Thursday, July 23, 2015

You don't really care for music, do you?

by Giselle Renarde

I couldn't remember the last time I'd heard my mother sing. Had I EVER heard her sing? Happy Birthday, I guess. Even then, she sings very softly. She's self-conscious about her teeth, so she tends to cover her mouth a lot.

When I was in Grade Twelve, I remember my mother bursting into my bedroom and demanding to know why I hadn't told her about parent/teacher interviews. Her best friend worked at my school.  I guess she found out after the fact.

I was surprised she even cared. I'm not exactly an only child, and my mom devoted much of her energy to the younger ones. I was doing fine on autopilot.  I didn't think she was interested in my education.

But that's not why I didn't tell her about parent/teacher interviews.

I can't remember how I answered her question, but she obviously didn't buy it because she burst into tears. My mother isn't exactly dramatic, or even overly emotive (I don't think we've ever told each other "I love you" even though we obviously do), so this was a strange occurrence.

After bursting into tears, my mother covered her mouth and said, "It's my teeth, isn't it? You're ashamed of me. You don't want anyone knowing your mother has such awful, ugly teeth!"

I've mentioned before that I was a pretty steely teen, but in that moment I felt so... so BAD for my mom. It had nothing to do with her teeth. That thought would never have crossed my mind. Not in a million years.

The truth is, I hadn't told her about parent/teacher interviews because I had a massive crush on one of my teachers--a married man who fell for me too, I guess, because I later became his mistress. Our relationship lasted ten years--ten too many, some might say, but I try not to punish myself for my past. (He still emails me once a year to commemorate the anniversary of the last time we had sex. Ummm... gross.)

My mom would have seen it coming. Even if nothing had "happened" yet, she'd have foreseen it when she met him. Moms are like that. I hear they have eyes in the back of their heads.

That's why I didn't want her meeting my teachers. I was a teenager in love. It was a BIG SECRET. If my mom found out, she'd ruin everything.

Nothing to do with teeth.

Have you ever heard of Orchestra Karaoke? It's karaoke where the singer is backed by a full symphonic orchestra. Cool, right? They staged an event this year at Luminato--an arts festival in Toronto that happens to be chaired by Rufus Wainwright's husband--and I went my mom and my sister.

Being a free outdoor event (and also being karaoke), etiquette was a little different than you might be used to. The audience wasn't silent during performances. People sang along. A lot. Not in a way that overshadowed the karaoke-ist, but in a way that supported the soloist--like a choir.

Yeah, like a choir. We're backing you up, good buddy. You sing your little heart out. We got your back.

My sister is a musician and I used to sing semi-professionally amateurishly, so we raised our voices. Nothing new there. My mom remained quiet. Nothing new there.

And then Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah came up and my mom jumped in her seat. She said, "I love this song."

Weird. I got into Leonard Cohen at university, as one does, but my mother didn't even go to university. Ergo, thus, therefore, I naturally assumed she'd never heard of Leonard Cohen.

I can't remember which audience member was selected to take the lead. I don't think I listened to her, or him (reaaaaally don't recall). The only voice I heard was my mother's.

At first, I almost felt... uncomfortable, maybe? It was strangely intimate. But my mom had a pretty voice. Reminded me of a bird, or of nature. It sounded like HER. I knew that voice, and I couldn't remember ever hearing it before that.

She sat beside me and sang Hallelujah the whole way through. The lyrics were posted on a screen, but she seemed to know them already. She didn't sing loudly, but she didn't need to. She wasn't singing for anyone else's ears.

And you know what?  I didn't see her cover her mouth once. Not ONCE.


  1. Good to hear you don't keep beating yourself up for what's happened in the past. Nothing good can come of drama after the fact. It was what was happening at the time, and with the right attitude you can take it a learning experience. (We should consider our whole lives as a learning experience.) After all, it's the only chance we have at this time in this body.

  2. Your post reminded me of when my mother was suffering from Alzheimers - she was pretty silent most of the time when I visited he,r though thankfully she always remembered who I was. One day I said something to her about the train having to stop longer than usual in Dundee, a town about a hundred miles south of my hometown Aberdeen, and she started to sing a song - The Road and the Miles to Dundee. It actually has a very lovely melody, but what was astounding, apart from the fact she knew all the words, about halfway through all the other ladies in the room joined in the chorus. It really was quite beautiful. I was a mess of course... something I'll never forget.

    1. Music has mysterious powers. My mother was very deaf in her last few years. She'd been a music teacher for a few years, and our whole family sang in the church choir and in occasional community productions of Broadway musicals, so music had always meant a great deal to her. I could talk to her slowly one-on-one, but in any group situation she couldn't make out any words. One day when several family members were chatting and she wasn't even trying to catch what was being said, my granddaughter--four or five at they time--began to sing very softly to amuse herself, and all at once my mother said, "Who's singing?" The rest of us had hardly been aware of the sound, but it got through to her because it was music. She never did hear my granddaughter speaking in her high child's voice, but she heard the music.

  3. When I was about 12, my mom once sat me down with a serious look on her face and told me that she had to share something with me, but I was never to tell anyone else. Considering the fact that starting when I was 9, she'd shared intimate details of her troubled marriage with my dad with me, and I was her confidant from a way-too-young age, I wondered what on earth she could have to tell me now. Had she killed someone? Was she slowly poisoning my dad? What could it be?

    Slowly, hesitatingly, she told me that...horrors!...she didn't have any teeth in her mouth. They were dentures. Then she sat with a crestfallen look on her face as I kept looking at her expectantly, still waiting to hear what it was that was so terrible that she had to share with me. I finally realized that the teeth WAS the story. I almost laughed out-loud, mostly with relief, but also with disbelief.

    I told her that I'd never noticed, and I couldn't care less.. I also couldn't see how anyone else would care either. It was just teeth, for goodness sake. Nothing that defined who she was or the kind of person she was. But to her, it remained a huge deal. She was 8 of 10 in a very poor family, growing up during the Depression. No money for medical or dental care. Her teeth rotted and had to be pulled. End of story.

    But years later, when I finally got a dentist to visit her in the Assisted Living place I had put her in, since her dementia made her unable to take care of herself and I was still working 2 jobs, the dentist wondered why he had such a hard time pulling her dentures out. Finally he got them out, but her gums were bleeding. Seems she'd finally done what she always wanted to do, and forgotten they were dentures. She'd been brushing her "teeth" like any person does, and never took them out...for years. They didn't even fit her mouth anymore. Just one of the times I cried mightily, at how unable I'd always been to protect my poor, little Mama from the indignities of life that she'd suffered.

    So it doesn't surprise me at all that your mom was so embarrassed of her teeth, and mortified lest someone else see them. We all have things we try not to let others know about us. Having it be something so easily fixed, yet be unable to do so, is a tragedy.

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    1. I think the generation before mine got their teeth pulled as a matter of course. Both my parents had dentures by the time they were 35. I think teeth were consider a pain in the ass for those who weren't of the higher social strata. Falsies were more practical, and probably less expensive in the long run. My mother had her back teeth pulled when she was a teenager so her cheeks wouldn't look so chubby. She said she would have had to pull them eventually anyway, so no big deal. Guess one of those things they took for granted. But then again, we were from New Jersey, and they're on their own beam of consciousness. :>)

  5. Hi Giselle!

    Our parents surprise with their vulnerabilities and hidden passions. We always think of them in a certain way and then suddenly they bust out and show us their humanity.


  6. Interesting post, Giselle, and interesting thread. My mother grew up in a poor family during the Depression, and she had all her teeth pulled when she was 25. Like the other mothers mentioned here, she was so ashamed of having false teeth that if I burst into the bathroom when I was a preschooler and she had just showered, she would cover her mouth -- I was welcome to see every other part of her body. Back in the day, it seems that women (in particular) were shamed for having anything "false" (wigs, padded undergarments, false teeth), yet teeth were considered disposable, especially in children from poor families. Giselle, I'm glad the power of music overcame your mother's shame.

  7. I remember sitting in Tim Horton's with my 84-year-old grandmother and, out of the blue, she said, "I'd like to get implants, but they're so expensive!"

    I burst out laughing, but turned out she was talking about dental implants. Not where my mind had gone, initially.

  8. I read hope into your post, Giselle -- not angst.

    It's a wonderful story, though. And a sobering reminder that our parents are as human as we are.

    My mom certainly went through a lot of angst, as a single mom, an alcoholic, and finally a cancer patient. I remember when I was fourteen or so. It was couple of years after my parents divorced and I was involved with the guy who would ultimately become my first lover (who was six years older than me). She could see where things were going (mothers can, as you say). She took me aside for a talk. She didn't tell me, "Don't have sex". Instead what she said, very seriously, was, "Be careful about the first man you have sex with. He'll have an emotional hold on you for your entire life."

    Only later did I realize she was talking about my father, and come to understand they'd been lovers before they married. Definitely turned some of my ideas upside down.

  9. This is a gorgeous post, Giselle. I agree with Lisabet. It makes me feel hope when I read it. I love the moments when self-consciousness gets set aside. They're all too brief...


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