Hannah Seidlitz | Longreads | March 2020 | 11 minutes (2,999 words)
Writing the Mother Wound, a series co-published with Writing our Lives and Longreads, examines the complexities of mother love.
* * *
There was nothing better to do during the Sunday thunderstorm. I had never seen it, and my mother insisted. A slate of clouds had spooked the February sun from sight a few hours too early. New York dripped like Vancouver, where we had lived by the ocean when I was small. Tinny droplets thrummed the roof. We stretched out together on the olive-green sofa. Her fingers threaded through my dark curls. I remember little of the movie. I remember the warmth more than anything. The orangey glow haloing Demi Moore as she tracked a penny along the doorframe. Heat emanating off my mother’s chest. Embers sputtering in our fireplace. I don’t know where my father was. Moore’s amber eyes glittered, incandescent with awe, when her spectral beloved usurped her coin-pushing, the doorframe a Ouija board animated by yearning, devotion. I remember knowing then, with a certainty I have not felt since, that love was the only thing in the universe warm enough to conquer the cold, ineluctable and everlasting, that awaits us.
* * *
A few months after my mother died, I asked my father about their wedding song. I had seen enough movies to expect any newly anointed couple to inaugurate the ballroom reception with a waltz.
My father gripped the wheel of our Honda Pilot with one hand, the other drumming the black driver’s door through the open window. We were singing along to a scratched-up Darkness on the Edge of Town CD, my favorite of Springsteen’s. My father insisted The River eclipsed it in emotional intelligence, that on The River Bruce howled and hummed a hunger so raw, unconquerably raw, that nothing that came before it could compare. But I held true. His guitar on Darkness, I felt, told the deeper story: Rumbling through this promised land, tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea, and wash these sins off our hands.
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“I want to get married to this song,” I said.
“No, no. It’s much too fast,” he said. “You need something to sway to.”
“‘Racing In The Street’ is kinda groovy?” He shot me a sidelong glance.
“All right, all right,” I said, lowering the volume knob. “So what, instead?”
His brow furrowed. At once, together we realized the real question into which I had stumbled. We were quiet.
After a stretch of silent highway, I whispered in as steady a voice as I could muster, “What was you and Mom’s song?”
His eyes fixed on the road ahead of us. He sucked his upper lip through his teeth. “Unchained Melody,” he said. “From Ghost.”
* * *
My parents were married in June ’96, in the backyard of the yellow Dutch Colonial where my father grew up. She was beautiful and he still had all of his hair. In the framed photo on the dresser in my childhood bedroom, my mother leans against my father’s lapel with a sprawling bouquet of pale pink and white roses. Ivy spills out from beneath the satin bow that holds the stems. Her sweetheart gown is sleeveless, secured by a strip of organza encircling each arm; her chest bereft of jewelry, only her protrusive collarbones accessorize her décolletage. (She was 114 pounds on her wedding day, she made sure to remind me any time she bemoaned the weight that collects with age. I read in a magazine that you gain one pound every 10 years, she groused once, grimacing at the scale.) Her brown curls were swept off her face and gathered loosely beneath a beaded brooch which fastened her veil in place, exposing her Grace Kelly widow’s peak, dark eyebrows, and rosacea. All of which I inherited.
So, they danced to “Unchained Melody.” Darkly funny, prescient. (What ruthless narrative parallelism!) It’s as though they had, paranoid or prophetic, preordained a soundtrack for grieving.
I often wonder how they came to select it. They would’ve been standing in the tiny kitchen of their cramped Greenwich apartment, staring at the pile of papers — drafted guest lists, caterers’ business cards, venue release forms — scattered across the dinner table. My father might say, Deb, no self-respecting man likes the Dixie Chicks. (This was, of course, pre-Iraq.) One hand on her hip, the other propped against the counter, she’d hiss, Sarah McLachlan is not a Dixie Chick. Whatever, he’d grunt. Let’s do “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” and call it a day, he’d say, slugging his Lagunitas. Probably she would mutter under her breath, I knew I should’ve done this with Karen, which would, understandably, really set him off. Your yuppie sister doesn’t know Lou Reed from a broken dishwasher. And they would be fighting already, even though they weren’t married yet, which is when domesticity really goes sour, I guess. At least she doesn’t listen to Blink-182 when she vacuums. It’s like living with a 17-year-old. Even without children to fight about, there are always living disputes. At least I vacuum, all you do is complain! and, realizing his gaffe, he’d gush, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, Deborah. I love you, falling to his knees before her, taking her hands and cupping them against his cheeks. She’d sigh. She was always sighing. I love you, too. What about something from a movie? It would be immediate. Self-evident as if it were divinely sanctioned. In unison: Ghost?
