My Mom’s Music

It’s in history books now. And my Mom was there.

A young preacher from South Carolina named Jesse Jackson arriving in Chicago, to see blocks and blocks of brutally burned out buildings on the west and south sides of the city. You could still smell the smoke. It was the aftermath of the killings that ripped hope from the heart of the nation, when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy’s kids lost their fathers.

Long before there was any kind of Rainbow Coalition, or Operation PUSH, there was “Operation Breadbasket.” Formed by Reverend Jackson to get food to starving people; not people starving in a far off place, but right here.

There weren’t a whole lot of volunteers – much less women – from the northern suburbs of Chicago who raised their hands to offer their help. And by help, I don’t mean donations; I mean being there. Filling those boxes. Loading those trucks. Handing out the canned goods. Stocking the shelves of the grocery stores where the Black owned businesses had previously found their products hidden in the back.

My Mom was one of those volunteers. The kind of volunteer that treated the work like a job, not a hobby.

Child of the last depression, as soon as she was old enough to talk, she asked her Mother “what are heaven and hell?”

Her Mother answered, “Heaven is where we go when we die.”
“But what about hell?” she asked her Mother.
“We don’t believe in hell.”

Mom was not too many generations removed from the red-faced Irish on her Dad’s side and the stand up straight and tall Germans on her Mother’s side. Those who made the long, gut-wrenching trip from the old country; those who enjoyed the drink that came most times at the end of a long working day.

Her father was a lawyer, in years of both feast and famine. I can remember sitting on his lap, white hair, red face grin and I was snapping his suspenders. His rollicking laughter. His dream of being the guy who repealed Prohibition. Lawyer for the Bowman Dairy Company.

The Cheryl Wheeler lyric floats in here:

“Child of changing times

Growing up between the wars

The Fords rolled off the lines

And bars all closed their doors”

I can remember another kind of drink. From a silver thermos with a plastic red top for a cup. A golden dawn breaking over Lake Michigan. I’m sitting in the front passenger seat of our family’s VW bus. Mom’s driving. My brother and two sisters are in the back and we’ll be meeting my Dad down south in Virginia for a family vacation. Mom unscrews the top of the thermos, pours some of its contents into the cup and says, “Have some of this.” Coffee with sugar and cream stirred in, that to this day – some 40 years later – still tastes like wonder, like possibility, like…now that you are just about grown up and healthy, you can do anything you want to do.

It wasn’t always like that cup of coffee. My parents tried for five years to have children of their own; they had adoption papers signed at one point.
Then I came along, but from my first breath I was always tired. Low blood cell count. Couldn’t do a sit-up in gym class to save my life.

My Mom was there for that, too.

For the next twelve years she took me to every kind of doctor imaginable, trying to somehow figure out what the heck was wrong with her first kid – and having three more kids in the meantime. All that, and working at jobs that women of that time simply didn’t have. Not many women, especially women with four children, started their own businesses then.

But my Mom did.

My Mom picked up a guitar, partnered up with a woman originally from Louisville, Kentucky, and started performing an historical retrospective of Civil War songs at local gatherings. After her “Women of the Civil War” show came the aptly named “Chicago, Your Bustle Is Showing,” songs from the city’s really early days.

She became the musical director for the local Reform Jewish Temple. The fact that we were not Jewish might have given many women pause.

Not my Mom.

What religion we actually were, was always a pretty interesting question. Because the answer was always “all of them.”

My Mom, raised a Catholic, enrolled us in pretty much every mainstream denomination as well as Christian Science. Then when all of us grew up and left home, she got her Doctorate in Religion from Drew University.

Oh…and the career as a therapist? That came before the doctorate. Her Masters degree in Social Work. The doctorate, she said, “was for fun.”

As was her book Jewish Renewal in America Then the second book, An Awakening Heart. An historical novel on Moravian women.

Today, on her birthday, she’s working on a third book.

Like her beloved JS Bach, she was born in March. Most mothers don’t offer advice to their sons like “never listen to anything written after 1800 in the mornings.”

But my Mom did.

So again, I’m twelve years old. Breakfast time. And a Brandenburg Concerto fills the house. There is a time shift and that Brandenburg segues into another piece of my musical memory.

It’s New Year’s Eve. Everyone’s asleep except my Mom and me. Staying up to listen to the Midnight Special on radio station WFMT. Pete Seeger sings:
My land is a good land
It’s a good land so they say.

On her Birthday today, I hear all that musical memory and recall that I know lots of songs like the Bach, the Pete Seeger or even just the other day when she told me how much she was liking Miles Davis’s “Sketches of Spain.”

And did I mention how she now likes Stevie Ray Vaughn?

Mom’s music. Still in tune.

One Response to “My Mom’s Music”

  1. hcgagel Says:

    Happy Birthday to an amazing woman!

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