April 29, 2013
We live in a state park where my father works as a superintendent, in a farmhouse near a small lake.
Each night ends with music. I’m lying in my mother’s lap in the rocking chair, the one with the quilted seat cushion. The dark night sits coolly outside the windows, as the hall light casts shadows across my mother’s young face. She asks me which stories I want to hear tonight. The horses? The flowers?
Before I answer, she begins to sing my second favorite song after the one about the horses. Her songs are her fairy tales, just as my father’s stories about hunting are his.
The leaves will bow down/when you walk by/and morning bells will chime, her soft, clear voice sings.
Years later, my mother will say You thought you owned that park. But really, it’s the park that owns me; at the age of three, it’s all I know.
As we rock and she sings, I’m comforted that tonight is my night to be with her. My mother and father take turns with my sister and me, and my father can’t sing. I will be disappointed years later when I find out that I can’t, either.
She finishes the song, pushing back my light brown hair and kissing my forehead. I ask for the horse song, too, which she sings, then I crawl into my twin-sized bed just as my father pokes his head into the room to say goodnight. Every night is just like this.
Australian Aborigines follow a tradition called the Dreamtime. They believe that during the period of the Dreamtime, gods dreamt the land into being.
I’m twenty-eight now and my mother is taking me to the indoor flea market near my parents’ home in a small town in Pennsylvania. The day before, I bought a large portion of someone’s record collection, but missed one that I wanted. I tease her on the car ride over, asking if I can take her record collection back to New York with me, greedily listing the Beatles and Leonard Cohen albums I want most, then adding that I wouldn’t mind taking a Peter, Paul, and Mary album, too. She laughs, saying I‘ll have to wait until she’s dead and then I’ll have to fight over them with my younger sister. I tell her I don’t think this is funny.
The building is the site of an old department store destroyed in a flood decades earlier. It’s airy like a warehouse. Beneath the rafters are booths filled with things like vintage salt and pepper shakers in the shape of kittens, birds, a chubby boy and girl who can hold hands, next to racks of orange and brown camouflage jumpsuits and displays of antique furniture. It’s a strange mix, just like the town that holds it. I grab the record I came for, then pause over two Peter, Paul, and Mary albums. I take them both: their classic first album featuring the trio as young, more-dapper-than-most folk singers, and another called simply Album with a patchwork of photos of the three on the back cover.
I show these to my mother when I slide back into the front seat of her car. She takes off her sunglasses and studies the second one. I don’t know this one, she says. I don’t either, but it was only a dollar. She and I talk about my sister in Alaska for the rest of the drive home. At the end of our ride, I tell her that the man I’ve been seeing has a family connection to Peter or Paul. I can’t remember which. I never talk about relationships with her. I can see her smile in my periphery.
Three days later, I’m back in New York. Within hours of returning, the man who I’ve told my mother about invites me to dinner. At his apartment, he sits me down on the couch and tells me there’s someone else. He no longer wants to see me. I brought the records with me and now they sit on his coffee table. We are supposed to listen to them after dinner. Instead, I leave and take them with me. He calls down the stairwell after me, We’ll talk later tonight.
I buy a bottle of pinot noir at the liquor store, and when I get back to my small studio apartment, I collapse on my bed. I lie in the silence for a while, and then I remember the records. I place Album on the player.
The machine is an inexpensive model that makes a buzzing sound at times and won’t play a record that is even slightly warped—the needle is cheap, and so are my speakers—but the scratchy music comes through. Songs of protest that, to this day, still feel raw, fill my apartment. Then halfway through the first side, Mary Travers’ deep voice begins to sing beside a single acoustic guitar, I’ll walk in the rain by your side/I’ll cling to the warmth of your tiny hand/I’ll do anything to make you understand/I’ll love you more than anybody can.
