had sunken in.

That is where I was at the arrival of the pandemic two years ago. The little girl who sang show tunes barely existed as a part of me at all. She had been replaced with a middle-aged woman who nagged teenagers about studying for tests, who reminded her husband that he promised to tighten the screws on the wobbly kitchen stools, who stared in the mirror at the lines that were forming on her face and wondered which wrinkle cream really worked?

There seemed to be no magic left in the world.

I don’t know what made me Google Broadway tickets late last year and then text my mother to ask if she had any interest in seeing Moulin Rouge, but a week later, we sat side by side in the mezzanine of the Hirschfeld Theater on West 45th Street waiting for the show to begin.

As the lights dimmed, a flicker of something I couldn’t quite place stirred inside me. A sound reminiscent of fingers snapping echoed in the air, then the wicked, slightly naughty notes of the opening number began, and I was lost. “Hey sister, go sister, soul sister, flow sister …” sang four scandalously clad dancers in shades of ruby red and jet black, feathered hats swaying and shoulders rolling proudly.

Beneath my mask, my chin trembled and my eyes welled with tears. I was overwhelmed because right there in that moment, something completely unexpected happened: I fell in love again. I wanted to drink in every bit of it — the songs, the costumes, the colors, the lights, the splendor of it all — understanding only then how thirsty I had been.

I glanced at my mother and could see the same emotions reflected in her face. The magic was still alive and, together, we found it again.


Darcey Gohring is a freelance writer based outside New York City. She specializes in human interest and lifestyle content. She is a contributing author to the anthology book, Corona City: Voices From an Epicenter, and recently completed her first novel.

Connect with Darcey on Instagram or Twitter to learn more about her work.