The High Notes and Hard Knocks of My Traveling Karaoke Family

My parents owned a karaoke business, and we were all on stage together night after night, with Dad belting “YMCA” and Mom coo-ing like Marilyn Monroe. When disaster struck, singing was our savior.

The High Notes and Hard Knocks of My Traveling Karaoke Family

At the dawn of the karaoke craze in America, my parents owned and operated a small business called Star Tracks Entertainment. Blazing comets underscored their slogan, “Where YOU are the STAR,” but they understood that every successful emcee must also be willing to sing a few numbers, especially when the night is young and the crowd is still timid.

They were a handsome couple dressed in matching black-and-white formalwear, with clip-on bow ties and backless tuxedo vests. My buff Italian father, who had feared he was too short for my Yugoslavian mother ever since the time she asked him to step on a bucket before kissing her, stood an inch below her well-sprayed ’80s perm, yet he never complained about her high heels. Her legs were long and shapely, tanned by pantyhose, and her confidence in a miniskirt was unbreakable even after my father had introduced her to one pretty woman as his cousin.

My parents posing in front of the wall at Roudigan’s. (Photos courtesy the author)

My parents made it look easy, never fumbling with the cords or uncertain about which leg to lean on. They never learned how to harmonize for a duet, but the timbres of their voices melted into one smooth alto sound. They knew how to accentuate the slow beats with resounding claps, how to make the dullest audiences “give it up” for even the worst performers.

But what really made them special was their duffel bag of wigs and costumes, saltshakers, rubber chickens, and a retractable limbo pole. Dad pulled random spectators behind a curtain to dress up for his on-the-spot “YMCA” dance routine, while Mom transformed in the restroom for her sultry Marilyn Monroe impersonation. It didn’t matter whether a client was getting married, turning 16, or retiring: Few could resist playing musical chairs and pop trivia for their tacky prizes (e.g., noisemakers and Chinese finger traps). Star Tracks Entertainment toured the Hudson Valley up to five nights a week, even landing on the same stage as Gloria Gaynor during a music festival on Hunter Mountain, because of their novelty and versatility.

My siblings and I tagged along for gigs because it’s easier to start a conga line with three children. As long as we donned straw sombreros and Mardi Gras beads to the tune of “Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot,” we were free to run rampant. Despite this freedom and the unlimited soda, I could have sat forever gazing at the wall behind the stage at Roudigan’s, a hotel lounge where a mural depicted Hollywood icons such as Humphrey Bogart, Shirley Temple and Julie Andrews. I pictured my grownup self on the wall, engulfed by a spotlight.

I began performing for audiences in the hundreds and competing in contests when I was only 4 years old. Before I learned to spell my name, I was memorizing lyrics and rehearsing choreography with a strange thing my mother called attitude. I faked every word on the blue screen, watching the ball bounce in rhythm with the light swelling inside the hieroglyphics. At Mom’s direction, I flexed my bicep to the chorus of Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough” with the cockiness of a bodybuilder. Nothing could compare to the rush of strutting onstage, hearing someone shout from the front row, Yeah, Dina! Bring down the house! and then whisper, How in the hell does she know how to read already?

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The praise I received for my bicep-flexing in “You Ain’t Woman Enough” gave rise to the tomboy I became by second grade: a scrawny tree-climber who bragged about beating all of the boys at chin-ups during gym class, copied the flying kicks of Sporty Spice, and taught herself how to walk on her hands and do one-handed cartwheels and roundoffs. To me, being “woman enough” meant being as strong, fast and flexible as any male athlete.

Nothing seemed impossible, if only I put my mind to it. I wished on stars and typed letters to my imagined guardian angel, begging to be discovered by the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. So what if I failed my tryout for that Oscar Meyer Weiner commercial? I had talent, grit and imagination. I was destined to be a star.

This confidence is why I raised my hand on the day my fifth-grade teacher, a man in his late 60s, pointed to the chalkboard where he had begun to list “men’s jobs” and “women’s jobs” and paused to ask the class, Where does singing belong? He didn’t call on me, so I shouted, Women’s! He smiled and said, Wrong. Why do you think Frank Sinatra was so successful?

What about Celine Dion? I pressed him. Or my Mom? He couldn’t answer, so he directed me to sing in front of the classroom to demonstrate my aptitude. I marched to the chalkboard, but once I turned around and saw the bored faces staring back at me, including that of a boy who had recently called me ugly, I felt strangely embarrassed. But it was too late to back down, and besides, I knew that my trembling voice would amplify the drama of my performance, thereby proving me worthy of the limelight. I sang the first verse of “My Heart Will Go On,” but not until I made every one of my classmates close their eyes. Tears welled up in mine; something yet unknown to me that dwelled deep inside my 10-year-old body begged to be heard.

By the time I started to wear a training bra, I’d learned the subtle but deafening difference between singing at the top of your lungs and screaming. Night after night, my parents came home from work arguing about a young karaoke performer who lived around the block. Let’s call her Sandra. From what I gathered, sometimes they picked up Sandra on the way to a gig and drove her home afterward. Lately, however, Dad had started going over to Sandra’s without Mom. Sandra’s name was one of many that startled me from sleep that year: Cynthia, Mallory, Ava, Victoria, Natalie, Kendra. Mom spat and slurred as she pointed in Dad’s face. You’re drunk, he said. Quit scaring the kids. My siblings and I huddled on the staircase, covering our ears until someone called the police.

