Sunday, May 10, 2020

Album Covers, Mothers, and Remembering Days Gone By

Last week, longtime family friend, Jeffrey, nominated me for the 10-day album cover challenge—you know the one where you post only the album cover without a word of explanation—just the album cover. For someone who always feels motivated to explain (to perhaps prevent ridicule, anticipating it in advance), I knew it would be a challenge but I accepted. For so many years of my early life, I can remember being made fun of. My mother told me to ignore it if people made fun of me. I said, "okay" and never worried about it again. In fact, I got good at ignoring it.

I was 18 months younger than most of the kids in my class. Please understand, I was far from a prodigy, nowhere near one. It’s just that to repeat kindergarten to get to the acceptable age of entering first grade would have been a waste. I’d started learning phonics and loved reading. And so began my time in a school whose motto was “for those who can meet the challenge.” Custom made for this one…I was a challenge all right. My mother had told her family for years that she wanted five children. After all, she was one of eight children and she loved the entire concept of a large family, and she even mother-henned the youngsters who came after her. She had two older brothers who adored her but inevitably she was the one worrying about the rest of her brood.

And so I found it amusing one day when I was about age 13, I quizzed her about wanting five children. I said, “Are you disappointed you just had the one child? Would you rather have had all five?” Without hesitation she answered, “Honey, you were my five.” And she smiled sweetly. Oh dear. I guess I was. Sorry, Mama. But no matter what my question du jour was, she had an answer….she must have developed that practice after some initial field training because my go-to question was always: “What are we going to do next, Mom?” And, she always had an answer. It might, “go to the grocery store” or “we’re going to get Aunt Emma and Charlotte and bring them to the house,” or it might even be, “we’re going home so you can get a nap.”

As long as I had an answer and knew what to expect, I was fine. It was the unknown that used to bother me. I liked to plan. I was an organized little kid and nothing made me happier than a new binder, a package of loose-leaf filler paper (narrow-ruled please), a new package of Bic pens (oh, I had much to learn about pens, but…that would come), and a pencil protector. In my first seven years on earth, I’d undergo many changes in my routine, if you could call it that. Expecting the traditional two-parent household was something I never expected because my parents divorced when I was five. It was far from acrimonious, fortunately, and it didn’t leave me scarred. It simply prepared me to always have a Plan B, and the option to fall back on it if Plan A went south.

Then in the two years that followed, I lost my godfather and my grandfather, all by the age of 7. Expecting to have the advocacy of the elder statesmen in my world went flying out the window, too. So, I started to search for others in whose continuity and consistency I could place my trust. They were there, in family and extended family, so I cannot claim there was a void. And, it was in how my mom prepared me to say goodbye when those we love on Earth transition into the next place, which she called Heaven. I learned about how to attend a funeral, and from my mother I learned to be brave at all times, and to have faith, and remember the ones we loved always.

Over the years, I’d be attending the funerals of mentors, teachers, and even classmates all too soon, but I was never afraid to go in a funeral home. Another place I was comfortable was in hospitals, both in waiting rooms and in the patients’ rooms. One of the two men who started the school I attended from grades 1-12 vowed to be a parental influence on me from the day I walked into the admissions office with my Mom. Timing was right for both of us, as it turns out he’d been caregiving for his mom, and she would come to pass away shortly after my arrival there. My parents’ divorce had occurred a few months before I’d entered school. Void filled.

And yet, there were several instances I observed (without my mom seeing me observing them) that showed me that not all was right with the world. It was the 1960s, and women were second-class citizens back then. Women could not apply for credit in their own name, usually, and even if they wanted to sign a document for which they were fully qualified, a husband’s name was always required as co-signator. Today’s newest adults still appear shocked that such was a reality for the generation that came in their grandparents’ generation, but it was a different world back then, too.

The local pharmacist wanted to shut down the monthly “tab” that we’d had for 5 years simply because my parents divorced. I do recall hearing him say, “But who will be responsible for this bill each month?” and my mother saying, “I will, because I was the one who was working to pay for it every month before it.” He had no snappy comeback answer and her determination convinced him he needn’t worry that it would be paid. He was paid and he never had to worry. I do believe that she told him that I would be asking him to buy a small ‘ad’ in the school yearbook in a few weeks and she’d appreciate his careful attention to my request. Mama was something else again. Did I mention she was Irish? Well, there’s that and several other genetic heritage combos in the mix but…just the Irish part explains everything.

