Happy birthday, Peg
Once I reached a certain age, I don’t think I was ever home for my mother’s birthday.
Of course, my mom happened to be born on December 31. Which is great, providing you’re the kind who likes to go out and have a good time; you never have to worry about finding people to party with on your birthday. But my mom, although she wasn’t a buzzkill, was not the gregarious type. Or maybe her style of a good time was more geared toward slot machines in casinos than, oh, smoking dope and listening to the Mothers of Invention, so we never quite hit the same parties.
This time of the year, I always get reflective about my parents. My dad’s birthday was January 5, which means that both my parents were Capricorns, and if you’re into that astrology thing, I’m an Aries, which is 90 degrees, or “square,” to Capricorn, the squares being the ’rents, especially when I was getting my swerve on. Which started in earnest around the time the first Led Zeppelin album came out, and kinda mushroomed from there.
My mother’s name was Margot, but she went by the diminutive “Peg.” She was the last of 10 kids born to Scottish immigrants in Youngstown, Ohio, and I think her brothers gave her a really hard time growing up. Well, that and the Great Depression, which she endured as a teenager, having been born at the tail end of 1919, which was 90 years ago. Like so many other people of her generation, the Great Depression helped shape her character.
I’m guessing that mom was kind of a spinster, and she followed her married sister Mary Alice to a place called Stockton, which is to California what Youngstown is to Ohio and the armpits are to the rest of the body: a deeply funky place, and not in the Parliament-Funkadelic sense. Somehow she ended up pregnant by my dad, an alcoholic war veteran. I was born on the first day of spring in 1955 in Berkeley, where my dad grew up and where I lived as a baby. Then the folks and I moved to Stockton, which wasn’t quite as radical place as Berkeley, much to my later chagrin.
My parents, being Capricorns, were quite conservative, politically. This, of course, became a point of contention once I got old enough to pay attention to politics, which started around the time I began calculating how many years it would be before I turned 18, thus making me eligible for the draft and Vietnam. And I really don’t know why I didn’t turn out to be a rabid right winger, except that things like stacked decks and tilted playing fields really bothered me, and still do. An astrologer once told me that it was my Jupiter in Cancer in the tenth house conjunct Uranus and trine Scorpio Saturn in the second, in a loose grand trine with my 00 Aries Sun, that made me such a flaming liberal. But I always chalked up my liberal bent to the fact that Nixon gave me the creeps.
Still, I can remember a moment sitting in an old Buick in a (pre-Chevron) Standard gas station on the way to my uncle’s ranch outside Modesto, and the attendant offered me my choice of balloons, either a blue donkey or a pink elephant, which I’m guessing would make this the election season of 1960, when I was five. I chose the donkey, and my mom stepped in and said, “No, you’re taking the elephant. We’re a Republican family.” This upset me greatly, and to this day I don’t know why.
My dad wandered off a few years later. Actually, my mother had him committed to the local laughing academy, which is how you handled a chronically drunken husband who couldn’t hang on to a job on the used-car lot long enough to pay the bills in those days. So from the time I was seven until I was ten or eleven, when my dad showed back up sober, I lived in a single-parent household, in a leaky-roof flattop rental in Stockton’s Lincoln Village subdivision. My mom didn’t drive for a long time, and I remember taking the bus everywhere, but then she bought a used Volkswagen beetle, which became our family driver.
Because I hadn’t reached adolescence, we hung out a lot, and much of that was spent watching sitcoms on black-and-white TV. I think she was kind of flustered with how much of a gawky geek I was, all taped-corner glasses and spastic twitches. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I had Asperger’s syndrome, because I could recite every address in a ten-block radius, tell you who lived there and maybe what their phone number was — information I’d gleaned from combing through the phone book — and what kind of car they drove; I could also recite and identify upon sight every make and model of American car, and most European makes, too, from the end of World War II going forward. This, I’m guessing, embarrassed my mom greatly down at the neighborhood swimming pool, where I’d hold court. Perhaps if I’d put my geeky gift to work on memorizing baseball statistics instead of other stuff, today I’d be a wealthy sportscaster or something.
