I am so honored to have an essay in this amazing collection.
From the editors:
“The true stories and poems collected here are stories about life after loss–but these stories are of lives changed rather than just diminished. Trauma cleaves the world, but after loss we may also find redemption. This collection is a shared journey about loss–and about the hope we can find.”
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Locations in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, known for their huge amount of snowfall every winter, have over 300 inches of snow. The snow seems bent on never releasing its wintry grip on the landscape. Even in Northern Michigan’s lower peninsula where I live, people have built snow-lined labyrinths in their yards as a way to escape their houses. Mangled mailboxes, many with their doors bent open, poke upwards through roadside drifts along our main road as if waiting to be fed. The journey from our home by the lake requires some climbing skills when we venture up our own personal ski hill. After about a 150-foot trek up our twisted driveway, we can catch sight of the main road at the top of the hill. Once there, we begin a fairly easy descent of about 300 feet towards the main road through a maze of maples, oaks, and pine trees. If I had actually understood geometry in high school and college, I would be able to figure out the icy slope of the line.
Despite slippery roads and bone-chilling cold weather, winter in Northern Michigan continues to create one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. Although the cycle of plowing, shoveling, salting, and waiting to see what Mother Nature has in mind for the ten-day forecast can be a bit tedious, I am always fascinated by the daily changes. Recently, I power-walked four miles on the road knowing that yet another storm was headed our way. Bomb cyclone, anyone? Peaceful in my solitude, I admired the woods and the secrets the trees held close, the crows seemingly warning me to watch my step as I dodged icy areas on my journey, and the occasional presence of a vehicle approaching me reminded me that I was not alone in the world. Despite seeing others, I did not wish for conversation. A simple wave of acknowledgement was sufficient.
As I return home after my walks, the birds seem to welcome me before I step inside the house. If I do not replenish the feeders with seed or suet fast enough, the birds become gangs of gangly children squibbling (a new word I accidentally came up with), letting me know I need to get my act in gear. Pileated, red-headed, red-bellied, downy, and hairy woodpeckers all move to their own beat, so to speak. Chickadees, nuthatches, finches, sparrows, blue jays, and mourning doves all join in on the festivities with their various coos, chipper calls, and beautiful whistles. A cardinal couple shows up almost daily, and I always try to sneak a shot of them with my camera. Sometimes I am stealthy enough, and I capture a shot, but I do not want to disturb them when they are dining. My husband and I call out to each other when we spot the cardinals in the woods. Our affection for this couple seems to grow every year. Each morning before sunrise, I make my way outside to shoot sunrise photographs, and I listen carefully for a cheery greeting from a chickadee or blue jay.
Since December 31st, 2017, I have taken a photograph of the sunrise no matter where I am or what the weather conditions are like. Probably about 85% of my sunrise shots have been taken at Higgins Lake. Each one of them is different. Although some of my favorite sunrise shots have been taken in places such as Whitefish Point, Marquette, or the mountains in Colorado, there is something quite magical about my mornings at Higgins Lake. The landscape provides a vista for introspection or meditation. To borrow from Dorothy and her oft-quoted line, there truly is no place like home.
One morning recently the moon and stars lit up the pre-sunrise sky. The day before I had put on my knee-high winter boots and waded through about six new inches of snow in our yard so that I could head out onto the solidly frozen Higgins Lake. I held onto the branches of a huge pine tree growing near the shoreline and stepped down over the ridges of ice and layers of snow. Once again, I created a large heart-shaped path in the snow along the shoreline. I am working on my third one since January. I am rather proud of my work of art on the lake. Creating this heart makes me feel like a kid again. Although my landscape in Michigan is quite different than where I grew up along the Arkansas River in Dodge City, Kansas, the connection for me is still the same: nature and my desire to explore the world on my own. I suppose this stems from being an only child, and my parents allowing me to figure things out on my own. My late mother was a talented artist, a jokester, and someone who loved me despite my terrible teenage years. She would have loved seeing this enormous heart on the lake. Knowing her and her sense of humor, she would have asked to be photographed while standing in the middle of the heart with a red-feather boa wrapped around her winter coat.
My mother passed away on March 22nd in 2008 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was born in 1918, and she lived an imaginative and very creative life. My father died in August of 2012 at the age of 92. He loved my mother’s decorated eggs, artwork, whimsical designs (she even decorated Quaker Oats containers in order to fill them with gifts), and he tolerated my guitar playing. He dedicated himself to hard work as he ran both a restaurant and our small farm. In retrospect, it seems as if my mother was always indoors creating artwork somewhere in the house, and my father was always outside working somewhere in the yard or the field or tending to the various livestock we had. If I had completed my chores, I was allowed to explore whenever I wanted to. I realize that the sense of wonderment I felt as a child is even stronger now that I am older. I wish my parents were still alive, and I could have a conversation with them about what I have learned as I embrace these moments of solitude.
This quiet time for reflection will change as spring moves us forward and people begin to return to Higgins Lake. Warmer temperatures will allow to the lake to thaw, and it will reward us with its groans and cracks as it begins to shake loose the layers of ice. Fishermen will head out towards their favorite fishing spots as they catch the sunlight in the wakes of their small boats. Early morning water skiers will glide through the smooth water and create small waves that roll towards the shore. Robins will call as they forage the lawn for insects. I will edge closer to the water, careful to protect my camera from harm, so that I can try and capture the sun’s reflection upon the water. Perhaps this will be yet another slope of the line I do not fully understand how to calculate, but it won’t matter. My moments of solitude will be all I need.
First of all, no matter how many people have joked about it over the years, Gregg Allman did not write “Melissa” about me. In my bluesy, sultry-voiced, still-developing-mind, I imagined that if he had only known me, he would most certainly have written the song about me. Having one’s name associated with a highly popular song is sort of like telling people you are from Kansas. You wait for the chuckle and the inevitable comeback: “Did you know Dorothy?” from the The Wizard of Oz. Or better yet, was I actually Dorothy in disguise? Hilarious! As the character Cher would have said in Clueless, “As if!” I decided I should stop wearing pigtails for the rest of my life, and that my gingham dress had to go. I haven’t quite given up the red shoes yet. I do believe that if I create the right playlist for myself, I can become anyone I want to be. After all, we have had the power all along to let music guide us down whatever long and winding road we choose to take.
Even if I had stumbled across a yellow brick road, I can’t imagine life as a gal named Dorothy. What must she go through to have a name so associated with a fictional character? I have loved my name all of my life, and I thanked my mother a few times during my terrible teens for bestowing it on me. According to my mother, I was named after a relative who was born in the 1800s. It was as if my mother had been waiting all of her life to name someone Melissa. Luckily, I came into her life before our dog Stinker. I doubt if even Gregg Allman could have come up with lyrics for that name.
According to Gregg Allman’s memoir, he was searching for a name to use in a song he was working on, and he heard a woman calling for “Melissa” in a grocery store. In my young and very fertile imagination, I imagined it was me. One problem though: I had never been to Florida, which is where Allman was when he heard a woman calling for a young girl in a grocery store.
When I was in high school, my head inflated with a music-filtered ego, I imagined a cute teenaged boy with long dark hair and deep brown eyes, essentially George Harrison’s look-alike, strumming his guitar, and singing to me. The room would be dark. He would stare into my eyes. After he was through, he would lean forward and tell me how beautiful I was. That actually happened to me once at a party, only at the end of the song, the young guitar player asked if I liked the way he played the song. I said yes, and then we stared at each other, clueless as to what was supposed to happen next. Unfortunately, romantic fantasies do not always end well.