Mama taught me never to fear hearing the word, “no.” There were many things we could not afford when I was a child but I was always to tell her what my wishes were and the item would go on her list. Then, if and when we could afford it, she would get it if I still wanted it. My grandmother chastised her for being so brutally honest about finances with me as a “child,” but Mom overrode her mother’s protests, explaining that I would adapt better if I heard “why” the answer came back “no,” rather than feeling negated. She was right. I needed to know “why” and “what was next” as my earliest precepts. Mama could do pretty much anything she put her mind to. She could reupholster a chair, put down a new tile floor in the kitchen (although at age 10, I got pretty good at it myself and sat her in a corner while I finished up under her watchful supervision), she painted the entire outside of our one-story house and for a woman who hated heights to be up on a ladder, you just had to know Mama. No one else there to do it, she just accepted it and got it done, with not one complaint.

She even, to the shock and awe of our next door neighbor, changed the spark plugs in our old Ford Falcon one day, without the proper tools, and the car started and ran fine. I thought my neighbor was going to faint as he said, “But you have to have a kit and a timing light to know where they go in” and Mom’s answer was, “Well, I looked at how they were set, lined it up in my sight, and put them in the way I thought they were before. He gave me this smile like “Your Mom is extraordinary” and he went home telling his wife, with whom I’d been visiting, how he’d never seen anything like it before.

I loved talking with grownups, neighbors and parents of my classmates….in fact anyone who was a good 20-25 years older than I would qualify as fascinating. It was a good thing to keep me from getting bored, I think, so Mom encouraged me to learn from everyone around me. And I did. Now, back to the album covers. In posting the album cover for day 3 this week, and the approaching date of Mother’s Day, I dropped into Memory Lane, forgetting for a time as the breeze blew past me, sitting on the wall of my flower boxes outside my home. The sun was out, the wind blew gently, and the locusts or some other creatures were making gentle noises in the trees outside.

How had I come to pick Skeeter Davis’s album, “I’ve Forgotten More Than You’ll Ever Know (About Him)” for my day 3? It started like this. Recorded in June 1962 at the RCA studios in Nashville, produced by Chet Atkins, with Floyd Cramer on piano was a two-minute song called “The End of the World.” The artist who sang it was Skeeter Davis.

Part of it was the sorrow-filled strains of the steel guitar and the countenance of the lovely young woman singing, “I can’t understand, no I can’t understand, how life goes on the way it does.” I was five years old and I got it. The spoken part of the song “Why does my heart go on beating, why do these eyes of mine cry?” That part just ripped my heart out as I was the most literal little child you’d ever met. I felt her pain as she sang and the words seared through me as I felt so badly for her pain. Every time I heard that song on the radio, I’d just break down and cry.

Usually, I was a happy child and laughter was my normal response to life, just as my Mom’s was. But not when this song came on. Mom was usually good with using logic with me, as I had to work my way through things. Things I did not understand then, as still today, make me cranky when they don’t make sense. If it defied logic, it disturbed me. Mom tried more than one time to explain that Skeeter really was not unhappy, she was not crying and that it was “just a song.”

I wasn’t having any of it. I countered with, “She would not be saying those words if she didn’t mean them. She is in pain!” And so it went for a while. That song would be around for a total of nine months as it eventually reached the #2 spot on Billboard’s chart by March, 1963. But somewhere in the middle of that, Mama found the solution to my woes.

Turns out the Grand Ol’ Opry was coming to San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium and the entire big league “A” team was on board. I believe the bill included Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Locklin, Little Jimmy Dickins, Miss Minnie Pearl, and Skeeter Davis herself would be appearing. The tickets were $3.00 each and friends, back then, a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese was $.25 and a loaf of bread was $.22. The average wage was $4,400/year or $84/week. The tickets at $6.00 was substantial.

The first thing Mom did was buy the tickets. Next, she began her quest to locate where Skeeter was staying in San Antonio. Mama should have been a private investigator (but she trained me well, haha) as I heard her dialing all the hotel switchboards and asking for her, and explaining why she was trying to reach her. As fate would have it, Mama eventually found the right hotel and was put directly through to Skeeter when the operator heard the “why” behind the call.

