Whatever aspects of parenting my mother may have found challenging, fan club president was a role she really warmed up to. From the way she and my father acted, I grew up thinking I was Albert Einstein and Emily Dickinson rolled into one, and my younger sister grew up thinking she was the younger sister of that person. I was the smart one, she was the pretty one. When guests came over, they would have me declaim my poems (I wrote under the pen name Tracy Beth Richardson), while my sister gave gymnastics exhibitions in the background.
Sadly, with the arrival of adolescence, my mother’s good little girls turned into crazy hell-cats. We drank, cut school, smoked cigarettes, smoked weed, took pills, almost overdosed, came back to life only to start dealing quaaludes and angel dust, had sex, got pregnant, had abortions, stole from our parents, shoplifted from stores, God knows what else. My parents ignored as much of this as they could. Hell-cat management was not their forte.
Fast-forward twenty years. We lived! I was a mother of two, my sister a fixture in Narcotics Anonymous and not far behind me in the baby business. All our bad behavior was far in the past until at 35, I published a book of personal essays. It featured numerous reflections on my wayward adolescence, including all the gory details my mother had never known or had happily forgotten.
Our father did not live to read this egregious book. He died when we were still bad. In fact, one of the last times we saw him was when he bailed us out of jail in Manhattan, busted while shooting up in a car in Stuyvesant Town. I’m sure he toned this story down quite a bit when relaying it to our mother, and I only pray that worry about us didn’t contribute to his final heart attack a few months later. I don’t really understand if it works like that. If worry can kill you, it seems a miracle that anyone has survived the past couple years.
In any case, with the publication of my essay collection, the story of Daddy bailing us out of jail became just one of many that my mother and all her friends and relations were finally getting the full scoop on. This could have been a bad thing, but as fan club president, my mother focused on the positive. I had published a book!
Thankfully, once I got all that coming-of-age mishegoss out of my system, my subject matter became more mainstream. I recorded little anecdotes about my family for All Things Considered. I was an advice columnist for Ladies Home Journal. I had a column called “My Life as a Mom” in which my mother appeared frequently as the intrepid Nana. Surely every single person who ever walked in the door of her house had a magazine festooned with Post-It notes thrust upon them and was encouraged to sign up for my mailing list so they wouldn’t miss a thing.
The apples have not fallen far from the tree. Like our parents, my sister and I have absolutely incredible children. True, they did give us a bit of trouble growing up. Some of it was really creative, like desecrating cemeteries or counterfeiting money, and some of it was just the usual. Like our parents, when this happened, we handled it … weakly. Surely they would grow out of it. We hoped. But like our parents, when they did something good, we came on strong. I am going to spare you the very long list of all the great things the six children we have between us have done, with one exception. I would like to take a moment to brag about my son the musician.
As peak life experiences go, I would place rocking out with the fans at the edge of the stage as your son tosses his hair, flashes his bling, and stamps around in his Gucci loafers trading riffs with the guitar player very high on the list. This is because listening to one’s son’s band in concert is a collision of two ecstatic experiences — one, parental pride; two, rock fan nirvana. It’s like, go crazy squared. I find that I literally cannot stop smiling the whole time. It’s quite a smile, much bigger than you would ever think could be achieved by my nebbish little mouth, and truly it can last for hours on end.
When my son’s band had recently had a holiday party at the Continental Club in Austin, I smiled so hard and long I almost broke my face. For one thing, Vince had made his debut as a bass player in this very spot at age seven, at a book release party I had there. Two, it was a benefit for Casa Marianella, a center for immigrants and refugees founded by my college friend Jennifer Long. Jennifer, who took me home for spring break in 1977, is the whole reason I ended up in Texas and my sons were born there. Three, he and Adam (the band is called Me Nd Adam) had ordered many boxes of decorations and we spent the day at the club putting up chili lights and a cactus-shaped Christmas tree, etc., which kind of killed me because like the dandy outfit, this is something Vince’s late father Tony seems somehow genetically behind. And four, several of my longtime Austin pals came and they roped us off an old ladies’ anti-COVID area.
I don’t know if my mother, a member of the Frank Sinatra generation of music fans, would have been able to appreciate the magic of this event with me. She likely would be more enthusiastic about the achievements of my older son on the golf course, or the imminent college graduation of my daughter, her little namesake. Or the recent arrival of her great-grandson. Now that is some cuteness for you.
Sadly my fan club president has missed these recent developments in family achievement, having vacated her post on April 16, 2008, after a nine-month battle with lung cancer. For a long time, she was determined to come out on top, but by spring, that ferocity was long gone. Toward the end, she weighed so little that the easiest way for us to get her into her wheelchair was to pick her up like a baby, and the only reason I left my sister alone at her bedside in the last few days of her life was to make a high-speed round trip to Pennsylvania to see Jane appear as Pig Three in the second-grade musical. This was certainly accepted family practice.
Forty-eight hours later, with both her girls beside her, our mother died. As often happens in these situations, after months of caretaking and worry and endless travel back and forth to New Jersey, our first reaction was numbness, carbonated with relief.
Back in Pennsylvania, about five days later, there was a going-away party for one of Vince’s friends. Ryan was the original guitar player, then the sound man, of the late great 27 Lights, Vince’s first band, formed in middle school. If you put on the video of their first public appearance — a Battle of the Bands on a rural football field in Dallastown, Pennsylvania — you’ll hear me screaming in the background as if seeing the Beatles at Shea Stadium.
The reason I so clearly remember the day of this party is because by then, the numbness and relief had ebbed and I was hit by the full impact of what had just happened. My mother was gone, forever. The proud, funny, smart, endlessly interested and available person who loved me more than anyone else in the world ever did or will, the only person who ever consistently gave a shit about me and the things I do — there would never again be any such person. As you know if you have had to learn, there is no losing like losing your mother.
But no matter how bad I felt, the band was playing at the party. Of course I had to go.
In a clearing in the woods in Ryan’s parents’ backyard, there was a bonfire, the flames illuminating the faces of a small audience on lawn chairs and benches. Feeling antisocial, I lurked in the darkness until the boys picked up their instruments. Seventeen-year-old Vince on bass, Bobby on bongos, Ian and Bill on guitars, and Max at the microphone. Somewhere in the trees Ryan ran the soundboard. The music filled the air, and all the groupie moms began to sway.