Sunday, February 10, 2008

Growing Into My Mother's Music

I am old enough to span several generations of music. As a young girl, I danced on my father's feet to Big Band sounds. I saw the rise and fall of Elvis Presley, danced to the Beatles, and learned all the Joan Baez folk songs by heart. I danced to disco and went to see a matinee of Saturday Night Fever when it first came out to avoid being seen enjoying my secret passion for dancing movies. Even when most people my age have settled down, I discovered world beat music and embarrassed my daughter by becoming an ardent fan of a local band, Dogtalk.

Because my mother bounced through life much like the shiny steel balls in the old fashioned pinball machines with levers and springs and bright lights, it was not easy to hold on to her. One of my earliest memories of my mother is dancing in our living room as she taught me how to kick like a Rockette to "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" back when music came on large vinyl discs. When I was younger I thought that if I had looked less like my father I might have had an easier time connecting with my mother, but I have outgrown that idea along with most of my painful shyness. I have danced in the aisles of grocery stores (and probably will again), which is something that my mother would have endorsed wholeheartedly. She probably would have gotten other people to dance, too. That was one of her gifts. It took me a long time to realize that it was a gift--both the dancing in the aisles and the contagious whimsy.

When she was only a bit older than I am now, she sent me several tapes of the music of her generation along with commentary about who was playing and what she was doing at the time. Sadly, at that time it did not seem like a gift. Life with a mother like a pinball is not easy. I have outgrown both my resentment about all those difficulties and the guilt because I could not love her better than I did. It is not a regret to say that if she were here now, we could have a nice conversation and we might even dance around the living room again. There must be something like regret but milder, softer to describe that "now that I understand, it would be nice to sit and listen to that same music" feeling.

These thoughts began swirling through my mind as I listened to the Caithness Big Band last Friday at the Royal British Legion. They played classics such as Mood Indigo and Sentimental Journey and Tuxedo Junction and despite being far removed from anything my mother would have known, I felt her presence. I never knew the proper names of the dances to accompany them--foxtrot or quickstep-- because, unlike rock and roll or disco, I had only to follow a partner. And so it was again. My husband was at home with a cold, but he sent me on because he knew that our friends were expecting us and because he knows that I love to dance.

In the company of my friends and with the connectedness that life with my husband has given me, I could hear those songs with an enthusiasm once again. The melodies are lovely, the rhythms engaging, and now the whole constellation of memories associated with them add a richness to the listening and the dancing for me.

When my mother was first diagnosed with a recurrence of the breast cancer, it was easy to forget that she was dying because chemotherapy gave her almost three pretty good years. That interlude, that reprieve, should have given us time to prepare but even now I cannot say what else I might have done to prepare for the end of the reprieve. Sometime during that reprieve I remeber sitting with a friend in the back seat of a car coming back from somewhere and we were singing along with the radio to show tunes like Oklahoma and Meet Me in St. Louis when the music changed to big band tunes and pulled me into remembering that my mother was dying. I tried not to inject my sadness into the car on that celebratory road trip, but my friend sitting next to me noticed. I explained briefly that it was my mother's music. She just nodded and kept a tender eye on me.

My mother chose to spend her last years with my younger sister. It was the right choice for many reasons, but it meant a long trip to see her for a final goodbye. The first thing I noticed as I entered the room of the nursing home where she was staying was the music. My sister explained briefly that she did not know if our mother heard things or not most of the time, but she thought that, if she did, the music would please her. For many months after that, I could not listen to music of that era without crying. Sometimes I avoided it to avoid crying; sometimes I listened and cried until I could not cry any longer. Sometimes I cried and danced slowly around the room trying to collect all the memories and hold them in my arms as I danced.

Fortunately grief has eased into a welcome recollection of times past. Friday night when I danced a jive tune with my friend's husband and I did some of the moves my mother taught me many years ago. When I came back to my table a woman with hair as white as mine, called me over and said that she had loved watching me dance. I said thank you to her and to my mother as I went back to my table to listen, to watch, to remember and to dance again as long as I can.


At 6:04 PM, Anonymous ampiggy said...

Wow!!! and Wow! again. I'm glad to hear more about your mother. I too have come to see advantages in what I thought were irrelevant or even undesirable qualities in my mother (and father). It seems many things are coming full circle for you.

At 12:49 AM, Blogger Hayden said...

Beautifully done, as usual.

I had them play Glen Miller at my fathers' funeral, and haven't been able to listen to him since.

At 8:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

so your mother had much to do with your dancing // someone had to be thataway in your background // I will never cease to be concious of more discoveries down the road with you // love // scorrie //

At 8:34 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

coming full circle -yes, Have you read any of Yeats's poetry? He often uses circle metaphors.
Did you recognize yourself as the friend in the backseat?

At 8:35 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Oh, Hayden, in time you may be able to listen to it again. I was sorry to read about your losing your wallet.

At 8:35 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Yup. my mother had more to do with my dancing than I realized until recently

At 9:34 PM, Blogger MainlyNancy said...

I liked Joan Baez, too..
You must know the song "Jesse" ?


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