“Well what is this that I can’t see, with ice-cold hands takin’ hold of me?” – Traditional Folk Song
I’ve got Ralph Stanley’s rendition of “Oh Death” in one ear and cheesy music-on-hold in the other, as I wait for a Southwest Airlines phone agent. I’m wondering if I can make it to a funeral in Nashville ASAP. My Uncle Bill passed away yesterday. On the 8th anniversary of my mom’s – his sister’s – death.
The automated voice says I have 22 to 35 minutes to wait for an SWA agent. So I guess I’ll continue listening to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and write a blog.
(And as always, I promise to connect this story to yoga when Max Strom makes an important appearance further down the page.)
Bill was Mom’s favorite brother and my favorite uncle. When my mom died in Nashville on April 13, 2002, Bill (and most of the Farley family) showed up without fail. In fact, Bill was always there for my mother – in heroic ways at times…even when most of the siblings became estranged from Mom after she became pregnant out-of-wedlock in her early 20s. That’s how she ended up in DC – my Grandma Farley sent Mom off to the Crittenden Home for Women in Washington for shelter until the birth. Uncle Bill and wife Nita drove his silent and resentful sister, Peggy, up north.
Peggy Farley gave birth to a son and was instructed to give him up for adoption. And she vowed to never return to Tennessee nor see her family again.
Somewhere out there, I have a half-brother who would be nearing 60 years old now. I wonder if he does yoga.
Since Mom’s death back in 2002, Uncle Bill has been there for me, too, revealing more and more about his sister than I ever knew. Through his stories and photos, I came to embrace how alike my mom and I are. She was a singer from childhood, was entered in vocal contests, and – once her brothers and sisters vacated the home base for their own family lives and military assignments – branched out to perform in talent shows and hang out with Nashville musicians.
Unlike most female Nashville singers of her era, Mom preferred jazz and Negro spirituals to country and folk music. I have a newspaper clip announcing her performance of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” in the 1950 “Shield Shenanigans” review. I also have her music lesson books, full of traditional gospel songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” While my three sisters and I were growing up in the DC area in the 1960s, Mom would start each day with a cup of coffee, a cigarette and a dose of WMAL AM-630, whose morning programs played only jazz vocals and big band music. Thus began my musical education.
Mom met my dad in the bohemian Dupont Circle neighborhood where they lived. Peggy Farley married Irvin Meyers and began her transition from Church of Christ to Judaism. She enrolled in Temple Sinai’s program and converted before my eldest sister was born. I have a hunch that part of my mother’s willingness to convert came from resentment toward her family’s religion. But she didn’t completely shun her childhood roots. Her Celtic/Pagan ancestry was apparent in her passion for adorning our home with seasonal decorations from nature – wildflowers in the spring, cat tails in the summer, milk pods in the fall, evergreen in the winter. A farmer’s daughter, gardening became a spiritual practice later in her life. Hands in the earth. Growing and eating your own food. And I am drawn to Farmer’s Markets and nature-based ritual. Imagine that.
Now the story gets a little heavier. Forgive me…
Aside from soulful musical preferences, artistic life and earthy spirituality, Mom and I had something else in common – we both started drinking alcohol very early on. Sadly, she abused it through elder-hood and died with complications from alcoholism at age 71. Bless her heart. Her struggle with the disease of alcoholism was long and horribly destructive. Just six months after Mom died, I was lucky to have a moment of clarity and accept support to recover from alcohol’s cunning, baffling and powerful grip on me. One day at a time, I now live the life of a musician, yoga teacher, writer and regular old human being – without the compulsion to drink.
And for that I am grateful.
I am also deeply grateful to my mom for all that she was, all that she did, all that she shared. But I’d never realized this until last weekend, during West Coast yoga instructor Max Strom’s workshops here in DC. (Thanks to Caroline Weaver for the recommendation.) Max is a big bear of a man whose firm and motivational tone is what the Voice of God might sound like. At least, in my imagination. After a vigorous heart-/breath-centric flow, we had a nice deep relaxation leading into the deepest silent meditation I’ve ever experienced.
Then, the Voice from Above (aka Max) said, “Bring to mind the person…
or being or thing…
to whom you owe the most gratitude.”
And PING, my mom popped into my mind.
Immediately I inwardly battled, “Mom? No. Then who? What? Huh? Shouldn’t it be a Higher Power? Or…or…or…”
And then the Voice from Above said, “Choose the first being that popped into your mind.”
And I started sobbing. Of course. My mom. I am grateful for her creativity, passion for music, talent in singing, active energy in gardening. For her encouragement of and alliance with me regarding creativity, singing, drumming, having musician boyfriends, traveling with musicians, touring as a musician. For her strength (although self-reliant and destructive at times), her perseverance, her work ethic. For her beautiful blue eyes, perfectly penciled brows, stylish outfits. And finally, for her humanness, her fragile self, her past, her pain, her resentments, her love, her illness, her silliness, her anger, her entire being. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed until I was snotty and puffy and drained. Finally the Big Bear rang the meditation bells, I gathered my wits about me and life moved on.
Between Uncle Bill’s stories and Max Strom’s transformational yoga I am finally able to recognize my mom as my greatest life teacher – and the learning continues long after her death.
It’s been way more than 22 to 35 minutes and I now know that no airlines offer “bereavement discounts” as in the past. But I owe it to my Uncle Bill to show up, just like he did – for his family, for my mom and for me. So tomorrow morning, I’m off to Nashville.
In one particular visit with Bill after my mother’s death, he also told me more about himself than I’d ever known. Woefully, he shared about his guilt and remorse about leaving Peggy in DC, his absence during her teenage years while he served in the military, his lack of familiarity with her backstage life and her experimentation with alcohol. In addition, he spoke of his gratitude for the way my dad took care of Mom during their 46-year marriage.
Despite the remorse about his sister, Bill was a man of great faith who must’ve realized that we cannot control what’s beyond us. People, places, things, time, history. Imagine what would have happened if Mom had NOT come to DC. I might not have been born! I hope Uncle Bill realized that he was always the apple of Mom’s eye, that my Dad really loved and respected him, and that I adored him to no end. I still have the Jew’s Harp that he mailed me when I was about eight years old – in the original box, addressed to “Miss Holly Meyers.”
I think I’ll take it out right now and jam along with the Soggy Bottom Boys.
Thanks for listening, y’all. OM Shanti.
(P.S. Appreciation to tonight’s yoga class at Past Tense, who spent their Yoga Nidra with a little Irish music – Damien Rice’s “Older Chests” – in honor of my Uncle Bill Farley.)
(P.S. again – With all due respect to the entire Farley family; I only have the pieces of Mom’s and Bill’s stories that my sisters, dad and Bill shared. Please forgive me if something is inaccurate.)