My love affair with the late Tom Petty’s music grew out of listening to his songs and realizing how perfect some of them were for my running playlist. In the 80s, I used a Sony Walkman with cassettes in them and in the 90s, I had a portable CD player to listen to tunes. Listening to the same CD for a six-mile run made me slightly crazy. Around 2010, I received an Apple iPod Nano that turned my life around. Playlists! A device I could stick in my pocket! Of course, Apple has now discontinued the iPod Nano, and, naturally, I dropped mine the other day. The face cracked, but it still works. Kind of like me. I’m not ready to switch to my phone for a playlist or whatever new thing Apple is selling for my playlist, because it won’t fit into the pocket of my workout pants. As Tom Petty sings, “I Won’t Back Down” until I don’t have a choice. I’m very stubborn, and I thank my late father for that distinctive trait.
I have only recently returned to walking on the roads with a definite pep to my step since my surgery in April to fix an acetabular labral tear in my right leg. My surgeon wants me to hold off on running until April 2018. I am being very patient and listening to my doctor on this one. I recently graduated from physical therapy, and I will miss those weekly trips to Traverse City where I drove the back roads and enjoyed checking out the animals at the beefalo farm on Fletcher Road, slowing down while passing the sheep farm on Boardman Road, and avoiding deer making bad decisions all along the way. In the past six months, I have seen eagles, hawks, and a sheriff stopping speeders in front of me (whew!) on a routine basis. My music playlists have all been extremely helpful in getting me pumped up for physical therapy. As the Allman Brothers sing, “I’m just looking for some good clean fun.” And there is no place like the physical therapist’s fun house to experience that good-time feeling.
On Labor Day weekend, I listened to Tom Petty’s song “U Get Me High” on my playlist as I walked the 5K along Lake Superior in Marquette, Michigan, during the weekend’s races. My son ran the half-marathon, and he had been competing in road races all year. This was the first race I was able to participate in since November of 2016. I had asked my physical therapist, Josh, to write a note giving me permission, so that my family would believe that I had healed enough to walk in a road race. Yes, walk, not run. I was thrilled to be out in the rain and wind, inhaling the air and being part of a group of people who loved road races. I wondered what some of their stories were as I walked along, singing to the songs on my playlist. After the race was over, I enjoyed a beer with my son and husband at Blackrocks Brewery, and I could not erase the happy grin on my face as we sat in the bar. I am now gearing up to walk the Turkey Trot in Traverse City on Thanksgiving Day. I walked in the Turkey Trot last year, but I was in a lot of pain. Did I mention that I am stubborn, and I should not have been participating? This year, I am ready to walk pain-free. I no longer need a note from my physical therapist.
During all of my travels over the years, either walking on the road or driving, I have realized that depending on radio stations, including the multiple offerings on Sirius, or listening to my CDs does not always fit my mood. My trusty little iPod with its randomly named playlists (Walking, Training, Marquette) works perfectly in the car or when I am out walking on the road. When my friend Susan and I took a road trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula this summer, I created a playlist with songs I knew would remind us of our high school days, and other songs I knew would make us feel the happiness groove as we worked our way along Lake Superior’s shoreline taking photos and collecting rocks. Although my right leg was far from healed, I could move around enough to get where I needed to go. Music and great friends have always been my inspiration to move.
I know that as time moves forward, my leg will continue to heal, and I will participate in more road races. As far as my photography goes, I can now bend low enough to the ground to shoot photos I could not take for a long time. I can also climb steps now, so that will open up another vantage point for me. When my husband and I were at Tahquamenon Falls a few months ago, I ventured down the 94 steps to the brink of the falls to shoot photos, and then climbed back up. My heart was racing, but I don’t know if it is because I was woefully out of shape, or had a super adrenalin rush. After all, as Tom Petty sings: “It was a beautiful day. The sun beat down. I had the radio on. I was driving…runnin’ down a dream.” It might have been a small goal, but in my last three visits to Tahquamenon Falls, I had only stared at those steps as if they were lined with rattlesnakes. Someday, I kept reminding myself. That day arrived.