I remember feeling certain then that love was the only thing in the universe warm enough to conquer the cold which awaits each of us, inevitable and everlasting.
Prior to Ghost’s popular ascription of mourning to its lyrics, “Unchained Melody,” I imagine, was romantic: about heartbreak among the living, about infatuation, about leaving girlfriends behind to go on tour, about a distance that is literal and bridgeable. It’s strange to think that the Righteous Brothers outlive my mother. Sometimes I pretend they are singing to her:
Oh, my love
I’ve hungered, hungered for your touch
A long, lonely time
Their countertenor melodies permeating the soil over which her ashes have been spread, electrifying each scorched cell, piecing them back together the way I have often dreamed, resurrecting her.
* * *
It occurs to me now that my father may have been onto something about The River, that perhaps “Racing in the Street” isn’t the ideal first dance song after all, but instead “Drive All Night.” Its revolving drumbeat, slow and certain, Bruce’s longing gravelly and bare. Baby, baby, baby, I swear I’ll drive all night again / just to buy you some shoes, and to taste your tender charms / and I just want to sleep tonight again in your arms.
My parents took me to see him when I was 7. I’d been begging to tag along for years, desperate for a taste of the intimacy that adults seemed privy to, the urgent togetherness of live music. To my dismay, Madison Square Garden’s pounding speakers and towering bleachers, which elevated around and above me tens of thousands of strange, middle-aged headbangers, proved too overwhelming; I spent the better part of the evening curled under the stadium seats with a tray of greasy chicken fingers, clinging to my mother’s legs and failing to stave off my first panic attack. I don’t remember if my parents held hands or murmured the E Street Band’s cloying refrains in unison or exchanged inside jokes regarding all the past shows they’d been to, decades before my time, when Bruce could still somersault across the stage. I can’t remember if they kissed or cried. I can’t remember if they ever touched at all.
In the desperate bowels of stagflation, Springsteen saw a dark fissure in our country’s consciousness and filled it with effervescent synthesizers, optimistic choruses, a new national anthem. Clarence Clemons’s bright sax buoyed bleaker tableaus on timeless chart-toppers like “Dancing in the Dark,” Danny Federici’s honky-tonk keys and organ on “Glory Days.” This sound, the sound of a better future, propelled the Boss to commercial success.
I’d been begging to tag along for years, desperate for a taste of the intimacy that adults seemed privy to, the urgent togetherness of live music.
This sound, the sound of a better future, is absent, achingly so, from the Righteous Brothers’ oeuvre. Their greatest hits are elegiac. They reminisce about the better times of yore with no eye toward proaction. Their songs about “glory days” lack Bruce’s cheeky irony. Bring back that lovin’ feelin’, they sing on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”
Cause it’s gone, gone, gone
And I can’t go on.
* * *
My mother died six years ago in October. She was struck and killed by a car crossing the street in front of a Mexican restaurant. I’d turned 15 two days before. At her funeral I sang “Mama, You Been on My Mind,” by Bob Dylan, the Jeff Buckley version. When Jeff sings Dylan’s song the words lose their edge; they bleed into something pulsing and vulnerable. The way Dylan’s relationship-dirges croak with characteristic gruffness safeguards them against that sort of frailty. Don’t get me wrong, of course Dylan feels, and he feels consumingly, gutturally, but he manages to expel his woe by growling. Rather than bowing, succumbing to anguish like Jeff seems to, he gnashes his poetry through his teeth like some animal. The hurt filters outward, not inward.
