— from Before and After Letting Go, A Poememoir
I listened to my mother sing. We did
not sing together. She heard me singing
but I never felt she was listening.
Patsy Cline, Theresa Brewer, Connie
Stevens, Molly Bee, sometimes Lena Horn,
seldom Mary Martin—she liked the South
Pacific songs but they felt wrong for her;
not enough sultry longing, too much pep.
I think the women she aspired to
all smoked and drank before they sang
but if they’d had a drink they sounded best.
Mom sang in the corner of the kitchen.
Washing dishes or not, this was her place.
Her hips pressed into angled countertops
a vibrato that would vibrate cupboards.
As a singer, now I know she sang there
for reflected light, for the acoustics—
as I grew and learned I knew it was more;
a pane on either side, triangular
formica sill between, one window faced
the porch the other driveway and the street:
her stage, the neighborhood’s proscenium,
for her, a window on the world outside.
She hummed and softly sang in many spots
around the house, the patio, the yard—
but only at that corner kitchen sink
would she let go and sing out in full voice.
No one ever said a word about it,
though we kids heard her up and down the block.
I still recall Sweet Dreams (of You).
But I remember Judy Garland first
because of Somewhere Over the Rooney
Moony Clang, Clang, Clang of the Have Yourself
a Merry Little Easter Parade.
with my mom, watching Judy in movies
where her characters would smoke and fret
and try to strut in tight sequined dresses
hips, legs, breasts in tight constraint
I began to notice
sad lines on her face and the way her eyes
did not match her mouth when she smiled
and came to know
she was like my mom in more ways than voice.
Marilyn’s voice was nothing like my mom’s
contralto, but I saw my mom in her
as well—red pout of mouth, the need
to please, yet so embarrassed when she pleased
herself—Oh, it’s nothing! Just something
I like. Silly me! Only later did I see
when shown to me by women in my life
those black-n-white TV mother/women
only lived in relationship to men.
in assisted housing she lived only
still scheming toward the few men left alive
but fun, for her amusement only, echoes
of what had once consumed her life.
The happiness I felt for her was healing
to us both, I hope, before the end.
Now I sing as if my mother hears me
and hear her in my daughter’s lovely voice
in records of singers she admired
in women who are not as silent now
as their mothers were, and in all of us
who sing in the kitchens, living rooms, and yards
and in the streets of this American
sweet blue dream.