In Gregg Allman’s last CD, he covers an old Willie Dixon song with great poignancy. Gregg passed away on May 27th this year. The lyrics to the song are words I wish we could all live by: “I live the life I love, and I love the life I live.” Life is full of challenges, and some days are really, really tough. The death of someone you love, cancer, a brain tumor, and a broken heart are just a few of the things that can knock us down. Music, even if we have to seek it out, can lift us up again. I hope your playlists inspire you as much as mine do, and I hope you never hesitate to update your playlist if it isn’t helping you get your groove on.
On a 37-degree August morning, steam fog lingered above the clear water of Higgins Lake. The waning days of summer, always layered with the memories of those I have loved and lost, seem to pass too quickly in Northern Michigan. Steam fog rising above the water fascinates me because while it is of this earth, the nature of it seems so ghostly, a place where secrets float on water, a scene that will unfold only when the above ground temperature and the temperature of the lake water meet for the first time that day. Steam fog is like a blush on the face upon meeting someone for the first time, someone you may or may not spend the rest of your life with. Or the rubbing of a match against a hard surface, and the sudden glow of a flame before it settles into a flicker of light. Or the feeling of grief when it surrounds your head and your heart making you feel as if you might never break free of its grip. You wait for the blush to fade from your cheeks. You blow out the match once it has served its purpose for you. You slip in and out of ephemeral memories until your body and the earth seemingly collide and force you into action. You must tell stories about those you have loved and miss so much. This is the burn, and this is the fade.
I met my future husband in August one year, and we married the following year on August 26th. Two days later, we celebrated my father-in-law’s birthday on the 28th of August, but he died in 2004. My father died in 2012 on August 27th, and it seemed as if he had chosen this date. Those three days in August became a twisted nursery rhyme for me, and instead of “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” by Eugene Field, one my mother used to read to me, these three days became “Anniversary, Death, Birth.” They say things come in threes, and depending on whom you believe, these can be three good things or three bad things. Stars, planets, and galaxies remind us of our smallness. Width, height, and depth are necessary measurements we use in order to understand the dimension of things. Red, yellow, and blue are primary colors that can be blended to create other colors. The three days of August that hold so much meaning for me create their own mix, a steam fog settling in and disrupting the tangled vines of memory running through my brain.
As fall approaches at Higgins Lake, I will likely awaken to more steam fog as the nights grow colder and the temperature of the water continues to drop until it begins to freeze. I know the hummingbirds that frequent my feeders are fattening up before they head south. On the first morning I wake up and realize they are gone until the spring, I will settle in with my cup of tea, and skim through all of the photographs I have taken of them over the spring and summer months. Will they return in the spring? Will I be here? That’s it, you know. We have to live each day to its fullest, because we never know what the future brings.
I was sorting through a problem a few days ago as I walked three miles. I wondered what advice my mother or father would give to me to handle a particular situation. Quite clearly, almost as if I could hear their voices in unison, I understood that I should let the problem go. In other words, it would resolve itself. Like steam fog slowly evaporating, and sunlight warming up the air, I realized the solution to my problem was as simple as one, two, three: Let it go. I thought of those last few moments with my father as he was taking his last few breaths in August of 2012, and how his eyes opened one last time, and he looked at me as if he understood something that I, too, would someday understand. The burn, the fade, and the remembering.
“Fly away through the midnight air / as we head across the sea / and at last we will be free. You’re a bluebird.” –Paul and Linda McCartney
Oh, to be that bluebird. Or an eagle flying overhead, alone in its solitude of majestic beauty. Or a tiny hummingbird, wings propelling it forward towards nectar from a pot of flowering calibrachoa. Via migration, birds return to their homes, year after year, sometimes wintering thousands of miles away. The older I get and especially now that my parents are deceased, the more I have the desire to return to the place I grew up in order to breathe in the air, soak in the glorious Kansas sunshine, and wade deeply into the river of memories. Right now, my body is going through some intense physical healing after surgery on my right leg, and this has made me appreciate even more those moments in my life when my family and friends have joined me in another one of my migrations towards the house I grew up in.
