It’s been said that college is the vacation you get between your mother and your wife. Let’s see...I left home at eighteen and I’ve been married...going on eighteen years. I managed to squeeze a four year degree into, well, more than the time allotted so I guess it all evens out. Despite my efforts to extend my undergraduate education, Northern Michigan University made me leave school with a degree and a congratulatory letter saying, in essence, “Get a job.” Ooh, life is cruel. I enjoyed those single and carefree years and have been fortunate (rivaling God’s true grace) to have found a wonderful wife who is a fantastic mother to our sons. When time allows, I attempt to fill her shoes and discover after doing a mere fraction of what she accomplishes day in and day out that I am exhausted and anxious to get back to work and get some rest. Like most mothers she manages small miracles on a regular basis.
Mothers have an intrinsic magic that a man will never understand nor replicate. He may possess the strength to fight wars and move mountains, the where-with-all to create commerce and bring home the bacon, and the myopic ability to convince himself he does this all in the best interest of humanity but when its all said and done it pales in comparison to the tenderness, fierce determination and the depth of love of a devoted mother. If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned then Heaven hath no reward like a good woman loved.
I remember as a child it seeming a bit odd to see my mother take a nap just after dinner, then gussy up in an evening dress and then disappear into the night to go play piano at Jazz and Blues clubs around the Detroit area. At the time I wasn’t sure if my family structure was slightly skewed or just so different it was cool. Every child wants there parents to be “hip” but more often than not kids just shake there head and concede “adults are weird.” During the ‘60’s when music was everything I used to thumb through Betty’s (my mom’s name these days) LP’s and look for some Beatles or Stones or even Herman’s Hermits, anything but those square and unfamiliar names like Billie Holiday, Wes Montgomery, Oscar Peterson, or Ella Fitzgerald. Once I went to a party in the sixth grade and everyone had to bring an album for the record player. Of course I enlisted my mom’s help and she gave me one of her favorites. You can imagine how my social status did a nose-dive when into the mix of Can’t Buy Me Love, Satisfaction, and Tears of a Clown I introduced Jack Teagarden playing a New Orleans Dixieland Jazz number. It took me two years of junior high school to live that one down and from that point on no matter what I said, did or wore I was the geek in Hush Puppies, white socks, high water pants (with an Exploded Pen Ink Stain in the front pocket) and a Banlon shirt with uncountable fuzz balls who listened to old fogey music. At the time, acne was the least of my worries. Of course it was Betty who rescued my terminal self-concept. Imagine my surprise when she strode into my eighth grade Vocal Music class to play piano and discuss the life of a professional musician. I have always loved my mother dearly but at that particular point in my life I was at the stage where I would rather have her drop me off a half mile from school in a blizzard rather than be seen with her in that putzy ‘62 Chevy Nova. I sat in the back row and tried to beam. I may have appeared to be “beaming” but it was actually pimples which every adolescent knows is brought on by a nervous condition. You worry about pimples and voila’; more pimples. Betty sat down and played a few of her square and oh so unhip songs and I sat there wondering if it was time for me to start using deodorant and maybe if I grew a beard these zits would disappear, but I hadn’t even started shaving so maybe I would wear a fake beard and everybody would forget who I was and I could start a new life. When your mother comes into your classroom while you are in the critical years of social and psychological development these are the thoughts that permeate your brain. So picture my terror when she said to the class, “Here’s one my son likes.” Then everyone turned to look at me..pop..pop..more zits echoing in the dead silence that was bound to last through my high school years. But to my surprise and ecstatic relief out came the familiar strains of “Yesterday” by the Beatles. And she did it her way, “cool” and so hip and not square and everyone clapped when she finished and all I heard for two weeks was “your mom is so cool.” Suddenly I had a foothold on the escalator going up and out of relative nerddom and into the ninth grade.
It wasn’t until I got my driver’s license that I discovered just how “cool” Betty was. Borrowing my dad’s car, I ventured into one of the clubs she was playing . The action was focused around a piano bar and at the center of it was you know who holding court with an array of pre and post-war Jazz standards, Show tunes, and Big Band numbers. I ordered a cup of coffee, my first as I recall, and tried to be as inconspicuous as a six feet four inch teenager could be and stood near the back of the throng and listened. “Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose..” God Bless the Child by Billie Holiday. To this day it is my favorite song that Betty plays and it opened a whole new world of feeling to me. One that reflects her upbringing in blue collar Pontiac, Michigan during the depression. One that found it’s way into predominantly black nightclubs to sing and play or church basements to entertain at parties for all she could collect in a tip jar. The world of feeling where she’d close her eyes and lean back and moan the blues or stare intently at the keyboard and nearly whisper “I walk the floor and watch the door and in between I drink Black Coffee.” She once told me someone complained that a song she was singing didn’t sound anything like it did on the jukebox. She gave the guy a quarter and told him to go find a bar with a jukebox. Betty was never short on stating her mind.
Perhaps getting to know one’s parents as adults is one of the greatest rewards in the aging process. My parents have gone from “omnipotent gods” when I was a child, to mentors, to soothers of adolescent tears to perpetual pains in the butt when I was a know-it-all young adult, to this fortunate point in time where they seem to be my dearest and wisest friends. It’s amazing how much they’ve learned over time. If they ever reflect on what they have passed on to their children I hope my dad sees the good citizens (slightly seasoned with mischievous laughter) that he vowed to raise and Betty sees the her kids living life with a depth of feeling that books could not teach.
I have a sign near my desk that reads “Music is the Language of God.” Betty, God has blessed this child. Happy Mother’s Day.