How and Why My Mother Was a Singer

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

not drunk

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.


Much later,

in assisted housing she lived only

for herself—

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

in bedrooms

and in the streets of this American

sweet blue dream.