About a year and a half ago, I took an awkward step off of a friend’s porch. Since then, I’ve put my body through every kind of treatment available to try and fix my injury. I repeatedly told physical therapists and doctors that something still wasn’t right even after all of the treatments. I was not healing. I would walk or run one day and be completely unable to walk the next day. I certainly did not help myself by attempting to run or power walk road races when my leg felt strong. Once I cycled into the insurance-driven loop of procedures (x-rays, physical therapy, steroid shots, waiting for appointments, etc.), it would take over a year before I finally received approval for an MRI.
Even then, the initial doctor who read my MRI said that he didn’t see a problem; plus the hospital where I had the MRI done could not figure out how to send the results to my doctor in Traverse City and into the Munson system. I ended up taking a copy of the CD I had received on the day of my MRI with my results to Traverse City. Luckily for me, my new orthopedic surgeon, Dr. O’Hagen, disagreed with the initial findings, and he agreed that something needed to be done. As someone who had been getting up every morning for the past thirty years to run before I did anything else for the day, and then falling into this routine of barely being able to go outside and take photographs of my beloved eagles, loons, pileated woodpeckers, chickadees, sunrises, well, anything to do with Higgins Lake, I was going stir crazy. My daily pain level hovered between an eight and nine (out of ten). I was one pissed-off chick.
On April 7th, I had arthroscopic surgery in Traverse City, and the “no problem” that one doctor found was fixed by Dr. O’Hagen. He repaired my acetabular labral tear, cleaned up all of the surfaces of my hip joint, stretched the socket out to make sure it went back in right, and he used two anchors and sutures to repair the tear. He cut my illiotibial band in three places, removed all of the painful bursitis, and stitched me back up. The bruise on my right leg and hip is the size of Texas, but it is a most lovely shade of purple.
I have a long road to recovery, and my goal now is to walk and hike without pain. Running, something I love like dark chocolate, is in the distant future. I do believe that my age played a part in some of the comments I received in my treatment last year at a different facility. “You are older, so you are going to have pain” is the clear favorite, told to me by a male PT and runner. This is despite the fact that my x-rays, and eventually my MRI, showed great bones and very little arthritis. No, the reason I had pain was because I had an acetabular labral tear. When I told my new PT (Josh) in Traverse City what I had been told last year, he laughed and said that “It would make [his] job easy if [he] could say things like that.” Physically, I will continue to heal and will end up doing the things I want to do again. If the body can heal itself over time with proper care, how do we heal emotionally when our mind and bodies ache from missing someone? I think of my daughter and my parents every day, and I miss them beyond words.
It was for this reason, in part, that I flew to Denver, Colorado, to spend time with my cousins, their families, and some friends for a few days in late January. While in the Denver area, my cousin Julie took us to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge where we saw eagles, bison, deer, and hawks among many species roaming the area. Do not miss going to this beautiful wildlife area. My cousins also took me to the Coors plant in Golden, Colorado, and, on another day, I took a trip up into Poudre Canyon with my friend Susan, and we saw bighorn sheep, birds, and slackliners. We stopped to watch one particular slackliner as he found his inner strength, walking across a tightrope high above the ground. I can’t imagine what kind of endorphin rush he was hypnotized by, but I think I understood his desire to be a part of the air we breathe.
Before leaving Denver on a Sunday, Audrey and I viewed the expanse of the Rocky Mountains from the roof of her daughter Lauren’s apartment building. Once we hit the road, we began the slow descent out of the mountains towards Kansas. With about 70 miles to go before we hit the Kansas state line, we stopped at the Queens State Wildlife Area near Eads, Colorado. On a cool and windy day, we parked at the end of a road and stared in amazement at the reservoir exploding with snow geese. There were so many birds that I could not capture them all in a single frame. The water seemed like an endless beach of white sand, only this sand was on the move and making noise. Audrey and I were spellbound. It was difficult to leave such a beautiful area.
