The Gift of Music

Did you miss Mother’s Day? Did you fail to observe it and your mother is still alive? I did for many years, even as a child. It was, after all, my mother, Mary Jane Arburn, who told me that it was a Hallmark Holiday (the first time I had heard the phrase), “arbitrary,” she said, “hollow and commercial.” This very kind of sentiment informed much of Mom’s response to personal obligations and the otherwise inconvenient, “motherhood” itself being a prime example.

“Multifaceted,” she was fond of calling herself, though she hardly went far enough there. One moment on the telephone, offering advice as a founding member in Franklin Park, Illinois, of La Leche League, an organization to promote breast-feeding, unpopular in her era; the next she would run the words “Motherhoodbaseballandapplepie” together with a sarcastic architecture of her lips and an arching of one incredulous eyebrow. She was also fond of the term “Momism” (to denote the inherent cowardliness of men), coined, I think, by Morris L. West, though possibly it was Vance Packard or Ashley Montague (author of The Natural Superiority of Women), all of whom were favorite authors of hers. From Philip Wylie she borrowed the phrase “a generation of vipers” to describe her offspring, when in mixed company or not in the mood for foul language. Knowing her own mother as I did, this remains a mystery; Jenny Calvert Arburn remains in my mind an almost Platonic ideal of motherhood. Undoubtedly this is some unqualified and biased view on my part, as my grandmother made no attempts on my life and was often irrationally affectionate.

I missed my mother’s death as well. It was three months after she had died in her apartment from a heart attack or stroke — the phone bill unpaid and the phone shut off, rendering her I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up device useless — that my sister consented to my being informed at all. In a family of eight children, I had, inarguably, the most problematic relationship with her and a history of excessive drinking. The logic, I assumed, was that the news would propel me into even more self-destruction. I’ve never been disabused of this notion — not by my sister or anyone else — specious as it was.

If you’ve shined this trumped-up calendar notation, no sense in feeling bad, if that is even a hazard; it is an occasion to look at the business, the relationship. Living or dead. While it is not a Friday phenomenon, it is one of those unusual occasions (like Good Friday if you’re Catholic and you’ve not done your “Easter duty”) to rue the onset of the Friday before Mother’s Day, which is always also a Sunday. And, again like Easter, providing even more of a raison d’être for the concept of brunch.

It is now, three years after my mother’s death, that I am searching myself for some generosity here, for my own sake if not hers. I began to weep for a moment and for the first time the other day, possibly Sunday, at the idea of her death. Alone. Within moments I was distracted with the recollection that HBO was running an episode of the John Adams biography I had missed. Mary Jane had let it be known that she wanted the Broadway show song “What I Did for Love” to be sung at her memorial service. I don’t know if it ever was, but I thought a great deal about what she might have meant. Possibly she referred to her conversion from Lutheranism to Catholicism in order to marry my father, though she was hardly a passionate Protestant. She did, however, become an enthusiastic Catholic and introduced me (at a young age) to the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his concept of God and man in a partnership of evolution. In her later years, after the death of my father, her allegiance to Catholicism waned. Certainly a lifelong commitment to raising eight children was something she did for love, no matter how well, in the end, she may have managed it. I try very hard not to judge that.

I have loving memories, mostly toward the end, as an adult and certainly some from childhood, but their number strikes me as too small. As easily my failure as hers, I suppose, but children aren’t as apt to fail at love. While I was certainly a difficult child, I can’t believe I was all that unique, especially after years of speaking with other sober drunks.

With a history of defaulting on any conventional observation of Mother’s Day and in anything like a timely fashion, I continue here to try and observe, touch my forelock inasmuch as I can — too little, too late, and with as much puzzlement as ever. My mother mythologized her own life so thoroughly it was never incumbent upon me to do so, and I am still hardly up to it. It would, at any rate, take a poet, likely a Greek, to adequately mythologize the spirit of a woman who endowed so many of her children with the gift of music. I remain grateful for that gift; and if the pain of it broke my heart often, it was perhaps so that it might go on in its own way after all.

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