This is the song my mother sang when she held me before bed as a child. The song that connected me to the trees around our home, which signaled the quiet end of each day. This song is called “For Baby (For Bobby)” and Mary wrote it for her son. Hearing it in the context of the other songs is strange, as is listening to it in New York, where my parents have never lived and where I’m still struggling to find my place. I don’t recognize it at first, the words are familiar, I’m almost singing them, but there’s a pause with each syllable as I try to mouth the lines. Then I dial my parents’ number, asking if this is the song, the one I remember. My mother begins to sing on the other end.
Stories of the Dreamtime are passed down through generations in the form of songlines, spiritual geography creating paths across the land and sky navigable through verse, the past and present melding into the future.
There’s a context that involves my mother off the vinyl that is more striking to me.
As I listen to the group, I can see my mother as a twenty-year-old woman at a small university in Pennsylvania. She’s a bit scared and feeling a little guilty, but she’s also proud, because she’s the first in her family to go to college. She loves three things in particular: wigs that make her jet-black hair appear to be stacked much higher than it could possibly go. Mini-skirts. And music. It’s the mid-1960s. She doesn’t drink at parties or smoke pot. What she does do is play her guitar on a rock in the middle of a stream. I know this because she’s told me several times over the years. I’ve never seen the river or photos of my mother doing this, but I can picture it perfectly.
Her guitar is a small Gibson, light brown in color with a neck trim enough for her petite hands to easily find the chords. It’s a Saturday afternoon in the early fall and she’s dressed in a light green and brown mohair sweater, jeans that fall straight to her feet and leather loafers. Her guitar case, a hard faux-leather red container, leans against the nightstand by her bed. Her walls are bare, but she has many books and room for her record player.
A boy from one of her classes, more precisely a man whom she considers to be handsome, asks her to lunch on this day, but she turns him down and instead heads to the river. No one knows she does this almost weekly. When she arrives, she pauses for a moment before skipping across small rocks to the larger, almost boulder-like, hunk of limestone in the middle of the clear stream. She’s never fallen in, but fears she might.
She settles in quickly, knowing exactly the spot that will support her guitar case and the other where the sun peaks through the leaves and hits her as she plays. The leaves are beginning to change and are almost translucent with reds and browns and yellows and pinks when rays strike, and the small rapids in the water ricochet the sun’s light, at times blindingly so.
A gentle, slow strumming begins to echo from the cavern in the middle of the instrument. The faster and more steadily her hand moves, the more forceful the sound becomes. She sings hymns, she sings John Denver, she sings folk songs covered by favorite groups, most notably Peter, Paul, and Mary. After falling in love with the Everly Brothers and the girl groups of the late 1950s and early 1960s, she’s now fallen in love with these popular folk anthems and Peter, Paul, and Mary are her favorite performers. Sometimes they sing songs she’s grown up hearing at mass, and other times they sing songs that make her feel free from it all. At both times these songs soothe her; make her feel safe and original in the same breath.
It has been said that someone who intensely studies songlines can find her way across the continent without a proper map, can travel through song.
My mother is a devout Catholic. As children, my sister and I groan each year on vacation when our parents drag us to mass on the first day of vacation before we can go down to the beach; on Sunday mornings after a sleepover when all of our friends are allowed to stay on and eat breakfast together; the day after proms and homecomings, when our feet hurt and our young skin smells of the cold cream we used to remove our makeup. I dread Easter the most. Easter means lengthy church services, frequent trips to the Stations of the Cross, and five days of mass in a row. We live in a small Waspy town. These frequent trips make me feel like more of an outcast than usual, and so I lie, telling friends that I’m grounded on those few Friday nights rather than telling them that I’ll be in church.
Because I haven’t paid attention to most of what Peter, Paul, and Mary are singing about when my mother plays their albums, I assume they’re a religious group and for this reason reject them. But, by the age of twelve I’m obsessed with my mother’s guitar—an instrument my sister now claims as her own—and the songs she plays on it at home and in church. As a child, perhaps three or four, I pull my mother’s guitar out from under her bed every couple of weeks. I bang on it, making up my own songs about ponies, performing concerts for my parents when my father has returned home from the park office. There’s a photograph of me, two long pigtails hang from the sides of my head, patches of my sweater are visible, but mostly I’m all head, legs, and arms with a guitar for a body. It is nearly as tall as me. Now, as a teenager, I want to learn how to play.