We continued our drive, telling family stories to each other, marveling at all of the hawks we were seeing, and the murmurations of starlings popping up into the brilliant blue sky. It was as if birds were guiding us to our destination wherever we went. After a long day, we arrived in Dodge City and checked into our hotel. After dinner and a few adult beverages, available in the casino next to our hotel, we went to our separate rooms for the night.
While in Dodge City, we visited old friends, and made new ones as we learned more about the town we grew up in. I hadn’t seen Dena, a friend I grew up with, in over 40 years. Sam, the reference librarian at the Dodge City Library, was extremely helpful with information as it pertained to Wilroads Gardens, a community east of Dodge City along the Arkansas River, where I grew up. Audrey and I had lunch with friends of my parents one day, and it felt so good to talk about my parents and hear stories of the past. We drove past houses and places that had meant something to us when we were younger. We went to Wilroads Gardens and drove to the house I grew up in. Liz, a friend who had grown up two doors east of me, had forewarned the new owner. We met Don, and he was kind and gracious. He allowed us to cut through his field so I could go stand down by the dam near what used to be the Arkansas River, a place that was extremely important to me growing up. As I worked my way past tangled vines and tumbleweeds towards the now abandoned dam, I heard a meadowlark somewhere near me, welcoming me home.
That night, I slept well in my hotel room, but in the morning, I was awakened by someone whispering: “Melissa.” I sat up in my bed, expecting that Audrey had somehow found her way into my room. Although my room was empty, I could not shake the feeling that someone had been there. Despite an initial feeling of eeriness, I felt calm and peaceful. Jennifer Ackerman, in The Genius of Birds, says that birds have the “ability to do something we can’t do: modulate their deep sleep by opening one eye” (51). If only I had been able to do this, I might have seen who was responsible for the voice bringing me comfort and healing. It was as if the spirits of my parents and grandparents were telling me that I would always find peace in the town I grew up in, and I could return to Michigan, now soothed with some emotional healing, through the sharing of memories, landscape, and stories.
Back in in Michigan, I watch eagles, hawks, pileated woodpeckers, loons, and chickadees on almost a daily basis. Since I am hobbling around on crutches for a while, I am limited as far as taking pictures. I am frustrated, but I can also sit back and imagine the life of these birds. Where have they been? What can I learn from them? They can travel places I cannot. If only I could fly and soar at a moment’s notice to the place where I grew up, breathe in the air, and find the younger version of me. I would explain to her that she would one day return again and again to this spot to understand how it held her steady for all of those years, but also gave her wings to fly.
With the drop of the needle on a brand new turntable my son bought me for Christmas, “Where Did Our Love Go?” by the Supremes blasted from the shoebox-sized speakers on my desk. Static, crackling noises, and the occasional skip over a story-there-somewhere scratch in the vinyl all contributed to a 33-rpm rewind into the past. I danced and sang as if no time had passed since my parents had given me my first two rock-n-roll albums in 1965. I soon followed the Supremes with the Beatles IV album. My husband and son seemed to fade into view as I reverted to my ten-year old self. Musical nostalgia worked its magic fingers into my heart and soul.
When I was young, my parents played music in our living room on a stereo that was as long as a bathtub, but not as wide. One of the first albums my parents bought specifically for me to play on the living room stereo was Burl Ives Sings Little White Duck. Am I fascinated today with ducks and all things feathery because of this? Is Burl Ives responsible for my obsession with listening to a song repeatedly until I am sick of it? I still have the album. I’m resisting the urge to play it right now on my new turntable.
Matt’s gift to me triggered memories that I had long forgotten. Daniel Levitin in The World in Six Songs, suggests that “music triggers memories long ago buried, and this seems especially true of popular love songs” (278). While growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, my mom, dad, and I listened to music on the stereo and in the car. Radio station KGNO catered to my parents’ crowd, but I loved listening to KEDD, “The Rock of Dodge City,” on the AM radio dial. On television, we watched The Lawrence Welk Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, Hee Haw, Shindig, The Monkees, and any show we could find that focused on music. I learned the ways of love by listening to music in my home and car. Music created a different version of an idealized fairytale romance than books did, well, at least the books I was reading. Is there anything more romantic than listening to George Harrison sing “Something” as you sit in your bedroom and contemplate life? If the bedroom walls in the house I grew up in could talk, they would tell you about a dreamy-eyed teenager who spent an enormous amount of time imagining her life, framed in a song.
I could also dream on the dance floor when I ventured out to listen to Dodge City bands live. Friar Tuck and the Monks at the National Guard Armory! Birth live and on-stage at the Warehouse! Their covers of popular dance songs, and especially love songs I was sure were being sung to and for me, further sent me spiraling upwards to the land of all things musical, and downward into an avoidance of anything called homework. Whenever I hear a song from my past, a story always seems to mirror the lyric of the song.
If “memory wants to be true to the way things are, but it also wants to tell a story that suits the teller” (162), according to Charles Fernyhough in Pieces of Light, then some of my stories seem a bit confusing to me now. Why was I so obsessed with Grace Slick? As soon as I got home from school during the week, and long before my parents would arrive home from work, I would rush to the stereo, insert a spider (45-rpm adapter) into the record, slide the record down upon the spindle, let the music begin to play, and then sing and dance. Yes, I was that weirdo. I played “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” while I worked on my best Grace Slick impersonation. Was it just her voice that compelled my fascination with those songs, or the forbidden desire for an altered state of mind? Or did I just want a very cool boyfriend who could play a rocking guitar? The story I would tell today that would suit my older and wiser self is that I loved the freedom of belting out a song about love in my house, and singing “White Rabbit” made me feel very cool and dangerous at the time. When my parents were home, I played music in my room, and in our small 1940s farmhouse with paper-thin walls, I started to believe my name was “Turn it down.” When I sang with my mother in the kitchen, we were as loud as we wanted to be.
My mother and I both loved to sing, and she taught me the art of making up silly songs in the kitchen while doing dishes or eating fried carrots as fast as she could make them. My father would sit in the living room, a mere twenty feet away, smoke his cigar and drink a Coors beer after a hard day’s work. I think he enjoyed hearing us as we became giddy with laughter at our nonsensical verse. We could really cut a rug in that tiny kitchen.
When my son was growing up, I realized that music was another way in which we could spend time together. I liked playing with cars and Legos, but music had a way of working its way into our lives every day. We played music constantly in our house, and Sesame Street worked its way into our daily lives. I can sing “C is for Cookie” and “Rubber Duckie” to this day, and my son is 35 years old. I also started making up songs just for my son. I still make up instant songs, and I wrote songs for the workplace band I used to be in.
Over the holidays, we were visiting the neighbors and their extended family, and my 88-years-young neighbor mentioned a song I wrote, “Radio.” I had performed the song with the band, The Cremains of the 10th Circle, when they visited my home a few summers ago. She and some of her family members, friends, and neighbors, had attended our basement rock-and-roll party. Perhaps this was my Grammy-award-winning moment. Someone remembered a song I wrote and performed. Hold the applause, and pass me a beer!
Rod Stewart sings that “Every Picture Tells a Story,” and I believe that every song I love has a unique story hiding behind the lyrics if I am willing to pay attention to it. My memories of the first time I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan’s song “Texas Flood” are a bit muddled though. Even though I cannot remember what radio station I heard it on, or where I was at the time, I remember thinking that I had just fallen in love with a song, a guitarist, and singer. I could not get enough of that song. Is there a difference in our memory-making process when we are older as far as falling in love with a song? I wonder.
