Mom’s been on my mind a lot lately.
And y’know, it makes sense. I’ve been singing a lot (my mother taught me to sing). It’s Autumn (October 2nd would have been her 81st birthday). Thanksgiving is approaching (my family celebrated our last holiday season with Mom 10 years ago). And I recently celebrated my 9th year clean and sober (my mom died as a result of long-term alcoholism).
Nearly a decade after her death, she still taps me on the shoulder at times. She taps me when I’m playing percussion with bands, chanting devotional prayers at Kirtans, singing Gospel standards at open mics and lighting the Chanukah candles. She taps me when my yoga instructor asks me to think of my most important life teacher. She tapped me this morning while I was meditating. She taps me when I’m pruning plants or arranging flowers. She taps me when I’m decorating my home. She taps me when I’m cooking a soup.
There are times when I reach out to tap her, too. To hear her opinion. To ask for her embrace. To thank her for my life. To apologize for any harm I did to her. To grieve the pain of her life. To send her the love she deserves.
I didn’t always love my mom the way I came to love her later in my life…later in her life…and then after she died.
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I’m about to tell you some very personal and difficult stories. Some are smiling and shiny; some are gritty and rough. All are bittersweet. I’ve selected these stories because they specifically prove that, indeed, my mother is the greatest Guru ever. For me.
When I was young I hated my mother for being an alcoholic. As an adult, I would learn more about the disease of alcoholism and honor the tragedy of her life. But while growing up, I simply resented how drunk she got. I was constantly afraid that my friends and the community would see her drunk; and because they frequently saw her, I was frequently embarrassed. One time I spilled out the drink that she intended to take in the car on our way to Shabbat services – and she slapped me. It was a gin martini. To this day, I cannot stomach the smell of gin.
There were times when she came through as a great mother. She was a hard worker, had full-time jobs, and did not drink during the day. She truly wanted to show up, and when she could, she did. But what I understand now is that her efforts to parent were overshadowed by the neglect. In the end, alcohol always won her attention and became her priority. Spill it out, and you became a threat. So I learned to keep a distance.
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During my college years, I grew to appreciate my mother. My attitude shifted after I took my family to see a friend’s concert. The next day at lunch, my friend said, “It was great to meet your mom. For the longest time, I thought she’d died before we met. You always talked about your dad – you never mentioned your mom.” Whoa. I had no idea I’d erased her so completely. And then my friend said, “Y’know, you get a lot from her.” I was so pissed off! I argued, “No way, I have nothing in common with her!” So he stated the obvious, judging by what I had told him in the rare instances of speaking about my mom, and his impression the night before. She grew up singing; music is her passion; she gravitates toward soul music; she loves talking with other musicians; and, she was so comfortable backstage – it was the most natural place she could be.
That day, I surrendered my resentment and admitted that my mother had been an ally and soul-mate all along. Clearly, I got a lot from her! The passion for music, for soulful cultures, for gardening, for cooking, for interior design, for spirituality. My mother taught me to sing, primarily through chanting the Sh’ma, a Jewish prayer, in harmony.
My mother did so much to inspire and encourage creativity. Every morning, she’d have her coffee and cigarette while listening to WMAL-AM, when it was a jazz station. Over breakfast I was exposed to the music that my mom had sung in talent shows and concerts – great vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and more. Although a blue eyed farm girl from the capitol of country music, my mom gravitated toward jazz and gospel. In fact, I have her 1948 song book of Negro Spirituals. This immersion in soulful music influenced me to write my own songs and perform them at my parents’ frequent parties. Mom enrolled me in voice lessons. On beach trips, she’d blast the radio and we’d all sing along. She invited my high school New Wave band to hold a house concert. When I was a little older, my drummer boyfriend invited me to tour California with his band – Dad said a firm “no” but Mom fought for me. (I went to Cali.) And so on.