On a July afternoon, the summer after my eighth grade year, my mother offers to buy me my own guitar. It’s an early birthday gift, she says. My parents and I are having trouble talking to each other. This isn’t unexpected, I’m fourteen; but it seems to go deeper than teen angst to all of us. I’m a misfit in my rural town and my family and I have no idea how I ended up this way. Most weekends, I sit in my room listening to recordings of the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith.
Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine. Smith’s gravelly voice opens her first album, Horses, with that simple line as she explodes into a cover of “Gloria.” I’m captivated by Smith; her lyrics are my rebellion. On Saturdays I listen to Patti, on Sundays I go to my confirmation classes at the Catholic school I attended as a child. Smith is the same age as my mother, was raised Catholic, feels familiar in those ways; but, they couldn’t be less alike.
My mother and I get into our family’s rust colored Blazer and drive to the closest mall, an hour away, where my mother’s friend owns a music store. The mall is a relic from the 1970s when developers brought things from outside—trees, streams, wooden park benches—indoors. Today, I walk past these artificial landscapes that usually, strangely, captivate me, and walk straight to the back of Oswald’s Music. The guitars rest in racks against the wood-paneled wall and for months a red model has had my attention. The body swirls subtly with deep burgundies, sparks of blood red, and low-lights of charcoal. It’s the color and pattern I’d like my hair to be. But, the neck is too wide for my hands, hands that are even smaller than my mother’s.
My mother’s friend pulls down another one, a jet black Alvarez with a splash of white across the front. I take it from his hands into my own. The curve of the guitar’s body fits the slight curves of my own and my fingers slide up and down the neck easily.
The guitar doesn’t go back into its case for weeks, though my mother is worried it will get scratched. I begin to take guitar lessons from Jerry, who owns the local music store. He understands, even likes, teenagers, and, with that, my parents and I have found a place where I can feel like I belong for a while.
Jerry and I talk from the minute I enter the store on Thursday afternoons, until my lesson is over. Sometimes, if the next person cancels, we continue to talk about surf guitar, Tom Robbins, the Mennonite kids who come into his store to buy the harmonicas their parents forbid them to own, the general problems of a teenager. Sometimes other musicians drop in and I sit on a stool and listen to them try out new instruments.
I begin to imagine a path for myself that will take me into an adulthood that feels free. My parents push that path forward for me: regular trips to the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh; a long stay with my mother’s cousin in New York that same summer; art lessons at a painter’s loft in town.
While away at college in Pittsburgh, I see an advertisement for a Patti Smith concert, a night of music and poetry. Immediately, I call my mother to ask if she’d like to go. She has never listened to Smith’s music, nor do I think she would particularly enjoy the singer’s early work, but I need to share with my mother the experience of seeing my favorite musician perform. My mother agrees to go, is shocked that I’ve asked. After the performance, she turns to me and says she hadn’t realized that that was what I had been listening to all those weekends in my bedroom. Much like that version of my mother sitting on the rock in the middle of the river, this version of me hears freedom and comfort, rebellion and romance, in the lyrics of Smith. My mother recognizes the way in which the walls I imagined to be built around my life fall away inside the music of this woman.
Through the years, she calls me when she reads something about Smith, or asks me specifically about the times I go to see her perform in New York. When Smith’s memoir Just Kids comes out, she says, I’m so excited for you to read it.
When Mary Travers dies in the spring of 2009, I begin to call my mother every day. I’m upset because the icons of culture, her popular culture, that have connected me to her are beginning to disappear physically, as if her life is disappearing into songlines. I realize suddenly, almost childishly, that someday those songlines are all that will be left of her. I try to relearn how to play the guitar; I play the albums and the songs that inspired her so deeply on my buzzing record player, recognizing the emotional geography that links us like a limestone bridge linking two sides of a gorge.