Once conversation I remember us having was on the walk home from the pool, which was just up the street, one summer evening. I must have been nine, and I’d been really freaked out by the idea of death, following the assassination of President Kennedy the preceding fall, hunching down in the back seat of the black VW — where I always insisted on riding — when we’d pass the old Catholic cemetery on Harding Way, graphically imagining the bodies decaying in their graves. “I’m not afraid of dying,” I remember her saying, in response to my frequently voiced fear of ego oblivion. “Death comes to us all. It’s the natural progression of life.”
She worked at an insurance agency off Stockton’s Miracle Mile, a postwar take on the fashionable al fresco style of commercial strip, and I would visit her whenever I could because nearby was, a) a Baskin-Robbins, and b) Miracle Music, which sold 45-r.p.m. records. Fortunately my Asperger nerdiness had shifted from the Stockton phone book to the Billboard, Cash Box and Record World charts, and I soon turned into a rabid music freak, something that in a lot of ways continues to this day. Being such a geek, I developed a habit of wanting records on labels of which I’d never seen the center-label design, and I got to where I would look at the charts and call my mom to ask her to bring me home a single if I did some chores, which at least half the time I never did. And because the store carried not only the Top 40 singles on the KJOY, KSTN and KFRC charts, but also the R&B 45s on the KSOL and KDIA playlists, I got exposed to a lot of great R&B records. This continued until I was at least 11 or 12; I still can think of two of those singles — “She’s Looking Good” b/w “I’m Serving Time” by Oakland’s great Rodger Collins (on Fantasy Records’ green-label R&B subsidiary Galaxy) and “Tell It Like It Is” b/w “Why Worry” by Aaron Neville (on, if I remember correctly, white and purple Parlo) — as being life-changing.
My musical tastes over the years continued to get more byzantine, and I can remember my parents being genuinely freaked out by James Brown & His Famous Flames, specifically the Mother Popcorn album, which I played incessantly. The Irish instrumental group the Chieftains also rattled her greatly; she confessed that if she never heard bagpipes again, it wouldn’t bother her in the least, and she wasn’t happy when I started locking myself in my room and listening to John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, either. But she did like it when I went through my Scott Joplin and Charles Ives phases.
Her tastes ran toward Italian singers, from Mario Lanza and Perry Como, her favorites, to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Jerry Vale, Tony Martin, and Al Martino; I suspect she was secretly attracted to Italian guys back in Youngstown, but her older brothers would have given her such a hard time if she went that way. Plus, she wasn’t all that enamored with the Catholic Church, and would get alarmed when I made noises about going to Church of the Presentation, which was where all my friends went. “You’re not converting to Roman Catholic,” she’d yell at me, wagging her diehard Presbyterian finger. So, as a result, I got lots of exposure to Frank and Dino growing up. This was not a bad thing.
One night, she decided to order a bunch of albums from Columbia Record Club; she’d found an ad in TV Guide. I pestered her to give me some choices, and she let me have three: Greatest Hits by the Kinks, Fifth Dimension by the Byrds and Over Under Sideways Down by the Yardbirds. I think those records may have changed my life, too.
Once I hit adolescence, my parents and I became more distant, and my dalliances with alcohol and various recreational drugs further exacerbated our split, or at least we were never as close, because I built an emotional wall between us, especially once I’d figured out that her principal motivational tool with me was guilt. She died on Valentine’s Day in 2003 in my house, where my ex-wife and I had taken care of her after she slipped into the twilight of senile dementia.
One of my funniest memories of her final years was coming home from work and seeing her sitting in a lawn chair, smoking a joint with my ex-wife, with Bob Marley & the Wailers blasting on the stereo. Mom had a really goofy smile plastered on her face, and after all my adolescent years of her yelling at me for “smoking that stuff” in my room while zoning out to Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead, it presented kind of a sweet ironic change-up.
In a lot of ways, I was such a major disappointment to my parents. I never finished college, worked in record stores, didn’t follow the family plan and bring forth the grandchildren (until much later, when my daughter was born), and I’m sure I was a real mystery to them, and I figured that they, like the rest of my family, secretly hated me. Although I do remember once voicing this particular insecurity about my mom to my cousin Peg, my mom’s namesake, and her response startled me: “Oh, no,” she told me. “You couldn’t be more wrong. She talked about you all the time. She adored you.”
