Sound Self

by Olivia Klevorn

My parents are the same.

Both grew up in St. Louis, MO and attended Parkway South High School. Both thought the movie Tree of Life was vastly overrated. Both know Jim Moriarty, my mother’s Irish Tennis Captain High School Boyfriend. Both watch their favorite sports alone and cursing. Both have been to see the Stones, Springsteen, and Aretha.

My parents are different.

My mother grew up rich, with a new refrigerator and clothing that was her own. My father grew up with six brothers, a secretary’s salary, and shared twin beds. My mother is loud and effusive, a consummate performer whose big break was birth. My father is quiet, with few friends, and a preference for quiet voices in enclosed spaces. My mother cooks and does not eat much. My father can cook but almost always buys a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store if he’s hungry and there’s nothing on the cooling rack. My mother is black. My father is white. My mother calls folk music the songs of white people who don’t have the talent to steal properly. My father loves Simon & Garfunkel and Joni.

My mother doesn’t have music to drive to.

When driving, my mother does not play music. She is the reason I learned the acronym NPR and titled all my early poems “This American Life.” Pulling smoothly down Lake Shore Drive with the Chicago Skyline bouncing yellow light like so many rows of water glasses, Tavis Smiley’s voice would rumble low under our seats afternoon after afternoon. I kept my eyes shut during his show, either sleeping or culling imagination, trying to conjure a body to match his sound to. Today, his voiceimage still stumbles around my head as a Proud Family sketch of Al Rocker crossed with Michael Jordan. I broke my meditation only when the radio shut off, and the car found still life silence in park mode.

My father needs music to drive to.

When my maternal grandfather died, my grandmother sold my father his 1980 navy blue Mercedes below market price. Because the car was old, its disc chamber was in the trunk. You could load it with 5 CDs at once but couldn’t change anything from inside the car except what order they played in. My father cannot drive in silence or with news radio. It has to be music. Part of this may be a residual fear left over from his father’s early death, sleepy at the wheel of a beer truck while cruising down a highway. My father has always hoarded music. He was one of the first people I know to invest in an iPod; when filing taxes he blasts Top 50 hits from flashy speakers; and in the old Mercedes he stacked CD on top of CD in the trunk, sometimes pulling the car off to the side of the road to make a necessary substitution. I heard Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Adele all for the first time on that car radio and sang brazenly until my lungs were empty and exhausted. I preferred riding with my father. His music dictated the direction of my mood—up → up → up regardless of destination. But it is NPR that fills my silent nights and mornings.

My mother has no music.

It took me until 19 to realize that my mother does not listen to music independently. She says when she was younger she bought CDs and tapes, played Jesus Christ Superstar so many times in the car the edgings on the back of the disc ran together, saw Talking Heads with her 30-something boyfriend her freshman year of college. But somewhere in between “Early 20s” in D.C. her move to post-grad wandering around my father’s empty Printer’s Row apartment while he worked, she lost it.

My mother dances to black music.

When my mother talks on the phone to people from St. Louis her voice changes. People call her Dee-Dee rather than Dietrich and ask after “Andy and the girls.” Her responses come out in a register I am unfamiliar with: it is something brassy and low that swings out uncontrolled and involuntary. When my Aunt Linda comes to visit from STL, we dance.  She is in her early 70s, a breast cancer survivor, stolid and steeled in cheetah print pants and lime green shirt. She frequents dance clubs and recommends playlist items for me to put on my dad’s sound system. She is a much better dancer than I am, but we would pop and drop together for hours. It was like my middle school socials without the white kids who would crowd around me and ask if I could teach them to dance. On nights spent with Linda my mother would dance. She wasn’t cautious. She didn’t need to be peeled or coaxed off the couch. One moment she was sitting and the next she was across from me shouting lyrics to a song she somehow learned even in her cone of soundlessness*.

*The first song I ever played on the radio that she asked about was Gold Digger by Kanye West; the second was Ice Cream and Cake, a jingle from a Baskin Robbins commercial.

After we danced together, Aunt Linda and my mother would sit with two glasses of wine while I lay on the floor cooling off and on the edge of sleep. They compared my young movements with what they used to do in Aunt Carolyn’s basement—my mother a kid, passed around bouncing laps to be looked at, her mother a skinny teenager with big earrings and narrow legs; my mother a pre-teen awkwardly bumping along as the adults took pride in rhythm, touch, and sway, the motions aging and dying with every shift in tempo, pitch, et cetera.

My mother, a teenager joining in—Motown, soul train. She loved Michael Jackson, had a picture of him on her wall, wore a bright red velvet pantsuit to his concert, and screamed out “MICHAEL! MICHAEL!” The day he died she watched vigils for him on our television. I came home from smoking cigarettes with my friends to find her sitting alone on the couch, crying as Man in the Mirror played in the background.

The silence and the sound

There is a distinct rhythm to being the black half of an interracial couple. I cannot say I know it because I have always been mixed, but I have seen it move through my mother’s body. Certain things my father will never understand. My sister and I will never understand. She is alone in those. I have watched this rhythm of isolation, representation, shame from my sister and I drown out her sound, whatever sound came with Linda left just as easily when she got on the train, when Michael died, when I sang Simon & Garfunkel at a jazz concert only my mother attended.

When my parents are in the car together they listen to music that predates both of them by about 30 years. “This is the good stuff,” they say, “this is quality.” But I know my father combs through David Byrne’s public playlist weekly, so he can stay informed of what “new shit” is pulsing through the alternative airwaves, and Corinne Bailey Rae, the only artist I remember my mother playing in the car ever, made us all smile something equal to Ella. This is the art of compromise at work. My mother married a white man and will always be the exception standing next to him, will always be thrown against a white background, will always hold the real rhythm in a room full of off-beat side steps, will always be the black girl from STL that married a white man. I did not realize what this could do to a body until I was thrown into my own rhythmless white background where, though my biracial status made my difference less than my mother’s, no one looked like me, understood the rules that governed my body, my presence in the world, my hair, my ass. At the socials, where my tight clothes and popping made things more obvious, I came to understand my parents’ attachment to the old standards—it is easiest to choose neutrality, the music 30 years too old, drowning out the sound of what each partner can’t have.

My mother learned music in her own context: a powerful one, full of jumbled up family, rhythm, dance, and love. But the world I was brought into is one of distinct silence, a push and pull that shutters any possibility of organized song. Our house is quiet always unless someone is making a concerted effort at talking, or my father is alone in his office filling the room up with his iTunes library. My mother does not control the soundscape and has never expressed a desire to. “Mom why don’t you listen to music?” I asked last July. She said it only holds memories for her, reminds her of her age, what’s come to pass, what’s been lost in the fact of passing. Music is the size 0 pair of jeans that fit her in the ‘80s but not anymore, the childhood best friend whose kids’ ages she can never quite remember. When people change they can’t take everything with them.

My mother left music.

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