My daughter is still too young to ask about my mother, for whom she’s named. When she does, though, I’ll most likely start by telling her that her grandmother was kind-hearted and generous, that she loved to laugh and could put just about anyone at ease. These things are true, but they’re also only part of the story. Maybe when she’s a little older, I’ll begin adding in that my mom was also brassy and bold. At times, I think I already see that in my daughter.
And I know that my dad’s classical guitar instructor played an instrumental solo arrangement of “Hey Jude” at the ceremony. This is the way a song becomes the property of a couple. I know because when my wife and I were married, our first dance was to Big Star’s “Thirteen,” a song we had danced to on an old jukebox in the basement of the Turf Club, the divey bar and music venue where we met. So now “Thirteen” is ours.
I think I know so much about this particular part of my parents’ wedding day because “Hey Jude” comes up a lot. When I was in fourth grade, Casey Kasem had a weekend countdown of the Top 100 Songs of All Time and I was in the car with my dad when they got to number one and it was “Hey Jude.” At ten years old, it felt like some sort of validation.
When my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary was approaching in the summer of 1996, I hatched a plan with my brother to get our band into the studio and record a version of the song. But it was our first summer playing music together — I was nineteen, he was fifteen — and we spent as much time fighting as gigging. Our plan fell apart and on September 18, I was back at college, where I called home after a full day of classes and got my mom on the phone.
“Hey!” I said. “Happy anniversary!”
There was silence on the other end. And then, softly: “Shit.”
My parents had completely forgotten about it. They went out to dinner with my brother at Chili’s to celebrate.
And then: at Christmas in 2006, my mom gave my dad a music box. When you opened the lid, it played “Hey Jude” and it was inscribed with the words, “Thanks for all the music.” Actually, my dad told me he cried then as well. I wasn’t there; I was celebrating Christmas with my soon-to-be in-laws outside of Saint Paul. I have neither seen nor asked to see the music box.
* * *
By the evening of February 24, 2007, the snow had gotten bad enough that Minneapolis airport was shut down and my brother and I couldn’t get a flight to Chicago until the next day. My then-fiancée’s parents drove up from Hastings to be with us, and as we stood in the kitchen, I was still too overwhelmed to begin to grasp the loss. Instead, I kept fixating on one thing: My mom would never get to be a grandmother, never get to meet her grandchildren. We hadn’t even talked about having kids. Even the wedding, which was planned for October 19 of that year, still seemed impossibly far off.
I was standing in that same kitchen just over four years later when my wife came out of our room and told me she was pregnant. Not being the sappy type, she told me not with tears of joy or birdsong, but more bewilderment. This was, after all, the woman who greeted my marriage proposal with, “Shut up!” To be honest, I was bewildered, too. We had discussed it, and agreed that we wouldn’t necessarily start trying to have a child, but would stop not trying.
But that was all it took. Our first midwife visit confirmed what the Internet told us: My wife’s due date was February 23, 2012. We had already decided we wouldn’t find out the sex of the baby and so we didn’t, looking away as we were instructed during the ultrasound and preparing two lists of names, one for boys and one for girls. Boys’ names were hard: At various times we liked Leo, Cameron or James, combined in various ways with Michael, Alexander or Sean. Our list of girls’ names had only one entry.
* * *
Before I ever even seriously entertained the idea of having a child, I knew that one of my duties as a father and a musician was going to be to introduce my child to good music. So, on October 15, 2011, a little over a month after we’d moved into our first house, I brought my iPod and a pair of good studio headphones up to the bedroom and started playing music for my unborn child. Pressing the cups of the headphones to my wife’s growing stomach, I began with “Naima” by John Coltrane.
When I had been asked in a college sociology class on music and social movements to pick one all-time favorite song, “Naima” had been it. Coltrane is best known for his sheets-of-sound approach to improvisation, but on the original recorded version from “Giant Steps,” he plays only the melody and the outro, leaving the solo to pianist Wynton Kelly. It’s somehow both delicate and resolute, hopeful but not saccharine, and certainly one of the best songs ever written by a father for his child.
But I wanted to bring diversity as well. I played “Thirteen” by Big Star for obvious reasons. I played “Cissy Strut” by The Meters because I was seventeen when I first heard it and I didn’t want my child to have to wait that long. I played “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead, “Check the Rhime” by A Tribe Called Quest, “The Way We Get By” by Spoon.
