Both my mother and her mother were musicians. My mother grew up singing in the church children’s choir that was conducted by her mother. When I was eight I joined my mom in her church choir as an honorary adult. My mother sang the alto parts with a clear resonance that could make the hairs stand up on my arms; I loved to listen to her sing. But I had to stand with the sopranos and sing their lines because I was a kid who couldn’t yet hit the low notes. I wanted to sing alto with my mom, her parts were much more interesting, more mature, and I wanted to be taken seriously, I wanted to be heard, I wanted to be close to her.

I didn’t become an alto until I was fourteen, the same year my mother sent me away from our home in Northern California to the Alaskan Island of Kodiak where I would live out my adolescence with my alcoholic father. After my parents had divorced, my mom had fallen in love with a woman whom she ultimately chose over me. My younger sister was not a problem for my mother, but I was too difficult, I was a handful, I was stubborn and independent and I was too much, I had always been too much. I didn’t want to leave but I had no choice and so I found myself on the Aleutian Chain for three years, learning how to comfort, protect and discipline myself. I buried my feelings of betrayal and threw myself into theater and music, where I discovered true community. Then it was time to choose a college and I had no doubt I would become an artist, because it was the only place I felt safe. I chose Seattle and Seattle chose me; it was love at first sight. I spent 17 years making a life in this town, and then I tore that life down to the bones and decided the only way to really start over was to get back to California. My mother was still there. She was still with the same woman, now legally married. I assumed enough time had passed that there was room for me, and I would be welcome. Over the next ten years as I built a new life, family and career, I came to slowly realize than even in the same state, my mother was unable to find a way to be a consistent presence in my life. We lived just ninety minutes apart, but only saw each other three times a year.

Even after I had a child, she could not be compelled to visit more often, for reasons I’ll never understand, especially now that I AM a mother. Last year I realized that I couldn’t stay in California any longer, I had to get back HOME to where I was truly myself – Seattle – the place I had chosen, where I found art school and became a woman and an artist and a wife and a divorcee, and a ghost. My ghost haunted me relentlessly in California until I packed up my new family and finally accepted my mother’s rejection. I set our course for Seattle, not looking back, hoping that it hurt her. She didn’t find time to see us off in person. Her goodbye on the phone was emotionless but I could feel the depth of her sadness and that gave me great, great satisfaction.

Last month I was in San Francisco on a business trip that I decided would not include a meet-up with my mother. Then, just days before the trip I changed my mind, deciding that I had to see her no matter what, because life is short, and what if I never saw her again, how could I live with myself? I resolved our time together would be purely enjoyable and experiential with no agendas or revisiting of the past. I chose the SFMOMA because we were always safe when we were surrounded by art.

She met me, she came with open arms and so did I because it had been quite some time since we’d been together, and we did and do love each other to pieces, and miracles can happen when hearts open. It turns out there was a choir in residence at the museum that weekend that was offering a public workshop and it was about to start when we arrived. We quickly and easily agreed it was for us. We joined 50 others, donning white robes with gray and pink sashes and we did vocal warm-ups and breathing exercises and diaphragm awareness and tongue twisters and the sounds we made together softened us, all of us, all the faces around the circle were open and inclusive. I was thrilled to revisit routines I’d learned in theater school, I was happy to see my mother enjoying some time in her body, with her breath, with her voice and with me and with my voice. And because our voices were free, we were free, and we were suddenly equals, members of the choir, and we were learning a song, we learned it together and we sang it together, we sang it in a round, everyone in the circle was singing, even our ancestors. Vibrant, radiant, beaming, we sang:

When I was born I cried and the world rejoiced

Live your life so that when you die the world cries and you rejoice

My father lives in Gig Harbor, just an hour away from Seattle, but I’m choosing
not to spend Christmas with him. He’ll be at home with my stepmom and his
youngest son, enjoying a John Wayne movie fest and a bottomless glass of white
wine. As the day progresses he will become quieter, with his immoveable half-
smile and faraway eyes taking him somewhere else, where everything has a
perfect order, like in a ritual, a ceremony, like he learned in the Coast Guard, like
his father learned in the Air Force, his father who was killed in WW2 when his
plane was shot down over North Africa. There is comfort in ritual, the discipline,
the patriarchy who never asks you who YOU want to be; you just have to be who
THEY want you to be. Sometime soon after Christmas dinner my father will slip
out while no one is looking and go for a long drive with the windows rolled down
and he’ll chain-smoke as he listens to the whistling of the wind and imagines he
is still on a ship, in the middle of the ocean, riding the waves. I choose not to visit
him on Christmas day, as his sadness and surrender to life makes me hate
myself so much because I have never figured out a way to save him.