Blood On The Tracks, which is, in no uncertain terms, one of the desert-island greatest heartbreak records of all time, quakes with this grit throughout. The stories he tells, purported to illustrate the collapse of his marriage, would be almost unbearable if not for the way he barks to banish emotion. Each verse on “Simple Twist of Fate” is more agonizing than the last, cataloguing the gradual demise of an affair, and relies on the modulated last long vowel sound of every penultimate line for catharsis.
He woke up, the room was bare
He didn’t see her anywhere
He told himself he didn’t care
Pushed the window open wide
Felt an emptiness inside
Here his cadence breaks down into even more of a spoken drawl, then ascends the scale as he bellows: To which he just could not relate. He nearly yells the latter syllable of relate, as if he were an ancient funeral wailer. This purgation is absent from Jeff Buckley’s soft, wounded crooning. Dylan exorcises his woe; Jeff doesn’t seem quite as conquering.
“Mama, You Been on My Mind” opens, Perhaps it is the color of the sun cut flat and coverin’ … and his voice wavers, cleaves as though he is about to cry. He continues in a whimper, the crossroads I’m standing at, or maybe it’s the weather or something like that / Oh, but Mama, you’ve been on my mind.
I sang Buckley’s version because I do like it better, but mostly I sang Buckley’s version because he sounds like he’s crying the whole time. I knew I would probably be crying the whole time.
You know I won’t be next to you you know I won’t be near
I’d just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear
As someone who has had you on his mind
* * *
A year after my mother’s funeral, insistently independent and 16, I spent Valentine’s Day at a friend’s house. Reclining against quilted throw pillows, I inhaled buttery crackers smeared with baked Brie, swipes of fig jam — effectively feigning epicurean sangfroid. If I could perform a coolness, an entitlement to luxury and contentment, I didn’t have to consider dearth. Somehow the warm wheel of cheese made loneliness feel farther away. Jay’s TV room swelled with laughter and the warmth of sardined bodies all crowded against the arm of the couch closest to the screen. I sat beside Jay, admiring their resemblance to their mother, against whom they were nestled, who, equally striking, gave Jay their emerald eyes, the warmth in their auburn waves. The three of us were watching When Harry Met Sally.
Young Carrie Fisher lectured, All I’m saying is that somewhere out there is the man you are supposed to marry. And if you don’t get him first, somebody else will, and you’ll have to spend the rest of your life knowing that somebody else is married to your husband. I winced. I was entangled then in something that resembled a relationship, but the movie made me cry for the only boy I had ever really loved. It had been nearly a year since our last wistful, forbidden kiss, the sweet-sour ale taste of his tongue only teased by his breath during our hushed conversations, our faces always too near for ex-lovers. He had a girlfriend then, one whom, to my schadenfreudic surprise, he would proceed to date for only three apparently unspectacular months, before ex-post-facto-dumping her by publicly asking another girl to prom.
If I could perform a coolness, an entitlement to luxury and contentment, I didn’t have to consider dearth.
Someone knocked at the front door, rousing me from my reverie, before entering. Jay’s father shuffled through the foyer, cane and newspaper in hand. Jay’s mother, his ex-wife, stood to greet him. Gingerly, he kissed her on the cheek. So stunned by the unlikely tenderness of their exchange, I nearly forgot myself, had to blink away inappropriate tears. That he could show affection to an old love even after they’d parted legally and domestically seemed unfair to me. Why my father couldn’t still touch my mother, couldn’t show her he loved her even after his affair, even after the years of therapy, after everything, wasn’t just. He could never atone; they could never overcome as Jay’s parents had, not even as friends. Recovery halted abruptly. Penance did not.
* * *
My parents had never got around to formalizing their divorce. After my mother found out about his infidelity, my father slept in the guest room alone for six months.
He had been away, on a business trip in Phoenix, Arizona. She had called him in the morning from New York. The voice that answered was alien. Certainly it belonged to her husband, but it was constricted, fraught with something indiscernibly foreign. Before she could ask him if everything was alright, she heard another voice in the room — a woman.
It’s on Tunnel of Love, Springsteen’s anomalously inward-facing record, uncharacteristically centering disappointment over hope, which he released in 1987 after his separation from Julianne Phillips, that he sings of the doubts and estrangement of married life.
