First of all, I will admit right out of the gate that I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing this. I suppose it’s mostly for myself, a way to organize my thoughts and feelings in the wake of a loss.
My mother passed away yesterday morning, at the age of 58. Despite the assumption that it must assuredly be related to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the cause of death was complications from a series of strokes.
In recent years I had gotten into the habit of telling friends, whenever the subject of parents came up, that I had a “complicated relationship” with my Mother but, in retrospect, our relationship wasn’t all that complicated. Death has a way of un-complicating things. We loved each other and now she’s gone.
She raised me by herself, leaving a toxic partner behind after years of domestic abuse, which came to a head after the conception of an unexpected child when she was 19.
When I was 3 years old, after finally severing all ties with my father, she decided to pack up and move away from southern California, where she had spent most of her life and where I was born. Following the lead of her Aunt, who re-located to the Pacific Northwest with her husband, who was chasing a new job offer, she settled us in the sleepy town of Bellingham, WA. Bellingham’s biggest claim to fame is most likely being the launching pad of indie rock icons Death Cab for Cutie, but that came much later. In the early 1980s it was a suitably boring suburb to raise a young son. It wasn’t too big, no big city worries like crime or drugs, with the closest big city being an hour and a half way, in Seattle. But there was also enough Stuff to provide culture and a packed agenda for a young boy: movie theaters, arcades, a mall, video stores, plenty of restaurants and at least one good record store. The record store is where I would eventually spend the majority of my time.
Music was a fixture in our intimate household. From the earliest age I can remember my Mother had music playing in our small 2 bedroom apartment nearly constantly.
One of the earliest musical obsessions I remember sharing with my Mother was the album Breakfast in America by Supertramp. She had it on a dusty old cassette that, for several years, seemingly lived in the massively outdated (even for the early 80s) boombox in our living room. The opening keyboard strains of “The Logical Song” inaugurated numerous lazy Saturday mornings when I was a young boy, with my Mom making pancakes at a snail’s pace in our tiny kitchen while I played on the dingy brown shag carpet in the living room. The album came out in 1979 and definitely had one foot firmly planted in the late 70s rock sound. Supertramp, in combination with other bands like Boston, America and Kansas soundtracked my earliest years in a way that made me feel as though I was raised in the 70s, not the early 80s, as if my Mom was stuck in the past, not fully embracing the new wave sound of the 1980s. That is, of course, until we got cable.
The MTV era hit our house like a whirlwind in the mid 80s and no artist better exemplified it like Cyndi Lauper. Her over-the-top style seemingly influenced my Mom stylistically as well, as she decided to add a neon green streak to her naturally blonde hair. It was the beginning of a common theme which remained a constant through my adolescence: strong female icons.
My Mom certainly had a type when it came to newfound musical obsessions. Madonna was huge in our house and the cassette of “True Blue” finally dislodged Supertramp from the boombox upon it’s release in 1986. I was 5 years old and by then had found the image of a woman singing on TV pretty commonplace.
I was raised, both literally and figuratively, by women. When my single working Mom wasn’t watching me, my working single Grandmother, or my retired single Great-Grandmother was. For the majority of my life a strong male influence was non-existent in our house and my Mother was decidedly fine with this.
This was another big one for us. The cover of the album it came from, Heart of Stone, is seared into my memory as I found it constantly sitting on top of our recently upgraded sound system by the time it was released in 1989.
It was around this time that I started growing apart from my Mom, at least musically, wanting to discover my own musical identity apart from Whatever Mom Put On. It was then that I started sneaking solo MTV time in, soaking up videos from artists like Twisted Sister and Guns N Roses with regularity. The bubble of Girl Power had been broken, with the wholesome clap along pop of Cher replaced by Axl Rose screaming about November Rain. My Mom tried to play along, trying to hold on to the pure innocence of childhood as the calendar flipped to the 90s, even going as far as to re-purpose GNR’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine” into some weird neutered lullaby.
