That was the Grateful Dead, performing Brokedown Palace from their famous album American Beauty, a title that also conjures up my Mother. I used the song not just because the sentiment is fitting, but because it was on a CD I retrieved from among her belongings after her death. I was impressed that the record must have meant something to her, as it was the second time she’d bought it. The first was on vinyl in the early 1970’s when she was going through her quasi-hippie phase and amassed a large collection of records from the counter-culture. Most of them eventually ended up in my possession as she moved on to opera and other interests, and American Beauty was one of the few she saw fit to reacquire in later years. A lot about my Mother is told by the fact that at the time I wasn’t very interested in much of what she bought, but over the years I’ve found that, while I was the one actually in the target demographic for those records, she had much better taste than I did, and it took me a long time to catch up with what she knew back then. Of course she was informed by assiduous perusal of the then-new genre of rock journalism, which she followed via subscriptions to Rolling Stone and Creem magazine. I was gratified, but slightly embarrassed, and my friends were envious, but a bit confused, by this state of affairs in my family. We were listening to god-awful art rock like Emerson Lake & Palmer, which the critics hated; my Mother tried to improve my taste by giving me stuff like David Bowie, or Lou Reed’s decadent Transformer album, and there again the years have proved her to be right, if not always age-appropriate.
As for the Grateful Dead, the irony of the name does not escape me. My Mother no doubt knew that it derived from an academically defined ballad type, just as she would have recognized the echoes of traditional folk poetry in the words of that last aching verse which I must now inhabit: Fare you well, fare you well; I love you more than words can tell…
More than words…
My Mother was a woman of words, a voracious reader and a pointed speaker. She knew all the words, what they meant and how to spell them (she was a spelling bee champion in her youth) but now she has gone beyond words, though words are all we have to remember her with.
Beyond words lies a Mystery she’s gone to join.
Of it she gave little voice. She was not what we call a religious, or even a spiritual person, and she left us without direction in the matter of her passing. Bereft of meaning in her wake we gather here in recognition of an obligation all who live must owe. And though our voices fail still we must find a fitting way to say goodbye.
When words fail there may yet be pictures, as painted on the walls of ancient caves. A fascination with such images was one of her passions. Those first expressions of the human mind moved her deeply. In the dim light before they learned to write, our Ancestors set the stage for all the words that were to come. There began our myths, and if my Mother did not have religion, at least she had Mythology. Maybe for her they were the same: the tallow-burning lamp of the human spirit spreading just enough light to mark out a space in which we might display a gesture pointing towards our meaning.
From that gesture follow all the words, and all the deeds of history.
She knew them all.
Every child starts out thinking that Mother knows everything, and our subsequent disillusion is a basic lesson of life, but I was never disabused of the notion; she really did seem to know everything, excepting perhaps the lesser dregs of contemporary pop-culture, but then even her ignorances seemed a sort of virtue. And her knowledge was not a mere compendium of fact, but an interpretive articulation through which she found her way of being in this World.
Not without difficulty.
By nature she was not at ease in the World. For all the things she knew, she did not always know how to be happy. Her lot was no worse than most, but she bore it hard, or maybe just knew too much to be content. Still, it seemed to me that she did better as she aged, and never ceased to learn and grow and find new ways of inspiration and accommodation. In this, to me, she is an inspiration, a model and a guide. When my Father died I returned mostly to the memories of childhood, but in my Mother’s case it is her journey through adult life that fills my mind with memories both fond and pained.
For she was full of contradictions.
Timid at times, she found the courage at the mid-point of her life to strike out on her own and make a new and better way for herself. Though fit for higher callings she did what she must, toiling for years in the bureaucracy, scrimping with good sense and great discipline to finance an elegant style of life that outstripped her modest means by virtue of the acuity of her desires.
And she was not without desires, though at times they might conflict: an ascetic and a sensualist; an epicure who hardly seemed to eat; her head all full of music, art and books, yet she tended to her body like an athlete. Wherefore she was beautiful, and grew more so as she aged; an object of others’ desires, she had, I think, too little satisfaction out of men, but that was ever their fault as much as hers.
Retirement for her was merely the setting aside of a job that did not interest her. Her life was not diminished but expanded as she used the time to feed her passions and to travel the world, visiting five continents from the wilds of Africa and Australia to the temples of India, Asia and the Yucatan, and even into the deeps of those old French caves. Often she visited my sister, and delighted in her grandchildren, who I hope have gained some sense of what an amazing woman this was. Even at the end she was preparing for more trips, and working to perfect her Italian language skills, the better to have words at hand in foreign lands.
I was only sad in that she did not have many close friends, though her sisters were beloved and ever a comfort to her. But maybe it was not easy for others to get close to her for once approached she radiated an intensity of self that was not always easy to endure. She had perhaps the truest moral compass of anyone I’ve known, which was revealed not in prescriptions and proscriptions, nor tedious advice, but in an understanding of the World so deep that her every utterance implied an apprehension of what is meet and just and right, so fine that there could be no doubt. This was the quality that served to unite the myriad strands of her protean intellect into a consistent self of unassailable rectitude; she would always say the thing that took us to the end of words, for what more could there be to say?
Well, there is much, too much for me to say:
How she read me the entire Lord of the Rings when I was seven.
How she went to Red China when such a thing just wasn’t done.
How she worried that she might cause offense to others.
How she haunted the library, the cinema and the museum.
How she insisted on sleeping on the sofa when she visited.
How she had a sense of style that was almost (but not quite) perfect.
How she struggled with technology more complex than a book.
How she was fascinated with eels.
How she was a feminist in deed, but always pursuant to her humanism.
How she craved peanut butter on toast.
How she could joke.
How she gave a damn.
How she gave me Life.
How she loved me.
How much I miss her.
There is no doubt that my Mother was the most important, the most influential, the most beloved person in my life. Her voice still lives in my mind, and every question of import that comes my way is subject to her scrutiny as I suppose it might have been. I guess a lot of people would say the same about their mother, and that’s all well and right. But we shared a bond I think, not just of blood, but of temperament and philosophy that went deeper than most. It is one of the great joys of my life that we grew closer in her later years as I learned that there was really almost nothing that I needed to withhold from her. We learned to share in a way I never quite could with my Father, an honesty and openness, and an intellectual compatibility that’s hard to have between parent and child.
I see her ever in myself, from the depths of my own Melancholy to the contours of my pleasures. Like her I’ve learned to live alone with the things of my mind, at peace, if not always at ease in this World. I’ve found perhaps a deeper network of friends, but that’s because so much of what I’ve learned of Love, both giving and of taking, descends from her. It was a part of her morality of the heart that when it came to her children we were equals in her love. Even so, I always felt doted upon, and though I would never suggest that Mom loved me best, I do know for a fact that of all the people who have loved me in my life, indeed she loved me most.
I love her every bit as much, and have no better honor than to be her son.
I love you Mother,
And more than words can say.