Eighty years ago, my mom was born in Boise, Idaho to a Mormon mother and a father who alternated between being a salesman, a butcher, and a purveyor of fancy chocolates. They quickly relocated to the area around Monterey Park and East LA, which was then a bunch of dusty farm roads, wild horses, orchards and the occasional sad oil well.
Her mother, my grandmother Klea, was not a natural at doling out affection and warm fuzzies – and since it was the beginning of the Great Depression, the times suited her peculiar sort of pioneer stoicism. She softened, to be sure, with the commensurate grace afforded to all elders who no longer have a chimney they need to hold up, but in her time, she was granite.
One time my grandmother had gotten a bolt of really nice fabric, meant for curtains or something, and made dresses for all three of her girls. She washed them and hung them over the woodstove to dry, and the line caught fire, burning them all to embers. My mom said it was the only time she ever saw her mother cry.
That kind of steely demeanor was great for survival, but it came at a price for my mother, as well as her siblings. There is a need in everybody who descends from Klea – a longing to be heard, a desire to be swooped up and rescued, a desperate need for everyone to hear our story and told that everything is going to be all right.
When I was a teenager, my mom told me of her first spiral into consummate depression. She was coming home from school, and walked into an empty house – her sisters had gone somewhere, and her mother had left, leaving no note. The totality of the empty house, the horrifying existential maw it opened up, utterly flattened her.
I told her I understood, and I did, as though I had some sense memory of it on a molecular level; I had been there by having come from her. Two years ago, I unwittingly recreated the scene for myself, and it has made me leery of the first few days of January ever since.
My mom honed her musical craft in secret, because back then, a woman had to sandbag, slalom and play a perfect hand if they were more talented than the men. She worked as a telephone operator – you know, the ones that used to wear the headsets and swap wires around a vertical board – and wrote music at night.
She got married at 25 to Bruce Riddle, a teacher/trombonist she was genuinely in love with, and they quickly had my brothers Kent and Steve. When she was 29, he fell asleep at the wheel while delivering woodwind reeds to another musician, and drove off a cliff. There she is, in 1960, with a two and three-year-old, and no husband. I have to think some part of Klea’s igneous fortitude allowed her to keep going.
So my dad came along, two years later, and they began a tumultuous 23-year marriage with a string of miscarriages ending only in yours truly. My brother Sean and Michelle came pretty soon after that, and made a 7-member combined family that is loud, messy, and doing what every big family does: subconsciously building a semi-destructive culture that only we understand.
at our house in Cedar Rapids, IA
My mom was becoming the best-selling choral songwriter of her day (you probably sang one of her pieces in middle school choir) but if she hadn’t been saddled with all of us – and a husband whose job precluded much of her wattage – she could have been independently wealthy.
My parents had one of the most protracted, ugly, soul-wringing divorces in North American history. I don’t think either of them would deny it at this point. My mom said it was harder than losing her first husband, but that might have been the bizarre elasticity of youth. My dad has no interest in talking about it, and I feel the same way.
at the Trevi Fountain, 1981
bustin’ the mid-80s with Steve
My dad remarried, but my mom has not, instead focusing (at first) on rewriting all the music textbooks in our schools – which she did – and then living with whatever child who inhabited the coolest town. Sean and I won that prize, of course, with Chapel Hill from 1993-97.
And now here she is, at 80, helping raise Sean’s kids Barnaby and Marlena at their brownstone in Astoria. She can do it because she is still tremendously healthy, able to muster stairs with only slight kvetching, battling macular degeneration with the newest medicine, yet still able to see tiny musical notes on her Macbook Pro.
with Lucy, 2007
She and I share many traits, which has always made us good travel partners, and no doubt made many of our acquaintances (and my wife) roll their eyes in exhaustion. We both have a need to be completely understood, to leave no slight unexposed, to make sure everyone knows exactly how much we’re suffering. We both respond to criticism with a knee-jerk “why don’t you go fuck yourself” before softening up a half-hour later.
We’ve both been described as doleful pessimists, even though that’s the polar opposite of the truth. We might have a negative crust, but I think both of us would absolutely stop living if we didn’t always think something awesome was just about to happen.
And sometimes it does. When my mom turned 80 a few weeks ago, we all got on Google Hangout conference video to tell her she was “going somewhere” in February, and she was completely psyched. Then, on Christmas Day, we had all the kids lined up and they spelled out the letters to “HAWAII” as I projected a DVD on the screen, leading to yesterday’s picture. Not only that, we said, but all 17 of us are taking her.
At the risk of repeating myself, I’m going to repeat myself: this is for you, mom, in all your squalor, in all your delight, in your messiness and charm and fucked-up rental cars and fabulous stories, your orange rolls and your wit, your heartbreaking talent and your sensualist thirst for the world. We love you and I love you.