In My Life
I can only speak my mind”
“When I cannot sing my heart
-- John Lennon
I was ten years old and out for Friday night spaghetti with my grandfather. He slid a quarter across the table at me and said, “Nothing too loud,” behind me as I scampered off the red naugehyde seat and over to the jukebox. I punched in the number for “My Sharona,” my favorite song that summer, from memory and then scanned the rest of the list. Between Chic and Anne Murray I found my own name, “Julia” by the Beatles. Of course I wanted to hear it, right after “Good Times.”
It was so quiet I almost missed it. Soft and lilting, almost whispered, it was nearly lost in the din of plates and laughter. It wasn’t really my glass of Kool-Aid and I forgot about it till I saw my dad a few weeks later. When I mentioned I’d heard a song with my name he smirked a little. It was a smirk my brother and I share, meant to hide behind rather than to make fun.
“Your mom loved them,” he said. It was the first really personal thing anyone had ever told me about my mother.
My mother succumbed to leukemia at twenty-three: a wife and mother of two, a whole life lived in such a short time. My brother was two and I was eight months old. Dad crawled into a bottle and didn’t come out for years leaving us to be raised by his parents. My mother’s parents parked their bottles on the bar next to my dad’s.
I was not expected to grieve for her for the simple fact that I hadn’t known her. I was not encouraged to grieve because I was “too delicate”: I had epilepsy and upset could cause a seizure. I had wondered about her silently until that moment with my dad.
I didn’t find out who the Julia in the song was for another two years. When John Lennon died the papers and the newscasts were full of him like they hadn’t been since the height of Beatlemania. Julia was his mother and died when he was sixteen. His son Julian wasn’t much older than that. Watching Julian later in the 80’s on MTV I thought I recognized the lost look in his eyes. When your parent dies while you’re that young, part of your identity becomes a shadow. The flint you spark your soul against isn’t as sharp.
I watched I Wanna Hold Your Hand one snowy afternoon and wondered which of the Beatlefans my mom would have been: engaged Pam enjoying one last adventure; screaming mimi Rosie; or aspiring photographer Grace, scheming to come up with $50 to pay off a security guard at the Ed Sullivan show. I’m still not certain but I felt a little closer to her that day. My paternal grandmother kindly arranged another snowy afternoon with my mother’s best friend from high school, Debbie, who was willing to talk to me about her and gave me letters my mother had written and her senior picture. It’s inscribed, “To Debbie, a girl who shares my love of the Beatles…”
My mother’s mother died a few months after that day. Over the next ten years my maternal grandfather, my great-grandmother who helped raise me, my dad and my paternal grandfather who’d taken me out for spaghetti every Friday night the summer I was ten all passed away. Each death was a link in a long chain of loss but my mother was still the center stone.
When my husband and I married he let me choose the song for our first dance. My grandmother wrinkled her nose when she heard it was “In My Life” by the Beatles, but my husband shushed her. We’d invited “Debbie, a girl who shares my love for the Beatles” and I found her looking at my parents’ wedding picture on a table dedicated to those we’d both lost. Their eighteen and twenty year old smiles were bittersweet on this side of 1965. She reached out to stroke my mother’s face and in that moment she was transformed into “Debbie, a woman who shares my longing for my mother.”
“That was a good song for you,” she told me. “Your mother would have loved it.”