Mom’s Voice

My mother was a very lonely person. I have known this for as long as I can remember, although I may not have completely understood it. But I could tell from the things she would say. No, that’s not true. She didn’t talk much about her sadness. It was in the music she played. I think she never felt she could express herself, or that her words were being heard. At some point she learned to use music as her voice, and a conduit to her emotions.  I do not know when she first discovered this, but music is connected with all my memories of her.

I loved the music she would play. Notably, The Beatles and Stones at first, later Creedence, Zeppelin, The Who…bands that are still my favorites today. There were many great songs from other great genres as well. I always thought my mom listened to cool stuff. I guess that’s not surprising.  She was barely out of her teens, when I was born, with her soundtrack filling my ears.

I remember sitting in front of the TV when the Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan Show, although I was only 4. There were The Supremes, The Tokens and Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl”, (to which I would sing, “Duke of barrels”). So many great musicians. She would play music while my dad was at work. It was always playing in the car and my mom would sing along. When I knew the words, (or at least thought I did), I would join in.

When I was around ten and understood my mother’s emotions on a deeper level, I realized she was doing more than listening.  She was communicating.  As much with herself, as with others. She was connecting to her past. The unstoppable spirit of youth she felt, just so recently, before the circumstances of life placed worry and responsibility on her shoulders.   She had always found words and strength in music when she was happy, and now, as I noticed a gradual change in the music she listened to, she was expressing the isolation that had set in. Her songs were those of one trying not to lose herself, while struggling to communicate with those around her. She began seeking relief from the drug prescribing therapy system of the time, which seemed ineffective or worse. I wonder how Music Therapy would have benefitted her, had we known about it.

“I am I Said” by Neil Diamond is where I began to understand the depth of emotion, (other than joy), music conveys. I could hear the pain her songs were expressing. The lyrics, “I am I said, and no one heard, not even the chair” gave me vivid insight into the solitary life she felt she was living. As I listened, I wondered who she was playing it for. Her father or mother? My father?  Childhood phantoms. Herself? She was crying out with powerful words bolstered by an equally powerful melody.  I don’t know if anyone else heard, but I did.  “I am lost and I don’t even know why.” The emotions those words express linger still. A key piece of music that connects us even now that she is gone.

As the years progressed, I also realized how similar my mother and I were.  I too was reserved and struggled showing my feelings.  I felt alone and misunderstood. I shared her love of music as well.  It reached my soul the way it did hers and provided me words when I had none. I started learning to play guitar around this time.  Another voice.

When I entered my mid teens, my mother and I had conversations about music.  It allowed us to express our emotions, for better or worse, in a way that felt safe. We would speak to each other in kindness, using lyrical metaphors, or we would hurl them at each other during arguments.  We were musically connected even in times of disconnect. It gave us words when we couldn’t find our own and the courage to express them. A common language and understanding. Sometimes she would ask me if I knew the name of a song, “that sounds like it’s going around and coming back again?” or some other odd description. Not surprisingly, I would usually come up with the title. I felt music the way she did.

Although she has been gone a few years now, music keeps her near. So many songs remind me of her. She is in my thoughts every time I pick up my guitar, a graduation present from her and my dad.

When I started writing this, I was thinking about what music meant to my mother.  Those thoughts have led me to realize the example my mother was setting. She was modeling the love of music for me.