Star-crossed Troubadours

by angeliska on August 8, 2011

Today marks twenty-five years since my mother died.

This last winter solstice, I had a profound vision during a ceremony:
an old black telephone appeared before me, hunched in celluloid,
with a rotary dial. I could feel the weight of the heavy receiver in my
hand – it was that real. I realized that I could call anyone in the world
on it, and I pondered for a minute, trying to think of who I’d like most
to talk to at that moment – one phone call, to the person whose voice
I’d most want to hear – until it hit me. My mama, of course. To talk to
her again, to be able to have even just one conversation with her –
I think sometimes I’d give almost anything to be able to do that.
My vision faded, and I can’t really recall being able to actually get
through to her – but it was almost more the radical notion that such
a thing could actually be possible that was amazing. That, and the
raw beast of my longing for her, long buried, suddenly so close to
my face, breathing rough right next to me – a wild, savage desire
just to have my mother back with me, even if only for a moment.
Here’s my mom talking about her favorite country songs on the radio (KUT Austin) with her friend Dan Foster.
I hadn’t heard her voice for twenty-five long years, until the day I got this recording.
Her voice is the most beautiful sound in the whole world.
Maggie Cook Polacheck – KUT by Angeliska
To receive the gift of this recording, a few months after that experience,
was such a balm to that deep wound. Her voice is orange-blossom honey
and tabasco, it is the sudden flutter of bird wings, it is soft as owlet’s fluff,
or a mimosa blossom. Her singular country accent: those long a’s and
dropped g’s that I hear in my aunt’s voice – in my own when I get drunk
or go back where I came from. Her cadence is one I used to carry, too.

So, my mother was obsessed with Hank Williams. I mean – really, truly, deeply.
Our first and only family vacation was to go to his grave in Montgomery, Alabama.
She became penpals with his sister. I think she was in love with him, in a way –
in love with a lanky gray ghost, with a crooked smile and a voice that hits you
like bourbon on an empty belly – raw guts churning with lonely lost love.
I inherited her predilection for tall, skinny men with cruel lips and sad eyes,
for wastrels with hearts full of song, careening through life wearing the albatross
that is an incurable awesome death-wish around their scrawny necks. Luckily,
I got over all that a while back. I’m not sure if she ever did. Beautiful disasters
don’t really turn me on anymore – too much damage done, too many old scars…
But oh, those star-crossed troubadours! How compelling they can be.
In the same week that I received the gift of her voice, I also took a horrible blow:
I found out that the works of art she had spent the last months of her
life creating had been lost, irrevocably. It was about this worst news
I could imagine hearing – almost like losing her all over again.
This includes the painting of Hank Williams above, a work I consider her masterpiece,
the pinnacle of her creative life – her swan song. I remember her painting it, vividly.
The vintage print she took the background from, with the sheep in the moonlit pasture
hung in our kitchen. Those cactus flowers bloomed on our back patio – I remember her
photographing them. The tie Hank’s wearing is one of my dad’s – he has it still.
His hands are so beautifully done, so articulate and perfectly rendered – and his face,
his face… Rarely does any artist capture the sensitive angles and gaunt beauty that
was Hank William’s gorgeous sad face – and now to think of all that lost, to know
that it probably ended up in some dumpster, never to be seen again – it kills me.
Her dear friend who she sold them to moved cross country, and discovered upon
unpacking that the movers had somehow overlooked them. I mean, who knows –
they could be hanging above some dude’s ugly couch in a ratty trailer somewhere
in Utah. You never do know. I won’t give up hope that they’ll turn up one day,
and make their way back to me. I can barely begin to describe how badly this
discovery crushed me. For many years, I have been trying to put back together
the puzzle pieces of my mother’s life – to write about her, and to work through
this tangle of briars her death made of my heart. I’ve been fighting through that
thicket since I was a child – searching for clues, for shreds of her legacy.
When I listen to these old country songs, it’s like a message from beyond:
each one is so heartbroken, and totally unashamed. I think that’s what I love
about country music – it’s not self-conscious about coming off as maudlin –
it’s just genuine feeling, even if that feeling is crying down in a ditch,
or being blue because your son calls another man daddy. It’s having the gumption
to pick up a guitar and sing a song about it, through the tears, through the pain.
All this music that she loved so fervently, all her life – it feels like she knew
somehow, that I’d need this music one day, too. Just the song titles, even:
When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels
Alone and Forsaken
Don’t Go
and oh, “Crying Heart Blues
Crying the blues
I’m crying because I have lost you
Blues I can’t lose
I guess it’s too late now to try
I’ve tried to chose another to love but it’s no use
Crying heart blues, there’s nothing that’s left but to cry
I’ll always remember I love you
My teardrops won’t let me forget
Each tear is a wish to be near you
They started the day that we met
A trail of tears will lead you to me if you want me
And from my fears, how hopeless, my crying heart flees

