I’m coming up on another anniversary of my mother’s passing. It is the time of year I can’t help but think of her and most recently I’ve been listening to songs she placed into my subconscious many years ago. It’s interesting how music can fill and then bind the gaps of memory. Following my parent’s divorce when I was living with Mom I would often come home from school to find her sitting on the couch crosslegged smoking a cigarette and watching music videos on the television. If she liked the song she’d turn the volume up and sing along while inviting me to watch it with her. She tried to get me to sing as well but I rarely did. Now, I’m older than she was then, and I wish I wouldn’t have thought of myself as too cool to share a brief singalong with my mother. Memories are like that—full of regret for the little things we didn’t do.
Here are some of the songs she enjoyed most with a bit of backstory to fill those proverbial gaps I mentioned earlier.
Elton John – I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues
Mom listened to this song often and was excited to point out how the male actor in the music video reminded her so much of me. “See,” she said. “How he chews on that gum, the way he stands and moves, and how he looks people in the eyes all the time, you two could be twins.” I didn’t see the resemblance (though we did have the same hair) as much but I got a kick out of how excited Mom was to try and convince me and secretly I kind of liked the song as well even though Elton John was far removed from what my own generation regarded as ‘cool.’
ALABAMA – Mountain Music
Mom loved her some Alabama and this one was on heavy rotation at the house and in the car. She even went to their concert when they were in town and came home with the t-shirt which she wore often when working around the house. I have two vivid memories of her and this song. The first is when she was making up my birthday dinner favorite, spare ribs and potato salad, and this came on the radio she kept in the kitchen. She turned the volume all the way up and started singing and when the part came where the music gets fast and the fiddle takes over, she started to do this jig-dance from the sink to the oven and back again while declaring, “Your old mom can still move!” I was equal parts horrified and amused to see her dancing like that. The second memory of this song relates to something that happened at the river. I was young, no more than ten or eleven, and decided to swim across but did so against the current instead of with it and about halfway across got into serious trouble. I couldn’t see my mom but I heard her. She called out my name and then shouted two more words at me in that tone that made clear to the world she meant business—”YOU SWIM.” So, I did, and made it across…but just barely. I rested on the rock-covered bank looking up at the blue summer sky for a good ten minutes with my chest heaving and my heart nearly pushing out of my chest. When I got up Mom was standing on the other side of the river staring at me. “NOW SWIM BACK,” she ordered. I dove in but wisely swam with the current and crossed safely. Lesson learned. There’s a line in the song about swimming across the river just to prove you’re a man. I still wonder from time to time that if I had a softer, less authoritative mother if the river would have taken me that day. My pride says no but another voice whispers how it sure wanted to. That river took many of us over the years and it almost took me.
Elvis Presley – An American Trilogy
Mom brought this VHS video home and played it for days and this song from the concert was by far her favorite. Elvis was on in our house for as long as I can remember. When he died she was in a funk for weeks. One time when walking through a drug store there was a poster of him for sale on display. She looked up at it and nearly started crying which was highly unusual because Mom was not one to cry easily. Years later during my wedding, we shared a dance and Elvis was what we chose to dance to.
Frank Sinatra — “That’s life”
I know this song was playing a great deal during my mother’s final months as the cancer ate away at her because she told me so. She had grown up listening to Sinatra in her house, saw him perform in person, and never stopped listening to him right until the very end. It exhibits a ‘bring it on’ toughness toward mortality that mirrors Mom’s own views on life and death. I like to think the two would have gotten along marvelously.
Mom’s communications regarding her own imminent demise were so very much her: unique, tough, and not wanting to burden others with her troubles.
“The cancer is back. No worries. That’s life.”
Coming soon—my father’s musical influence on the soundtrack of my life.
D.W. Ulsterman is an author, educator, socio-political commentator, and the creator of the popular San Juan Islands Mystery series.
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