I didn’t know who was right or wrong, what was true or false. I only knew that I wasn’t yet woman enough to understand. I cried myself to sleep each night and rode into school late, sleep-deprived and shaken. I pressed my cheek to the cold desk and heard the echo of slamming doors instead of history lessons. My teacher stood above my desk and said, Looks like Dina-Karaoke had another late night of fun and dancing. That’s no excuse for not doing your homework.

 My parents continued to work together. No matter how hard they fought at home, they always put on a smile and held hands for Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” Although I had been impersonating my idols throughout elementary school, I was still shocked to learn that karaoke could be a medium for insincerity, and that my parents didn’t mean it when they looked into each other’s eyes and sang, “There ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb.” Somehow, even the saddest country songs had failed to teach me how people can act one way and truly be another.   

Sometimes I hurled myself between their bodies and begged them to stop fighting. When they didn’t listen, I worried that my voice was not as powerful as I had thought. I tried singing Jewel’s “You Were Meant for Me” to persuade them back into romance, but to no avail. Only once it seemed clear that they no longer loved each other did I abandon my dream of singing.

By then, I had found some comfort in writing, in being my own audience. The flat chest in the mirror swelled like upside-down question marks, asking: Who will I become? Who will notice the New Me once the Old Me is gone? Around that time, Dad learned that he was being forced by family court to leave home. He threw Mom’s clothes out of a window in protest, and I ran to grab my diary. Mom burned rubber out of the driveway just as I wedged myself between her coats and shoes in the dark of a closet. By flashlight, I wrote: “Nobody could ever possibly love me! Nobody would even care if I was on fire!” With these two lines, I prepared myself for a fate much worse than puberty and the splitting of my parents.

At 16, I woke in the middle of the night to find myself trapped in a burning room. It was the room my parents had once shared, later my 14-year-old sister’s. While she and I were sleeping in her bed, flames had spread from a candle to a wicker loveseat. I came to coughing and woke her with my last bit of air. Instead of crawling, we bolted for the door. We thrashed through smoke so thick it seemed solid. Our eyes stung shut as our bodies spun in the dark, colliding into walls, furniture, each other. We choked in silence as the flames whipped us. With help from Mom, we escaped one minute before the windows exploded, engulfing the second story. All of the neighbors lined up on the street to watch our house burn and hear our smoldering clothes hiss under the weak stream of a garden hose.

My parents at my bedside at the Shriners Burn Hospital, 2005.

I was in a medically induced coma for almost three months, five times longer than my sister. Around our ICU bedsides, our broken family came together again. Instead of fighting, our parents embraced. Instead of praying, they sang to us.

When I regained consciousness on my 17th birthday, I learned that most of my body had been severely burned, requiring more skin grafts than I had skin left to use. I was held together by stapled pig skin, cadaver skin, and skin from my shaved head. My hands had burned to the bone and I’d lost two fingers to gangrene. What remained of my hand was immobile and unrecognizable. I couldn’t walk. I was too weak to rise. Yet, the worst part was I had lost my voice to a tracheotomy. I tried to ask questions, but the only noise I could make was bleeping from a monitor. I was calmed only by the sight of my sister, bandaged but safe, and of my parents, who, for the first time in years, stood shoulder to shoulder.

I had lost the ability to sing and to write. Handstands, cartwheels and tree climbing were also out of the question. These outlets of expression had been the way I measured my strength and value. They were the tools that endlessly comforted me throughout my parents’ separation. Without them, I was a stranger to myself. I wasn’t sure that I could stand to be alive, disfigured, disabled and traumatized.

Eventually, the hole in my throat closed and my vocal cords vibrated again. At first, my voice sounded hoarse, but within a year it rounded into a fuller-sounding — although quite deep and raspy — version of my old voice. Due to smoke inhalation, I could no longer hit high notes, and breathing was difficult. I felt resigned to the idea that my vocal range was now limited to songs sung by men. Still, it wasn’t long before Mom set up a karaoke machine in our new kitchen and handed me the mic. For the duration of a song, every cell in my body felt restored to familiar territory. I sounded weaker and less talented than before, but at least I could make a sound.

My first live performance as a burn survivor took place under a pop-up tent in a veteran’s backyard. It was the summer I turned 18, and my wavy hair had grown back in wild curls. Warm wind blew the smell of barbecue across the lawn. I helped myself to some taps on the side of a beer truck and bounced around the grass in booty shorts, dancing the way that only the bedridden can learn to dance.

When it was my turn to sing karaoke, I belted out The Doors’ “Light My Fire,” and every head turned toward the stage. It was easy for me to channel the unbridled energy of Jim Morrison, because karaoke had raised me to be an expert in imitation. Given this skill, I could convince myself that even though I had been comatose, I’d never missed a beat. That even though my scars were redder than the plastic cup in my nearly ruined hand, I was exactly where I belonged.