If you cannot teach me to fly…

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Faith at Free Folk Festival 2013

“If you cannot teach me to fly, teach me to sing.”   attributed to J.M. Berrie, Peter Pan

For a while now it has seemed that my mother’s firmly held belief that she would recover from old age might have something to it.  This upward swing came after a concert in her honor followed by a standing ovation from the folk music club of which she was chief protector, organizer and bottle washer for decades.   Music and admiration: her elixir vitae.

My earliest memories of my mother as a singer is the feel of coats. Rough, outdoor coats laid high on beds where I slept.  Prickly, but wonderful to burrow under when tired of adults talking, in all senses, over my head.  My mother took two things to parties in the early days: me and her guitar.

I remember only one song from that time and that not for the music:  Goodnight Irene by Leadbelly, blues guitarist extraordinaire.  My mother knew Leadbelly in New York, was better friends with his wife and somehow mixed with the singing of his song was the story that Leadbelly’s wife taught my mother “you could lead any man in the world down the street when you had him by the balls.” I spent a great deal of time under the coats trying to form an image to match that piece of information.

When I was older I sang some songs with my mother;  I had taught myself to read music at the age of five and was told I was a good singer with natural harmony. When I was nine my mother replaced me.  Nothing explained, not a word, just my babysitter was always asked to sing and not me.  I never carried a tune after that, don’t sing and every instrument I touched put something in front of my mouth.  When the folk music club began to meet at my mother’s house every other week, the relationship, as one might imagine, was somewhat strained.  Not only did they treat our home as though it was a public amenity, but they were a reminder that I had been weighed and found wanting in what mattered to my mother most.

There were still advantages: backstage passes at festivals, a few encounters with the famous. The one I remember best was Kris Kristofferson (newly coming to fame) and Ramblin Jack Elliot (friend and student of Woodie Guthrie, friend and teacher of Bob Dylan) spending the night because the toilet backed up and they were ones who unplugged it.

It was only after my mother broke her hip last year that I began to see the club in its constituent parts, the help and affection for her from its members.  And it was at this last concert, the one that pushed her uphill, that the outpouring finally touched me.

The last song of the set was Carl Williams’s It’s a Pleasure to Know You  which has been her signature farewell since she started letting go of parts of her old life.

My mother is in a wheel chair at the front, someone is holding a mike for her, everyone in the room is standing and singing.  Not just people from the club, but people who have been a part of my life: people I travelled in the circus with, people who supported me when I discovered I was pregnant, people who were there for me when my daughter was ill.  And there are tears running down my face at the sweet sadness of my mother’s good bye.  And I’m singing.

(link my mother singing It’s a Pleasure to Know You 2012: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbVeyG0DH_A)

They set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light,

(c) Carole Craig

Evening Golden Gate Park

“Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.” Cormac McCarthy, The Road

My world, like my mother’s, is shrinking. Each of us orbits three points.

Hers: bed, bathroom and bright sunlight in a lion-footed chair. In truth, the time in the chair is short.  A few vertical minutes and she wants to go back to bed.  She is most comfortable in a world that is largely horizontal if not quite flat.

When she arrived, San Francisco was to be first stop on a trip around the world; my mother planned to find a ship and sail West.   Waiting, she hung out at the Black Cat Bar on Montgomery Street.  It was frequented by writers like Saroyan and Steinbeck, a scene of Kerouac’s On the Road is set there.  Bohemian San Francisco enfolded and held her.

“It was five cents a song.  Some one gave you a quarter and you only played four.  The juke box gave you back a nickel. When you had a twenty five cents you went to Chinatown and bought dinner.”  The story was always told in a restaurant where Beijing ducks hung in a row by the cash register, the menu was written largely in Chinese and our chop sticks were poised over something sweet and sour.   Choosing to stay made perfect sense.

My world now is not much larger than the points my mother was able to walk to three months ago:  her house, the row of shops around the corner and Haight Street, two blocks from the famous Ashbury intersection.

I was here for the Summer of Love, but missed it, being too busy with a never-completed philosophy Ph.d or working in a topless bar to fund same, I can’t remember which.  So the current parade down Haight Street is a little lost to me.  Mostly young, they wear layers of clothes; the girls frequently have corn cob hair and the boys usually don’t have beards. They have backpacks and dogs and congregate in Golden Gate Park, but don’t make their own music, there are no fields for dancing, no signs saying “Make love not war.”  On the surface, it is more post-apocalypse The Road, than Hippie Neverland.

Perhaps deeper down as well.  I meet Benjamin who dreams of moving on.  Tall, with light red hair a few inches below his striped knit hat, good teeth and a great smile.   “My father was a Vietnam Vet.  When I was 9 he flipped out.  He wasn’t very nice to me,” he fondles his hair, “because I look like my mom.  I went to the Vets Administration to try to get help for my problems.  They helped him because he is a disabled veteran, but not me, his spawn.  Sometimes it is very hard.”  He has a list of cities where things will be different: Seattle, Vancouver, London.

I’ve lived in six different countries and been around the world twice.  I think he might be right.  Sometimes new, strange places, feet on the open road, wind in your hair work a cure.  I wish him luck and complete my tight little circle.

When I get home my mother is in bed.  Eyes closed.  Not sleeping, she says.  I wonder what goes on in her mind.

A visitor has brought her a tea towel.  Embroidered on it:   “I live in my own little world.  It is okay, they know me there.”