I still love the Beatles and the Supremes, and I easily time-travel to that space and time when I could dance and sing in my house and feel nothing but love and joy surrounding me. Yes, there were many, many nights I listened to songs of heartbreak in my room as I grew up and teenage boys messed with my heart, but I also played songs that forced me to get up and dance.
When I was with my cousins in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last September, Sybil played “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars on her phone for us. I have the song on my running playlist, so I knew the song well. We all began to do some sort of version of dancing. We had it. We owned it. And now whenever I hear that song, I am safe in the arms of music nostalgia. How will I tell this story ten years from now?
For the moment I think about my mother, and how she would have joined us jitterbugging our way around my cousin Audrey’s house that day. I am fortunate that my parents, especially my mother, loved music so much that it was a necessity, like bread and water, in our daily lives. So even though the Supremes “Where Did Our Love Go?” and the Beatles “Words of Love” may have opened my eyes to the ways of love, I believe that songs I have yet to hear will be teaching me many more things as I dance and sing my way into the unknown.
*This essay was previously published in the Bear River Review 2015 issue.
My mother gazed at the six-foot tall Christmas tree. My father and I stood next to her and watched her focus on the decorations. I unwrapped an ornament from the small box I had carried into the nursing home. “Were you looking for this?” I placed an egg into the cup of her outstretched hands.
She examined the red and green velvet-covered egg as if she might find the key to her past. She traced the small gold angel on the front. She opened the tiny hinged door and peered inside. A small white angel holding a mandolin stood on a white cloud-like pedestal. My mother glanced up at me. Behind the mask of her illness, an unspoken question seemed to hide. I wondered if she recognized the egg as one she had decorated years ago. She was no longer verbal. She handed the egg back to me, her thin white fingers still smooth and beautiful at the age of eighty seven.
I unwrapped three more pieces of my mother’s artwork and placed them on a table next to her. As a child, I had watched her poke tiny holes into each end of the egg, blow out the yolks, and then carefully clean the eggs. She used goose, ostrich, and hen eggs for most of her work. She dyed some eggs with onion skins before scratch-carving intricate scenes on them: An owl in a tree. A farm in Kansas. A fish, Pisces, made for me when I was sixteen. On other eggs, she used scraps of material, jewels she picked up in antique stores, or fingernail-sized toys, angels, or skaters. She created miniature scenes inside each egg. It was her way of telling a story. One day, she no longer recognized her workroom as her own.
As I presented each egg to her, several of the staff members cooed and commented over each one. I said, “My mother decorated our Christmas tree with eggs every year. The local paper ran a story about her once with a picture of my son holding one of her eggs.” My mother looked at me as if I might be lying.
We continued examining the eggs, and I explained the history behind each one. My mother nodded her head as if she might be agreeing to my version of the events. My father leaned in to point at a miniature skater in one of the eggs and said, “You made that one for your grandson.” She frowned at him as if this statement could not possibly be true. My father’s eyes began to water, and he walked over to the one of the easy chairs in front of the television, sat down, and began talking to one of the other residents.
My mother’s eyes began looking past me towards something unseen, and I knew she was growing tired of my nonstop storytelling. I began wrapping up the eggs and returned each one to the small box. “When I get home, I will place these on my Christmas tree. You can see them again when you come to our house.” The hint of a smile crossed her face. A gift for me.
I approached my father and said it was time to go. He walked over to my mother and bent down to kiss her goodbye. She turned away from him. I reached for my father’s hands and reminded him to put his gloves on.
We passed through the double doors as the loud alarm went off signaling our departure. Snow had begun to cover the cars, sidewalk, and dead grass. My father said, “I’m sick and tired of this weather,” as he smacked his cane down on the sidewalk. I looked at his face filled with sadness mixed with anger, and I realized that the loss of my mother would forever be my father’s deepest sorrow. We made our way to the car as the wind swirled around us. As it increased in its volume, it was as if a thousand choir bells ringing.