I started driving regularly when I was fourteen and my Dad would get too loaded
to drive us home. It went like this: we went to some friends’ house for dinner and
I monitored him closely throughout the evening, counting the drinks, waiting for
the telltale signs that he was past the point, as he started dancing or swaying to
whatever music was playing as if he was actually enjoying being in his body.
Then, when it was time to leave, I suggested out of earshot of the guests, that he
give me the keys to drive. When I asked quietly, with a friendly, conspiratorial
tone, he happily gave me the keys. It felt great to be in the driver’s seat. I felt
closer to my Dad because I too discovered a freedom behind the wheel, the
windows open to welcome the arctic wind, the click of the lighter as he brought
cigarette after cigarette to life, and I took in the second-hand smoke without
question, and the black night sky bedazzled us with the Aurora Borealis and the
brightest dippers and belts you ever did see. We hurtled through space on black
iced roads in our Ford pickup with the extra wide steering wheel and high beam
button on the floor that I tapped on and off as we rounded hairpin turns and flirted
with oncoming cars, and my Dad coached me through it all, serenely and sleepily
from the passenger side, and journey after journey home, I learned how to shine
a light in the dark.

When I was fifteen I went to a party where I went for broke trying to get the
attention of a skater punk boy named Tony Vrell. He didn’t notice me, so I tried
not to think about it by drinking 7 Lucky lagers and a half bottle of Jack Daniels. My behavior went mostly unnoticed until I accidentally pulled the speaker wires
out of the stereo and killed the party vibe. I don’t remember anything else until
the next morning, waking up in my bed, stumbling to the bathroom and finding
the sink completely filled with my mostly dried vomit. Dad was already up, and
he soon sort of confronted me, calmly and quietly, by handing me a bottle of
Liquid Plumr. After I spent a long time cleaning the bathroom, he told me to get
dressed; it was time to go get our first ever fake Christmas tree. We lived on an
island in the Alaskan wilderness, but we were getting a fake tree. I did not
protest; I considered myself to be getting off easy. We went to the Navy
Exchange across the base to get it and I excused myself twice during the
shopping to throw up in the ladies room. I was sure I was dying, I had never
been so hung-over, but I showed my Dad nothing. When we got home, he helped
me assemble the tree, and then announced he was heading out for the rest of
the day to go to a Skeet shooting match, so I should go ahead and decorate the
tree and get it all done before he got home. So that’s what I did. I put up the
second-tier Christmas ornaments that my Mom had let him have when she
divorced him, and I played the Henry Mancini Christmas Album on the turntable
and I fled to the memories of an unfractured family, and warm smells in the
kitchen and flickering lights and Santa Claus, and the true meaning of Christmas,
which is togetherness.

I will not be spending this Christmas with my Dad. I’ll be keeping it tight here in
Seattle with my husband and six year old daughter and we’ll fight with all we’ve
got to keep the wolves of the world order at bay and create some new Christmas
traditions and some new hope. I’ll go visit my Dad sometime next week, just the
two of us. Maybe we should go for a long drive. I’d insist on driving, and we’d
ride quietly, just us and the wind, feeling free, flying on the waves, with my
grandfather soaring high above us in that old metal bucket of bolts, strapped in
tight to the navigator’s seat where he’s analyzing the data on his analog
instruments, determining where we’re going.

“Keep your heads up,” he’d tell us. “You don’t want to miss the light when it first
appears on the horizon, all golden white, then beaming straight through your soul
like a baptism. I tell you there’s nothing like it, it’s better than Christmas morning.”