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