It only took about three minutes before I heard Mama saying, “That is wonderful. I appreciate this so much.” What “this” turned out to be was our arriving early, long before the show started at the Municipal Auditorium. This event is marked in time as amazing as Mama was early, something she wasn’t very good at sometimes. If it was important to me, she was early or on time, but the rest of the time, not as much.

I was wearing a little white sailor dress, my little white hat, matching Mary Jane shoes and gloves, if I can recall. I had my little autograph book in my hand, and we entered a side door where my mother gave her name to the security guard and we were ushered backstage and for the first time, the other side of the stage was revealed to me. I loved it. I loved the lights, the ropes and pulleys and curtains and massive ceilings. It seemed very, very big to a little girl. That, I thought, was where all the magic happened.

We were shown to Skeeter’s dressing room and I rushed up to her and she had open arms waiting for me. I turned around and looked at Mom, and said, “She’s okay! She’s not crying!” And it only took Skeeter a few minutes to explain how these people came to write this song about a sad experience, but it wasn’t hers personally. She liked the melody and how the band played it and whenever I heard it in the future, she wanted me to remember how much she liked how the band played it for her. I promised I would.

Before I left, her manager came by to bring her an 8x10 b/w photo for her to give me. She signed it right in front of me, dedicated it to me, and she signed my little autograph book, which I still proudly have today. Music fans don’t always get the chance that I did. I realize that. An entirely new world opened up to me that day in 1962. I saw the lights, the glamour, the glitter, of the behind-the-scenes things you do before the magic happens.

As I sat with mom in fabulous general admission seats (they’d saved us two really great ones), and the band began to play “The End of the World,” as she sang my mother witnessed a miracle. It was the first time I’d ever listened to the song and all I did was smile. Before she sang she introduced the song and how there was a special little girl in the audience who thought that she was sad when she sang it, but she reassured me that she wasn’t and she wanted all the little girls to know that, too. And that was the very first time I’d ever had a song dedicated to me from the stage. It would not be the last. I think I was on Cloud 9 for days, but the reality is that I’ve been on that same cloud for about 58 years now, as the real hero of the story, Mama, showed me many things that week. She showed me how important it was to be receptive and attuned to the people in the world around you, to try and anticipate their needs, and do what you could, if you could, to help them.

I also learned not to take “no” for an answer if it was something I really, really wanted, and to be sure, I never have as I was fortunate to learn that early. And, from Mama that day, I learned how to love someone and then watch with pride as their world turned on its axis and everything wrong was made right again. Not once did she ever tell anyone of her contemporaries or colleagues what she had done for her daughter. That was just what being a Mama is all about in her book. Mama being Mama, she won my respect and love every single day, no matter what she did, or didn’t do. Fearless, faithful, faith-filled, and full of love and a sense of humor that would not quit, I grew up learning from the best teacher I could hope to have. I still learn from her today as I process the how and why of various life lessons and reasons she had for doing things her own way and walking her own unique path. Turns out, I’m a lot like she was.

My experience is not unique, though. Not by a long shot. Every one of us has a mother or mother surrogate or advocate in our lives who would walk through fire for us. We have unconditional love and understanding from doing absolutely nothing to earn it other than being ourselves. It’s easier to see, when you’re an only child, and you have one parent who is your world, but you can look to your left and to your right and see how a woman with 12 children worked on campus for 30 years and all of her children went to college and graduated, because they wanted to do right by what their moms had done to give them goals and let them dream.

Every parent who brings a child into this world is blessed with a chance to make right what may or may not have been right in their worlds growing up. For those of us who did not have children of our own, I’ve been abundantly blessed with the love of others who share theirs with me. Plus I have a fur baby that I’m part-time supervisor and Mommy #2 for. I love being Aunt Dawn and Miss Dawn Lee and whatever else they will want to call me in the coming year. The definition of a mother is one thing. It is simply “one who loves.”

For all of you who still have your mothers’ necks to hug, run and hug them, or call them, hold up a sign outside their windows, and cherish every moment you have with them. And for many of my friends, and as it turns out just tonight, for my family, for whom this is the first Mother’s Day without your Mom, don’t cry. Don’t be sad. You take all of the love that she showed to you, and you find someone to gift it to. Doesn’t have to be a mother. It can be anyone. Show love, be love, live in love. Those who know me well know I will quote my beloved academic, the late Professor Leo Buscaglia, who proclaims it, and I believe it to be true. “Love never dies.”

Happy Mother’s Day 2020, with love.

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