But it was too late. I started discovering a whole new world of pop culture for myself and I began to withdraw from my Mom as the years pressed on. Instead of being right by her side every weekend, as she blasted her beloved pop icons on the seemingly constantly upgrading sound system, I would hide in my room, attached to a Walkman via headphones, playing Weird Al albums and taped compilations from Dr. Demento’s radio show, reading copies of Mad Magazine and howling laughing as they skewered the very famous, and very beloved, artists my Mom cherished dearly. I began to see that there was another version of the world outside of the one my Mother had so lovingly curated for me.
As I grew up and developed my own tastes and worldview that dramatically contrasted with my Mother’s, we learned how to now be Son and Mom, not best friends. She necessarily had to grow up, only a woman barely of 30 herself. As the influence of the outside world began to invade our house even more I began to withdraw further, electing to skip out on her weekend music sessions entirely, finding solace in the aisles of Cellophone Square Records in downtown Bellingham. Now in the compact disc era, I would scour the racks for hours, deciding just which album was worth my hard earned allowance money. My teenage years were informed by bands that were quickly becoming obsessions: Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Weezer, The Breeders, Beck, Green Day and any number of bygone “one hit wonders”.
Music still united me and Mom but the big booming speakers of the living room took a backseat to separate pairs of headphones. Instead of discovering the world of music together we were now doing it apart, reconvening like schoolkids divvying up baseball cards, when we had discovered something worth sharing.
I would dust off the CD player to show her to songs like “1979” off of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and “In the Meantime” by Spacehog, while my Mom replaced the glossy pop of 80s acts with more introspective 90s fare like Alanis Morrissete, Jewel, Lisa Loeb and Sheryl Crow, making sure I was listening along the way, countering each crooning Stone Temple Pilot with a strong female lead.
“What if God Was One Of Us” was a major touchstone for my Mom. She was so obsessed with it that she even worked up the nerve to sing it at church in front of everybody one Sunday. I had stopped going to church at that point, a decision which she admirably left up to me, but she begged me to go that day, to support her as she, an untrained singer, tried to belt it out to the back row of the large congregation of Baptists. As a newfound atheist I refused to go. My Mom, always one to wear her heart on her sleeve, told me how much it hurt but was resigned to go it alone.
Of course I ended up going. I sat there and cringed, in the way only a teenager watching his Mom sing to a group of strangers can cringe. She did a very nervous rendition to a supportive bunch and cried the entire way home. She didn’t leave her room for days, convinced she had bombed and embarrassed herself.
I find myself thinking about this moment a lot and feeling like it is a microcosm for what our relationship eventually turned into: me feeling like I should’ve done more for her but not really knowing what I could’ve done. This feeling of helplessness eventually defined our adult lives.
As the 90s wound down and I turned 18, we parted ways. She found a new husband from Los Angeles, on this burgeoning phenomenon known as “the internet” and I, inspired by local friends-bands like Death Cab for Cutie and the Revolutionary Hydra, decided to make the leap to the big city of Seattle to start fresh.
We would keep in touch, of course, via phone calls and e-mails and the occasional holiday visits but it was different now. We had gone from sharing every song together to only The Good Shit to finally the music stopping entirely. We never so much as exchanged bands we liked or songs we had been enjoying.
I guess in the back of my head I figured there would be plenty of time to find our way back there. We had just hit pause on sharing with each other: our music, our stories, our lives. We had just gone to our separate corners, waiting for some unspoken time when the music would start back up and we’d be back there again, in the warm bond only family can provide. I thought that this was just a detour, a much needed bit of quiet in a lifetime of noise. As if one day the opening keys of “The Logical Song” would greet another lazy Saturday morning together, maybe with newly expanded families of our own. But the sobering truth is that the music will never start back up for us. I didn’t know that once the cassette broke that that was it, that I wouldn’t be able to get it back. I had taken for granted that this was an album that would come back in print but now it assuredly, definitively, will not.
I guess the reason I am writing this is to mourn a woman who taught me how to listen to music, how to think for myself and eventually gave me the strength to forge my own path, even if that path was away from her. I will eternally regret that I ran out of time to find my way back.