There is a picture of my mother and her sister, from a long past time that just stops my heart. They are happy, carefree, full of life, and beautiful.
This posting is the result of my looking through some photographs and having memories dredged up from years gone by.
I inherited a box of photographs from my parents. In it were several photographs of my Mother, Nellie June, and her sister, Esther. In the photographs they were laughing and smiling, having fun. My father was in a few. They were all young, full of life and the excitement of youth. In those photographs, I saw my parents before life wore them down and sadness set in. But sadness was just around the corner. I know there was music in their lives and that they went to dances. It was at a dance where my mother and father met.
My parents had been married 17 years when I was born. My mother had survived breast cancer by the time I was born. My Father was 40 and my mother was 34. They had full lives. My father had logged, hunted, bootlegged, worked in a coal mine, farmed, raised chickens, and done a whole bunch of things I will never find out about. My mother was an artist and a musician and followed my father around through thick and thin all the while keeping her sense of humor honed sharp. But by the time I was aware of them they were already on the down side of their years. Yet in those photographs in that box, they are wrinkle-free, and they have the hope of their future glowing in their eyes.
Within several years of when the photographs were taken, my aunt Hester was dead. There is some evidence that she committed suicide. It turns out that some of the photographs were taken before and during a vacation they all took up in Montana at a place called, Rock Creek Lodge or Rock Creek Ranch that may have been owned by friends of my mother’s family. The purpose of the trip was to try and get Hester out of a funk she was in over a marriage gone awry. It appears that something occurred between Hester and her husband, Robert, that ripped her up. Their efforts at diverting her self destruction did not work and she committed suicide shortly after this trip.
I have been able to piece this all together over many years of talking with various relatives. Neither my mother nor my father had said anything about it, except that she had been sick, and had died. This all happened in the early 1930’s, but even into the late 1980’s my mother still grieved her sister’s loss. In the box of photographs there was also an epitaph, but it says nothing about anything that actually counts. Mushy, syrupy, sentiment consistent with the times, yet true to the expression of the pain of loss for people who do not have an emotional vocabulary to express the level of betrayal survivors feel after a suicide –if anyone actually has such a vocabulary.
In the same box is a photograph of my father playing a guitar on his lap, which does not match my memories of him, which were that he was one who did not especially like music. For their first Christmas in 1928, my mother bought him an Epiphone Recording “A” guitar that was a 12-fret and could be converted into a Hawaiian-style guitar and played with a slide. It is interesting that while I do have a photograph of him playing it, he never followed through with learning to actually play it, and it got passed down to me and became my first guitar. Except for a few hymns, my father wasn’t very much interested in music. I joke about his canon of 12 hymns out of the old Baptist hymnal, but it is not really a joke. We were not allowed music in the house when he was present. He said it made him nervous–“jangles my nerves,” he would say. But the rhythms and tempos in that old Baptist hymnal, and those 12 or so songs are at the heart of my Rockabilly and Honky-Tonk songwriting today. They reminded me of the early, fast-tempoed Rockabilly/Rock ‘N’ Roll that was being played at the time, which were manifestations of the influence out of that old hymnal on the Rockabillies.
But it is through music that I remember my mother best. She sang me her favorite songs when she rocked me and taught them to me when I got older. My mother had a deep love for music, and she passed that love on to me. For her, music was fun, something to make us laugh and dance and get out of our humdrum life, even if for a little while. Questions remain. Why do some marriages fail while others do not? Why do some people love and learn to make music, while others can get along just fine without it? Why does life seem lovely and exciting no matter how hard the struggle for some, and for others seems to be too heavy a burden to bear. I keep asking, Why?, and it seems to be a question I have asked a lot when it comes to my family, and I just do not get the answers I would like to have. But back to my mother and her music.
My mother had a large collection of RCA Red Dot albums of all the classics, but she could only listen to them when he was gone. Rock ‘N’ Roll was an abomination to him, but not to my mother. She thought it was “cute,” which drove me crazy. When I was around three years old,around 1946, my father started doing tent revivals in the Ozark Mountains. Mother would lead the revival songs on a Montgomery Wards mandolin she had been given when she was around 14 years of age, around 1918. While I was with them in those mountains, I was only three years old, but I can vaguely remember her playing and singing at the Tent Meetings, I also remember her playing in the churches where my father was minister. I sang those old gospel hymns as she accompanied me on that old mandolin. I still have it and I play it, as I do my father’s old Epiphone guitar. Mother loved music and passed that love on to me.
Her favorite Pop songs were: Jim Reeves’ “New Moon Over My Shoulder,” “Ka-Ka-Ka Katie,” George Henry Powell’s “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” by Gus Edwards and Vincent P. Bryan’s “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” and Woody Gutherie’s “Oklahoma Hills,” to name a few.
It is interesting that while my father never learned to play guitar, and I have a photograph of him with his guitar, I have no photograph of my mother, to whom music was so much a part of her life, with her mandolin. Well, that is how it was in my family, just a pack of incongruities all stacked up in the most confusing way possible. But as opposed to Hester and Robert, my parents never lost that glow of hope that I saw in those earlier pictures. Time wore them down–so did I, but somehow, in the midst of it all they had each other and they each had their own music, she her old popular songs, and he his white gospel. d I was immersed in both and I am grateful.