by Angeliska on August 8, 2011
Today marks twenty-five years since my mother died.
This last winter solstice, I had a profound vision during a ceremony:
an old black telephone appeared before me, hunched in celluloid,
with a rotary dial. I could feel the weight of the heavy receiver in my
hand – it was that real. I realized that I could call anyone in the world
on it, and I pondered for a minute, trying to think of who I’d like most
to talk to at that moment – one phone call, to the person whose voice
I’d most want to hear – until it hit me. My mama, of course. To talk to
her again, to be able to have even just one conversation with her –
I think sometimes I’d give almost anything to be able to do that.
My vision faded, and I can’t really recall being able to actually get
through to her – but it was almost more the radical notion that such
a thing could actually be possible that was amazing. That, and the
raw beast of my longing for her, long buried, suddenly so close to
my face, breathing rough right next to me – a wild, savage desire
just to have my mother back with me, even if only for a moment.
Here’s my mom talking about her favorite country songs on the radio (KUT Austin) with her friend Dan Foster.
I hadn’t heard her voice for twenty-five long years, until the day I got this recording.
Her voice is the most beautiful sound in the whole world.
To receive the gift of this recording, a few months after that experience,
was such a balm to that deep wound. Her voice is orange-blossom honey
and tabasco, it is the sudden flutter of bird wings, it is soft as owlet’s fluff,
or a mimosa blossom. Her singular country accent: those long a’s and
dropped g’s that I hear in my aunt’s voice – in my own when I get drunk
or go back where I came from. Her cadence is one I used to carry, too.
So, my mother was obsessed with Hank Williams. I mean – really, truly, deeply.
Our first and only family vacation was to go to his grave in Montgomery, Alabama.
She became penpals with his sister. I think she was in love with him, in a way –
in love with a lanky gray ghost, with a crooked smile and a voice that hits you
like bourbon on an empty belly – raw guts churning with lonely lost love.
I inherited her predilection for tall, skinny men with cruel lips and sad eyes,
for wastrels with hearts full of song, careening through life wearing the albatross
that is an incurable awesome death-wish around their scrawny necks. Luckily,
I got over all that a while back. I’m not sure if she ever did. Beautiful disasters
don’t really turn me on anymore – too much damage done, too many old scars…
But oh, those star-crossed troubadours! How compelling they can be.
In the same week that I received the gift of her voice, I also took a horrible blow:
I found out that the works of art she had spent the last months of her
life creating had been lost, irrevocably. It was about this worst news
I could imagine hearing – almost like losing her all over again.
This includes the painting of Hank Williams above, a work I consider her masterpiece,
the pinnacle of her creative life – her swan song. I remember her painting it, vividly.
The vintage print she took the background from, with the sheep in the moonlit pasture
hung in our kitchen. Those cactus flowers bloomed on our back patio – I remember her
photographing them. The tie Hank’s wearing is one of my dad’s – he has it still.
His hands are so beautifully done, so articulate and perfectly rendered – and his face,
his face… Rarely does any artist capture the sensitive angles and gaunt beauty that
was Hank William’s gorgeous sad face – and now to think of all that lost, to know
that it probably ended up in some dumpster, never to be seen again – it kills me.
Her dear friend who she sold them to moved cross country, and discovered upon
unpacking that the movers had somehow overlooked them. I mean, who knows –
they could be hanging above some dude’s ugly couch in a ratty trailer somewhere
in Utah. You never do know. I won’t give up hope that they’ll turn up one day,
and make their way back to me. I can barely begin to describe how badly this
discovery crushed me. For many years, I have been trying to put back together
the puzzle pieces of my mother’s life – to write about her, and to work through
this tangle of briars her death made of my heart. I’ve been fighting through that
thicket since I was a child – searching for clues, for shreds of her legacy.
When I listen to these old country songs, it’s like a message from beyond:
each one is so heartbroken, and totally unashamed. I think that’s what I love
about country music – it’s not self-conscious about coming off as maudlin –
it’s just genuine feeling, even if that feeling is crying down in a ditch,
or being blue because your son calls another man daddy. It’s having the gumption
to pick up a guitar and sing a song about it, through the tears, through the pain.
All this music that she loved so fervently, all her life – it feels like she knew
somehow, that I’d need this music one day, too. Just the song titles, even:
“When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels”
“Alone and Forsaken”
and oh, “Crying Heart Blues”
Crying the blues
I’m crying because I have lost you
Blues I can’t lose
I guess it’s too late now to try
I’ve tried to chose another to love but it’s no use
Crying heart blues, there’s nothing that’s left but to cry
I’ll always remember I love you
My teardrops won’t let me forget
Each tear is a wish to be near you
They started the day that we met
A trail of tears will lead you to me if you want me
And from my fears, how hopeless, my crying heart flees
Yesterday I happened across this bit of wisdom from Dear Sugar, (who is beyond amazing)
responding to a woman who had miscarried her baby daughter, and found herself consumed
with grief. Her advice rang true for me, and came to me at the perfect time, so I’ll share it here:
This is how you get unstuck. You reach. Not so you can walk away from the daughter you loved,
but so you can live the life that is yours—the one that includes the sad loss of your daughter,
but is not arrested by it. The one that eventually leads you to a place in which you not only grieve her,
but also feel lucky to have had the privilege of loving her. That place of true healing is a fierce place.
It’s a giant place. It’s a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have
to work really, really, really fucking hard to get there, but you can do it, honey. You’re a woman who can
travel that far. I know it. Your ability to get there is evident to me in every word of your bright shining grief star of a letter.
So, this is me reaching.
These are too: