My life has been circumscribed by music.
Every significant memory I have is steeped in music. “Silver Bells” calls to mind childhood Christmases. I was humming “You are My Sunshine” just before a drunk driver ploughed into our car when I was ten, sending us all to the hospital. “Nothing Compares to You” became my first break-up song. For years, I would sing my babies to sleep with Ella Fitzgerald’s “How Much do I love you?” And when I hear Adele, I remember the winters we were “rolling in the deep” in Kazakhstan.
I come from a long line of musicians, some of them famous, like Aunt Patsy, whose cowboy boots are in the Country Music Hall of Fame. My mom’s parents, Texas Lil and Ken Montana, opened for Hank Williams. But most were self-taught bluegrass and country musicians, who played the banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and guitar. They were farmers and factory workers who performed at local folk festivals and entertained us at family gatherings. But some of them, like my grandparents, exhibited a darker side of music—one of alcohol and drug abuse, infidelity and broken relationships, long stays in federal prison and sexual and physical abuse.
This legacy gave me complicated relationship with music. With the creative life, and with my family.
My grandparents were at their best on stage. Grandma stood four foot, eight inches tall, but she was formidable, even when she stood behind the bass fiddle. She always wore a costume, recalling her vaudeville days. And Grandpa, if he wasn’t at San Quentin or working the carny circuit selling corndogs, would join her on stage, where they played the part of the adoring couple. Grandpa would sing “Have I Told You Lately that I Love You?” and there would not be a dry eye in the house. And Grandma would have everyone laughing with her rendition of Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”.
Thanksgiving and Christmas at our house didn’t mean long tables filled with fine linen and home-baked pies, dinner conversations about politics, philosophy, or literature. We had kitchen counters lined with paper plates, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, store-bought apple pies and mounds of Cool Whip. We had jam sessions with family and anyone who could play an instrument. We specialized in picking up strays who needed a family at the holidays—as long as they could sing or play an instrument. Those were some of my happiest memories. I loved to hear Grandma yodel, Aunt Dana’s rendition of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”, and Uncle Curly’s old timey classics.
But the joyful singing wouldn’t last the evening. As the empty beer cans would pile up, things would turn ugly and fearful. Aunt Linda said-wrongly, it turned out-that the Blevins clan had a touch of Choctaw blood and so couldn’t hold their drink. And when they got drunk, they got mean. My stepdad wasn’t a Blevins, but he fit right in. He didn’t get mean, just stupid. And unfaithful.
I gradually began to hate country music. It reminded me of the slumber party my drunk stepdad almost ruined. It made me think of the car accident, the affairs, prison, Meth and too many dead cousins. This hatred ruined other creative things I had loved, like poetry, drawing and dance. The life of the artist seemed selfish, sad and destructive. I threw away my poetry, my journals, and all my writing.
I left my family. I left America to study and live in Europe. I wanted to re-create myself, to build a life free from prison, abuse, and chemical addiction. My success was only partial, thankfully. In looking back, I realize that music and creative pursuits never left me, and they became a legacy that I passed on to my own children.
My eldest daughter, now a senior in college, and I correspond by sending each other song clips; this is how we express our moods and feelings. Last week, she sent me “Sun on Shade” and I teared up listening to the chorus: “Trying to find a way to slow down time; growing like weeds, these babies of mine; everything changes that’s the natural way; all I want to do is spend time with my babies.” I think it was her way of saying, “I know this empty nest thing is hard for you Mom.”
My youngest, who just started art school in New York City, writes her own songs—soulful poetry set to music. She’s got a country twang I tell her she inherited from her kinfolk. My favorite gift she ever gave me is a Hannukah gift from a few years back—a collection of her poems and artwork. I proudly place it on the coffee table and oftentimes take a big cup of coffee and sit down, looking through its beautiful pages. Her words bring me to tears.
And this past summer, at the exact moment when I was feeling particularly worried about my son in the Israeli Army, he calls and says, “Mom, I just taught myself how to play Grateful Dead’s ‘Ripple’! Want to hear?” And, 8,000 miles away, he played and sang: “There is a road, no simple highway; between the dawn and the dark of night; and if you go, no one may follow; that path is for your steps alone.”
And I pulled out my journals and favorite poetry collections. I’ve started writing again, and it feels right. My dysfunctional family left deep scars that will last generations. But they also gave me music, which finds its way into the rhythmic way in which I write. And they showed me artistic passion and depth of feeling. I am grateful for this legacy; I can take it and tweak it and make it mine, because as Jerry Garcia sang, “that path is for your steps alone”.