Now look at me baby
Struggling to do everything right
And then it all falls apart
When out go the lights
I’m just a lonely pilgrim
Perhaps my parents would have divorced had they had a few more years. They did not have a few more years. After the accident, my father began to screen the regular calls from their couple’s counselor, Cynthia, until finally the insurance company informed her that one of her clients had died. Cynthia stopped calling. My father never returned to therapy.
As I watched Jay’s father lower his lips to the rosy flush just beneath his old lover’s cheekbone, I couldn’t help but burn with envy.
Bruce continues: Tonight our bed is cold, lost in the darkness of our love. God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of.
Is Harry bringing anybody to the wedding? Meg Ryan’s query reminded me to check in on my father. He was home alone. I had deserted him in the drafty house he and my mother had designed together some decade earlier on his first single Valentine’s Day in 22 years. Not out of malice, but because I couldn’t stomach the burden of his grief atop my own. Because I was terrified to see him cry. Terrified to cry in front of him.
He was under the covers with a bottle of wine watching Schindler’s List on HBO, he told me. I thought of him in the spacious master bedroom. The cold side of the king-size bed. UNACCEPTABLE, I texted back.
Fifteen minutes later his BMW pulled in front of Jay’s house. I stormed down the porch steps, “Schindler’s List! Are you kidding?”
“Yeah I know,” he raised his hands in shame, surrender. “I know.”
“Dad, you can’t be that guy,” I spat, dropping into the passenger seat.“Well, you aren’t leaving to be with me,” he hazarded. “Right?”
“No.” I lowered my gaze to the floor. “No, of course not.”
Unable to reestablish eye contact, I switched on the radio.
Lonely rivers flow, to the sea, to the sea. “Unchained Melody” blared through the car stereo. Scarcely another beat played before I slammed the power button, slumping back into my seat.
“Hannah, why’d you shut it off?”
“For fuck’s sake, Dad,” I snarled.
Without another word, he revved the ignition and sewed us into the night.
On the sleepy freeway we drove in silence for a long time. Through the moon-blackened windshield I watched skeletal trees bend by, lanky brown smudges against the pitch dark. Brake lights splashed red against the glass. At long last, after steeling myself for confrontation, I spared a glance at my father. His knuckles, bound around the steering wheel, glowed white. He was like an owl, impossibly still, his head motionless between his shoulders. All of a sudden, a swell of tears freed themselves from his eyes. I had seen my father cry only once, at the funeral. The disloyal streams slipped across his cheekbones. Swiftly, he pawed at his face, clenched his jaw, returned his fist to the wheel as though nothing had happened.
I flipped open the center console and fumbled through it for a few moments before extracting what it was I went looking for. The plastic case bore cracks on the spine from a shelf life as old as I was. I fed the scratched treasure of a disc into the CD slot.
Track 10. Play.
Three triumphant piano keys, a G chord.
Well they’re still racing out at the trestles, but that blood it never burned in her veins. Without moving his head, the corners of my father’s mouth twitched. A smile. It was ours, he knew, this familiar anthem beating through the car. With our lives on the line where dreams are found and lost / I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost … The descending riff, the cymbal crash. He was grinning now. For wanting things that can only be found / in the darkness on the edge of town.
* * *
Also in the Writing the Mother Wound Series:
‘A World Where Mothers are Seen’: Series Introduction by Vanessa Mártir
I Had To Leave My Mother So I Could Survive, by Elisabet Velasquez
Frenzied Woman, by Cinelle Barnes
Tar Bubbles, by Melissa Matthewson
‘To Be Well’: An Unmothered Daughter’s Search for Love, by Vanessa Mártir
Witness Mami Roar, by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez
Leadership Academy, by Victor Yang
All Mom’s Friends, by Svetlana Kitto
The Coastal Shelf, by June Amelia Rose
* * *
Hannah Seidlitz is an NYU MFA candidate and amateur semiotician living in Brooklyn. Her work appears in LitHub, Electric Literature, QZ, Entropy Mag, and elsewhere.
Editor: Danielle A. Jackson
Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross