For as long as I can remember, music has been an integral part of my life. As a kid, I joined choir groups and attended musical theater camps. I choreographed dances with my friends, which I begged my parents to let me perform when they had company. I learned to harmonize and read music, opening my eyes to the power of music as a medium for self expression.
As I’ve gotten older, music has acted as a gateway for me to access different parts of myself. It has helped me remember who I am, everything I have been through and all the people I have met and lost along the way.
When I was nine, my mom died from colon cancer. Over the course of a year and a half, I watched as she shrunk into a silhouette of her former self. After she died, she all but vanished from my life. Pictures were taken down, personal belongings were put in storage and my dad got remarried. My stepmom had a baby. We moved across the country, leaving behind the place that had been our home for as long as I could remember. It all seemed to happen in a blink of an eye, and I had almost nothing to remember my mom by.
For a long time, I avoided facing the reality of her absence. I found ways to justify and overcompensate my loss. I went to my fifth grade dance; I accepted the lead in my middle school play; I graduated high school; I accepted a full ride to college.
There are plenty of milestones I’ve celebrated without her — including her own. Every year, I usually spend her birthday, the 12th of August, in isolation. I pull out a few photographs and take time to appreciate her. Afterwards, I place the few pictures I have of her back into their box, which usually remains untouched on my shelf until the anniversary of her death a few months later.
But this year was different. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how important it is that I consistently bring her into my life. I am her only daughter; if I don’t take time to remember and celebrate her, who will?
So, I did what she would do. I threw a dinner party.
She was a wonderful host. She grew up in a family that openly welcomed friends into their home at every hour of the day, and nothing made her happier than bringing friends together for a celebration. She was kind; she was welcoming; she was attentive; she was fun. Through her gatherings, she created a space that allowed others to forget about the world around them; that pushed them to celebrate life in this moment.
So, on her birthday, I brought my closest friends together to do exactly that.
The main course was Chicken Marbella. She used to make this dish for my brother and I growing up. I hadn’t had it in years; I’ve spent the last 10 years a vegetarian and just began eating meat again this past summer. The last time I ate it, I’m sure it was she who made it for me.
Needless to say, I’m no expert at cooking chicken. (This was my first time… ever!) But I followed my aunt’s instructions: Mix oil with spices, marinade the chicken overnight, baste it in the morning, set the oven, cook, plate it, enjoy.
The chicken came out divine. Marinated and soft to the touch, it slipped right off the bone. It was moist and flavorful. It tasted just how I remembered it tasting. As it turns out, I really am my mother’s daughter.
Before the dinner, I hung pictures of her around our porch, each capturing her beauty and radiance in different stages of her life. I whipped out a bottle of red wine (which, honestly, was more for me than for her, but what’s a celebration without some wine?) and looped a Spotify playlist I curated in her honor.
Because I haven’t had much access to tangible things she left behind, I have relied on my memories for most of what I know about her. These memories are set to the soundtrack of her life. When she cooked dinner for the family, she would take breaks to dance to Abba with me in the living room. She would sing me to bed at night. When I was young, she took me to a Proclaimers concert — the band brought her back to her Scottish roots, and I was happy to tag along and see the people whose popular tune “I’m On My Way” became an anthem for Shrek. (I was six and, needless to say, I fell asleep halfway through the performance.)
I have always, and will always, use music to connect with my mom. I am sharing with you the soundtrack of her life.
1. “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,” Frankie Valley.
This was her song for me. She sang it to me when I was very young. I had almost forgotten about it, it was buried so deep in my subconscious. Years later, when I heard the Lauryn Hill rendition of the song, my heart started racing. I got goosebumps. It took me a few moments to figure it out where I knew it from. I could hear it in her voice… “It’s just too good to be true… Can’t take my eyes off of you…”
I listen to this song when I want to remember her.
2. “How Long Will I Love You,” The Waterboys.
This song doesn’t elicit a specific memory. I don’t remember if she sang it to me or if she and my father danced to it in our living room after a single glass of wine. I don’t know if she threw it in our minivan CD player while driving me to school or if she played it during her dinner parties. But every time this song plays, she is the first person I think of. This song is inherently bound in my memories of her. It is the song itself that brings me joy, helps me move through my grief and connects me to my mom.
“How long will I love you
As long as stars are above you
And longer if I may…”
3. “Angel Eyes,” Abba.
This was my mom’s song for my brother, my only other full sibling. I didn’t know this until recently, when I asked my mom’s sister for song recommendations for the playlist I was curating. My brother was only five when my mom died, so I doubt he even remembers. I’ve loved this song for a long time, but I didn’t mentally connect it with my mom. Now, when I hear it, she is all I think about. (And when it made an appearance in Mamma Mia 2, I cried my heart out!)
4. “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Eva Cassidy.
Growing up, there aren’t many artists I remember listening to with my family. I remember Abba. I remember Jack Johnson. I remember the constant echo of Christmas music around the holidays. And I remember Eva Cassidy.
Eva Cassidy was a vocalist from Bowie, Maryland — just a few miles from where I grew up. She was best known for her jazzy, folky melodies and her unique covers. Three years before I was born, she died of cancer. She was 33.
Her music gained popularity after she died, as often happens with artists. My mom absolutely loved her. I remember Eva Cassidy’s voice echoing through the hallways of my home on cold, rainy mornings. I remember my mom humming her rendition of “Songbird” as she tended to our small herb garden.
After my mom’s death, at age 44, Eva Cassidy became an integral part of my connection to her. Not only her music, but her story. She died of cancer at a relatively young age, just like my mom. And just like my mom, Eva Cassidy will always live on inside of those of us who loved her.
5. “Chasing Cars,” Snow Patrol.
This was my mom and dad’s song. I didn’t know this until after she died. One time, my dad briefly mentioned it, and it is something I’ve never forgotten. In high school, I made him a mixtape (well, CD) for his birthday. Chasing Cars was track one. When he played it, he became visibly upset. Not in an angry way — in a melancholy, nostalgic way. I got a feeling he hadn’t listened to that song in a long time and that it brought back both happy and painful memories. Whether or not he skips the first track on that CD when he plays it in his car, I find solace in knowing it's on there.
6. “The Sound of Silence,” Simon and Garfunkel.
When I was a junior in high school, my dad took me to the storage locker where we kept all of my childhood things. This included some of my mom’s belongings he was saving for me: some clothes, some jewelry, and a big plastic box of journals. As it turns out, my mom started keeping intricate journals as a teenager when she left her home in Zimbabwe and moved to the U.S. for college.
She arrived here with five dollars in her pocket and attended school at Rick’s College in Iowa. Her journals document her entire life. She writes of her lovers, of the roles she played in theater productions, of her faith. In one journal, she notes “Oh, I dream of Simon and Garfunkel reuniting.” She writes that she had never seen them in concert before they broke up, and wishes more than anything that she had. Since then, Simon and Garfunkel took on a new meaning for me. I started listening to the duo in high school. When I realized she, too, loved their music, I felt more connected to her than ever.
7. “He Can Only Hold Her,” Amy Winehouse.
This song is more for me than for my mom, but it will always remind me of her. I discovered Amy Winehouse right around the time of my mom’s death. I resonated with the pain that shrouds her catchy, jazzy melodies. She, too, faced an untimely death. She, too, struggled with the idea of being alive in this world and holding her own. She, too, tried to live life in the fullest and most genuine way possible. They both loved people; they both wanted to make an impact on the world — but the world got to them.
I listen to Amy Winehouse all the time, and have found that this song most strongly reminds me of my mom. She sings, “While he tries to pacify her, what’s inside her never dies.” And it never does.
8. “Dancing Queen,” Abba.
I’ve always been a big karaoke fan. This is always the song I sing. There are videos of me from throughout the years — age 8, age 11, age 14 — singing this song on a stage in front of friends, family and strangers.
This song is one that has always, and will always, connect me to my mom. When I was young, she would play this song and spin me around in circles. She would point to me during the chorus, indicating that I was, indeed, the Dancing Queen. When I turned 17, I felt this song in my soul (as I’m sure many do.) “Dancing Queen, only 17” — but she has the whole world in front of her.
As I write this, I am listening to the playlist I made her. It is titled “56” — she would’ve been 56 this year. I am thinking of her and everything she means to me. I am remembering the way she held me; the way she dressed me; the way she took millions of photos of me as a child so I would be able to look back. She was always behind the camera, and I’m wishing she had let my dad take over once or twice. What I would do to have one more picture with her. One more artifact for the box next to my bed. One more reminder that I am the embodiment of who she was and more.
“Chiquitita,” by Abba, just came on. For this moment, the song could not be more fitting. In it, they sing:
“Chiquitita, you and I know
How the heartaches come and they go and the scars they're leaving
You'll be dancing once again and the pain will end
You will have no time for grieving
Chiquitita, you and I cry
But the sun is still in the sky and shining above you
Let me hear you sing once more like you did before
Sing a new song, Chiquitita.”