My brother and I had a very uncomplicated, peaceful childhood. My mom made sure. For all the nights my dad stayed out working, or golfing we did our own thing at home. Not like today when we have our kids running the roads just to keep them busy. The three of us stayed home when we didn’t have obligations, and in our front room, we danced and we listened to music. In the beginning, the original Sesame Street records. A little later, my moms records. Lots of Elvis, Beatles and more Motown than we would ever work through. So much. That was what we did. I still have six boxes of her 33’s and hundreds of 45’s in a closet downstairs. I keep them because each one represents something different. A different story she told. A different memory for all of us.
Her plants were just so, arranged in that bright front room among her meticulously chosen decor she’d saved up for from the Sears catalog to make everything perfect for us. The picture window. The room we left from for the bus each morning. Her drapes. My mom and her damn drapes.
But, back then, your parents were the Gatekeepers to such things. To music. Kids our age didn’t have their own collections. Rarely did we even have our own cassette players or radios. Eventually I learned how to use the record player with caution so I could play all my storybook records. I got to where I didn’t have to ask first. While my brother liked to scrape the needle across the records and spin them backwards so he could hear them in reverse. Or play them at the wrong speed entirely.
Years later he was blessed with his own stereo system…the kind it took my mom a year to save for that came in it’s own cabinet and took up half his room. I think she was just desperate for him to keep his hands off her stuff.
But before that, in simpler, quieter times, I got my own little radio with a tape deck and headphones where I would listen to my stories on tape. I had a Garfield cassette with a song that I vividly remember called Long About Midnight by Lou Rawls. Who I knew well from our ‘Family 8-track’ in the station wagon and his song You’ll Never Find. And one magical day, my dad brought home a tiny record player. It was for me. It had some torn and restuck Winnie the Pooh stickers on it. It was blue in a folding case. Never one to pass up Free, he had literally found it in a junkyard while scavenging for car parts for work. But it played fine. And it was mine. I listened to my stories and kids music all evening and would fall asleep with my big headphones on listening to Chicken Soup with Rice or Free to be You and Me.
By the time I was 10, our family structure had changed. My parents were struggling in their marriage. John was more unruly than ever. We weren’t eating dinner together like we always had. Those peaceful times filled with music had been replaced with fighting and just getting through the days while my parents worked even more just to hold the mess together. I had spent a lot of long hours alone in my room scraping those old records for any comfort or memory of things I could no longer hear. Grabbing every song that came on the radio as fast as I could, to process it and commit it to memory before the chance was gone completely. I knew once it was there, it would stay. And I wanted to keep everything. My dad’s Jim Croce and Harry Chapin. My mom’s Beatles, 50’s and 60’s. All my 80’s and R&B. Even my brother’s classic rock.
I’m going to end it here, on the day my mom reached out to me. Through all of this. Which I know now wasn’t easy for her. She hadn’t grown up with her heart cared for and I believe it remained a struggle for her to know how to do it for us, even when it was most needed. She just didn’t know how. On this day, she stopped fighting me for wanting to be alone. She stopped seeing it as a failure on her part. She stopped thinking something was ‘wrong’ with me. On this day, she saw me for me. And told me in her own way that she understood my new world. She brought me a stack of instrumental records. No words. Just music. Communicating with me the way that she best knew how. On this day, she told me that she was hearing me.
The list was Sleepwalk by Santo and Johnny, Green Onions by Booker T and the M.G.s, Percy Faith A Summer Place, Walk Don’t Run by the Ventures, Flight of the Bumblebee from Hooked on Classics. And this last one that I hold close to my heart forever. This delicate song popped up in my head several days ago from somewhere long, long ago. It helped me to know she was there. No matter the years passed, I was right. I knew it would all stay.
Miss you Mama
This was the last birthday card I recieved from my mom. 2016. April will be my 3rd birthday without her. I keep this on my fridge so I can see it every day and never forget the sentiments that she made seem so easy, but I know, at times, were so hard for her to express.