Where I would end up probably seems inevitable, but it didn’t even occur to me until just before I queued it up. As much as possible, I had avoided “Hey Jude” for the last four-plus years. I had unchecked it in iTunes. There were times when I left stores where it was playing. When a different band that my brother and I were in began planning a set of all-Beatles material for a show, we quietly but firmly brushed aside the idea of including it. I’d only recently allowed it back on my iPod, and only because it was guaranteed to get lost among the thousands of songs on there.
So as the last notes of Muddy Waters’s “Honey Bee” tinkled out, I thumbed my way to it and heard Paul McCartney’s pickup note and piano trickle from the headphones against my wife’s stomach. We held hands and listened.
* * *
In spite of long walks and Thai takeout, February 23, 2012, came and went without any sign of a baby. But early in the morning the next day, it began. There were flurries in the air, but not the dire blizzard my wife had worried about. From the moment she woke me up until 12:18 pm that afternoon, there wasn’t much time to think about anything. Everything was too busy happening.
It wasn’t until after — until after my wife picked our child up from the water, after I saw that it was a girl, after I held her frail little body against my bare chest, after things had settled down — that I began to come to grips with the fact that it was five years to the day since February 24, 2007, and that I was holding a little girl with my mother’s name.
When I got ready to call my dad with the news, my wife said, “I bet you totally lose it.”
I lost that bet.
* * *
My favorite photo of my mother and me is a little odd. The dashboard of my Subaru Outback takes up the bottom half of the frame. This is because I had wedged my first digital camera between the windshield and the dash and set the timer to take a picture of us.
We were at a rest stop somewhere between Minnesota and Connecticut. Mid-March, 2004, my mom making the drive back to the East Coast with me so I could finish packing up my remaining stuff and complete my move to Minnesota. In the photo, it’s nighttime. My hair, which I dyed blonde that fall in the middle of a bad breakup, is a grown-out buzz cut, and it is not good.
I am leaning over from the passenger side, my mom behind the wheel. She is wearing the type of shapeless, dumpy gray winter coat she wore ever since I could remember. She is wearing a plain black winter hat and glasses, having abandoned contacts a few years before. Her knees were already starting to get bad, but that week she helped me all the same, taping up boxes and labeling them with one of the dozen Sharpies she brought along herself, writing her words in the big, rolling letters of an elementary school teacher.
If I thought of her offer to help at the time, I didn’t think of it much. She was my mom, and she wanted to help. I guess if pressed, I would have thought of it as selfless, which is what moms are supposed to be, and which it was. But now I can also see how it was selfish, a chance to spend more time with a grown-up son she saw less and less of. And somehow that means even more.
My mom is not looking directly at the camera’s lens, but just above it and a little to the side.
* * *
That next winter was harder than my daughter’s first. The flurries on the morning of her birth were the last snowflakes we saw that year, or nearly so. This year, winter stretched on into March and even April, meaning it was May before we took her to visit my mother’s grave for the first time.
I don’t know what I expected to feel. I don’t believe in an afterlife. My mom didn’t believe in an afterlife. In spite of the way it happened, I don’t have some sense that my daughter is the reincarnation of my mother. That’s not why we gave her my mother’s name.
When my daughter was born, I felt like giving her my mother’s name was something I was doing for my mom, that it was just what you did when that’s the path your life takes. But standing there while my fourteen-month-old daughter sat in the grass and pointed out birds, I could see that I had done it for myself. It was a way to keep her in the world.
Within a minute of setting her down, my daughter stopped picking at the grass. Newly confident on her legs, she stood and pointed towards a lake that lay just through a stand of trees. Ducks were circling and splashing down, and she pointed again and said in a toddler-speak mix of question and declaration, “Da.”
She took a few wobbly steps on the uneven ground and then I scooped her up and walked with her and my wife around the other markers, towards the water’s edge and away from the plaque with my daughter’s name, the dates 1946 and 2007, and the words, “Take a sad song and make it better.”
* * *
Steve McPherson is a writer and musician whose work has appeared in Grantland, the New York Times, the Classical and elsewhere. He lives in Minneapolis and you can follow him on Twitter (@steventurous). A version of this story originally appeared on Steve McPherson’s Medium page.