At the same time, many opportunities were missed. For example, there was a lot of self-taught musicianship and talent that was never deepened with consistent instruction or plans for ongoing development. I do regret this and often feel that music education might have been my best choice for college. Looking back, I don’t blame my mom for any of this, because I am certain she would have guided me in that direction if she could have. I blame the disease of alcoholism.
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As my mom became progressively ill, my love for her grew immensely. Alcoholism and related troubles continued to take its toll in more serious ways. In her 60s, Mom had cancer three times. On the outside, she remained the strong-willed woman who could get through anything. She continued planting gardens, harvesting herbs, cooking from scratch, building an art studio in her bedroom, doing crafts, listening to music, smoking cigarettes, drinking gin.
But there were points where I witnessed her heartbreaking vulnerability. With each cancer, my mother never completely healed – more and more complications arose. She became scared. I once heard her crying in bed the night before one of her many surgeries. When she was diagnosed with emphysema, she quit smoking and remarked with self-disgust, “I could have done that a long time ago.” She would willingly try my yoga and diet suggestions, but was so sick that she’d end up feeling worse. Toward the end, I remember laying next to her tired body on yet another day that she woke up with a “bug” that left her vomiting and weakened. I will never forget the terror in her eyes when I urged her to go to the hospital. Perhaps she knew she was dying and wanted to stay at home as long as possible.
That was Thanksgiving, 10 years ago. I think the family dinner included Mom, Dad, two of my sisters, three of their kids and me. That night, in my mom’s art studio, I drew an abstract of the scene. My mother and father were angels at the heads of the table – Mom’s garden spade and a green vine enveloped us on one side; Dad’s cigar and its smoke on the other. To me, both the vine and the smoke represented protection. I sensed it was Mom’s last Thanksgiving. I was right.
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After my mom died, I developed a deep, knowing compassion for her. Interestingly enough, I got sober six months after her death. I’d started drinking at age 11, to calm the childhood chaos and hush the deep resentments. Twenty five years later, as I came to understand the cunning, baffling and powerful disease that nearly killed me, I also came to understand the disease that succeeded in killing my mom. Listening to other recovering alcoholics’ speak, I heard my mom’s story. I saw how the disease had destroyed her life and consequently affected mine. And I loved her even more.
My greatest awakening about my mom’s life came about four years ago. By complete surprise, I found out that she had a child before meeting my father. Stories said that she’d been hanging out with musicians in her native Nashville, might have been drinking, might have been raped…and ended up pregnant. Her parents sent her away, to a “home for women” in DC. The home arranged the birth and subsequent adoption. They say that Mom was so angry, she never forgave her parents. And so I found yet another thing that my mother and I had in common – we both drank to kill life’s pain and drown our resentments.
The biggest difference is: I got lucky and got sober; she did not. I take that very, very seriously.
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So yes, my mother is my Guru. Throughout all the phases of my relationship with her – dead and alive – she has been my most influential teacher. She teaches me with the light, and she teaches me from the darkness. She teaches me through what she did, and what she would/could/did not do. Her influence drives my passions and my purpose.
I love everything about her. The singing lessons, the slaps, the strong will, the vulnerability. She is the ultimate model of the perfectly imperfect human that I strive to be.
It’s taken me a day to write this. I started when I finished meditating this morning. I stopped and started and stopped and started again. I cried my heart out. There’s so much more than what you’ve read above, so many more experiences and stories, so much more grief and love.
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Back in 2009, I went on tour with a folk-pop band and I took along a photo of my mom. I’ve heard that the picture was taken in DC, at the women’s home, some time after she had the baby. She is beautiful and glamorous; she is too thin and her eyes look cold; she stands tall and her hands fumble with each other self-consciously. So I wanted to take this version of her on this exciting musical journey. Every night before I went to sleep, I lit a candle and thanked my mom. I now play percussion and sing sacred chants in an all-female Kirtan group. I’ve noticed that Kirtan leaders and spiritual teachers typically create an altar with a picture of their Guru. Coming full circle, I can think of no one more perfect to place on my altar than the woman who sang Hebrew prayers with me, every night at bedtime.
Good night, Mom. OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.