In 1972, after scouring our dresser drawers, plumbing the
spaces between the seat cushions of our family car, and
running our fingers through the living room carpet, my sister and I pooled our loose change and bought our parents Christmas presents.
Pop got an electric razor, and we got my mom an
album by Chicago. This was pretty good for an 11-year-old with a bunch of pennies. But I could have done better. Not for my pop – he still needs to shave – but for my mom, who would’ve liked a recording by Thelonious Monk.
Me and my mom weren’t real close. It wasn’t a matter of not loving her, just that being a “boy” – at least according to the pathologically old-school mentality that ruled in my house meant living in a world where the line between the “masculine” and the “feminine” were clearly drawn. We hardly ever talked in my adolescent years. No heart-to-hearts, no sharing of secrets and feelings. Except when she caught me practicing my guitar against my father’s wishes; she complimented me on how well I played and kissed me on my cheek. When she died of cancer in 1980, my sense was one of passing rather than loss, since I couldn’t miss what I, except for those few moments, never really
Recently, though, thanks to relatives on her side of the family, I have been getting a fuller picture of my mother: She had a phenomenal memory, often consuming college textbooks in one night and reciting the information by rote the next morning. She was silly and goofy and had an eccentric streak, which probably raised a few eyebrows in midcentury Goldsboro, N.C. And she loved music – more than I ever knew.
Then I started to wonder just how displaced my mother must have felt – a creative, intellectually inclined black woman in an environment that, while not suppressive of creative thought completely, made a point of rejecting hers. She must have felt like I feel sometimes, out of kilter, alone in a world filled with nonreflective surfaces. That’s not surprising, since all of my family tells me that I am a carbon copy of my mother. To paraphrase George Clinton, we are both out to lunch and eat at the same restaurant. I remember her watching Stevie Wonder on “Sesame Street” when I was a kid, bobbing her head, laughing to herself, urging Stevie on under her breath. Kinda like I do now when I hear, say, “Pump Me Up” by Trouble Funk, “Same Song” by the Digital Underground, or “Moanin’ ” by Bobby Timmons.
And, Monk. Not just any Monk. Monk solo piano, which to me, contains all of the
things I remember most about my mother.
Introspection, humor, and barely contained joy. So this
Christmas season I’d been wondering what I could give my
mom that would make up for all the years of missed
opportunities, wonderful conversations that never happened,
and jokes we never got to try out on one another. How could I let her know that as a former All-America defensive lineman
who likes Erik Satie and Ishmael Reed, I know what it’s like to be misunderstood? Not to mention how proud I am that, as
someone who makes a living writing about, playing, and
listening to music, I am letting the part of her that lives in m
live the way she always wanted to.
I got my answer once I heard Monk’s version of “Everything Happens to Me,”2-11 Everything Happens To Me [Take 1] from Columbia’s two-disc Solo Monk release – the first of the three takes included, which lies somewhere between the slightly mischievous second version and the more assured final take. It’s wistful, witty, knowing – almost perfect, I thought.
Almost, that is. See, when I give this song to my mom, it won’t be via my CD player. I’ll crank up my keyboard and give it my best shot (and maybe even follow it up with an attempt at “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You”). Not that my chops are anything to write home about. But I get the sneaking feeling that, after all this time, my mom would love to hear this tune, not from Monk, but from me.
This is a reprint of a column I wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian back on Dec. 29, 2000.