God, I feel like a complete tool, sitting in this coffeehouse in downtown Sacramento on the eve of my mother’s birthday, typing away with tears welling in my ducts and streaming down my face. I guess what I most regret is that I didn’t share my gifts with my parents, not that my mom would have wanted to see me fronting a band called Death’s Ugly Head in front of a roiling crowd of drunken skinheads or anything. But we did listen to a lot of music together, and I credit her for instilling in me a love of Tin Pan Alley songwriting craft. And I really wish that she could see me now. No, not the broke, unemployed and unattached me, because that might upset her, but the flowering artist side of me, who is just starting to feel comfortable singing original songs in front of an audience. I wish both my parents could sit in a club and watch me play.
What follows are the lyrics to a song I’ve been messing with for a while; I wrote it about a year ago, and I’ve been trying to perfect the lyrics. I haven’t performed it much, because it’s long and I’ve fitted a Johnny Cash-style boom-chicka-boom flat-picking approach on the guitar to its Beatle-ish chord progression, and it’s still too rocky to take public. The song is titled “Your Wonderful Life.” Mom, wherever you are, this one’s for you:
One day you burst into the room
From the comfort of your mother’s womb
To find a bright and unfamiliar place
Well, hello, baby girl or boy
You’re everyone’s bundle of joy
A gift from your parents’ embrace
And then your daddy cuts the cord
And the midwife slaps you hard before
You gasp, she swaddles you and then you cry
Then she lays you on your mama’s breast
You find the nipple and some rest
How strange it is to be alive
Welcome to your wonderful life
And soon your life is on the clock
First you crawl then walk, babble then talk
And then the folks send you to child care
Where social nuances and rules
Separate chosen ones from fools
And kid, better learn how to share
Next up it’s your first day of school
Where the teacher and more crazy rules
Strike fear into the heart of every child
Will this new world enthrall your mind
Or knock you back to fall behind
And if so, how will you survive
And make it through your wonderful life
And then your first tragedy strikes
A close relative, your pet or a friend
Painful feelings, tears fall freely
Seems like the end
Soon adolescence lights your fire
And sweet love, confusion and desire
Conspire to turn your whole world upside down
While inside you feel born again
Your folks swear you’re an alien
Who looks and behaves like a clown
And if you make it through high school
And then you stumble through college, too
And stand up through commencement exercise
And you don’t die or fry your brains
On drink and drugs or go insane
You’re finally awarded a prize
Sweet flair for your wonderful life
Then comes that grim reality
Life is not free
Kid, surrender to workaday routine
Hang tight, get tough, suit up, show up
Reach for the dream
Hopefully you’ll find balance soon
Not to mention love that makes you swoon
Enough to get you to the church on time
Or maybe you’ll tear up that script
And partner with whom you see fit
Or two, three, four or fifty-nine
And then the years go flying by
And those dreams you’ve carried ’round inside
Are soon forgotten or else put on ice
While you turn your attention to
The details that will see you through
Another day in paradise
It’s not bad, your wonderful life
But sometimes marriage comes up short
Hello, divorce court
Goodbye, treasured connubial bliss
Feel so lonely, think if only
You’d planned for this
Still, if you’ve parented a child
Or a family, if that’s your style
If you’re lucky, you won’t be alone
It’s one strange trip to watch them grow
With joys and heartbreaks ’til they go
Off to make new lives of their own
Soon you are left to face yourself
And did you create heaven or hell
In your life as you glimpse the finish line
All the laughter, all the tears
The ironically named golden years
Are punctuated by a stop sign
And so concludes your wonderful life
And now here comes life’s cruelest trick
Old age and sickness
And death, what a sorry way to end
Close your eyes and face the white light
Goodbye old friend
And when they lay your body down
Whether it’s by pyre or in the ground
And everyone who knew you bids adieu
Will you be warmly remembered
For kindness in your deeds and words
A good person whose aim was true
If nothing matters in the end
We can choose to be scoundrels or friends
But who we were lives on after we die
And it’s been said the love we take
Will be equal to the love we make
So give something back, don’t ask why
And let’s hear it for your wonderful life
Let’s hear it for your wonderful life
Thanks for giving birth to me and taking care of me, mom. I love you. Happy birthday. —Jackson Griffith