Yesterday I happened across this bit of wisdom from Dear Sugar, (who is beyond amazing)
responding to a woman who had miscarried her baby daughter, and found herself consumed
with grief. Her advice rang true for me, and came to me at the perfect time, so I’ll share it here:
This is how you get unstuck. You reach. Not so you can walk away from the daughter you loved,
but so you can live the life that is yours—the one that includes the sad loss of your daughter,
but is not arrested by it. The one that eventually leads you to a place in which you not only grieve her,
but also feel lucky to have had the privilege of loving her. That place of true healing is a fierce place.
It’s a giant place. It’s a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have
to work really, really, really fucking hard to get there, but you can do it, honey. You’re a woman who can
travel that far. I know it. Your ability to get there is evident to me in every word of your bright shining grief star of a letter.

So, this is me reaching.
These are too:
Foxes in the Rain
Triumvirate Lemniscate
Gustav + Mama – August 8th


Your Mama has a voice I want to listen to before falling asleep at night. Thanks for sharing this, love. What a beautiful way to honor her!

by Allyson on August 8, 2011 at 7:11 am. Reply #

Your mama’s painting is beautiful, the cactus blooms glow with moonlight. Sweet, sad country songs are balm to the heart. I love you, lady, and will light a candle for you and your mama.

by Sienna O'Banion on August 8, 2011 at 8:58 am. Reply #

Thank you so much for this post. I hope your own words and others will help you hold the space of your love and your mourning and the beauty of your life with your mother. How precious she is. IS.
I have recently lost someone very close and this is so helpful. Thank you.
(I’ve just started reading your journal and I’m smitten. I love your imagery, your words and have a thousand bright drops of inspiration spilling from every entry I’ve read.)

by Lisa Strawberry on August 8, 2011 at 9:02 am. Reply #

strange gut symmetries. last night before bed i was reading about minnie riperton, her sad early death drew my thoughts to you and your mother’s story, and today i wake up and i’m listening to the pretty southern melody of your mama’s honeyed voice. oh angel.
(my heart skipped for an instant during the recording when your mother talks about the two hanks and how some people refer to them as “mutt and jeff” – i know those names because my aunt loves to tell that when my mother was a child they used to call her and her favourite cousin “mutt and jeff; there goes mutt and jeff… ” a joke about their height difference, like hank and hank)
i’m so, so glad this recording made its way to you, i have hope one day her paintings might find their way back home to you too. i hope, i really hope. and now whenever i hear a hank williams song i will think of your mama and recall her voice and beautiful blue sad-eyed painting.
thank you for giving us this window into your mama, and thank you mama for giving us this angel.
i love you. oh to be able to wrap my arms around valleys and highways to find their way to you.

by annie on August 8, 2011 at 9:42 am. Reply #

Angeliska-I am so moved by your story! I lost my mother three years ago, and I can relate to your every word. I would love to have another conversation with her. I feel that we can, soul to soul, but even so … And the gift you received was indeed as precious as you knew it to be! It is beyond any price in the world to have heard her voice again. My husband found a videotape he’d made of my parents soon after they both died (three months apart) and played it after their memorial service. It was so beautiful I almost cry just thinking of it. I plan to read your other blog entries. I love your writing and think you have captured what you so admire about country songs, you share your strong emotions just as they are without being ashamed of them. Brava! Love and frith to you, Elka

by Elka on August 8, 2011 at 10:05 am. Reply #

That is a seriously fantastic painting. I’m so sorry for your loss.

by Stephanie on August 8, 2011 at 10:20 am. Reply #

Oh man, your mama’s voice is amazing, like you can hear the shape of her mouth forming each word. You know?
I love you & hope those pieces DO keep coming back to you, in whatever forms…

by verhext on August 8, 2011 at 10:51 am. Reply #

biggest hugs in the universe, lady. i love you.

by lau on August 8, 2011 at 10:55 am. Reply #

<3 spun glass girl.

by suzanne meow meow on August 8, 2011 at 6:09 pm. Reply #

Love to you.

by amy on August 8, 2011 at 8:27 pm. Reply #

I feel the exact same way about my own mother, who I lost when I was 18.
Thank you for articulating it.

by Verity on August 9, 2011 at 11:42 am. Reply #

Thank you all for reading, and for taking the time to send me your messages… They all mean so much to me, and definitely helped me through the day, through this journey.
Love and love and love + much gratitude.

by Angeliska on August 9, 2011 at 12:03 pm. Reply #

I got very little sleep on Sunday night. Some people I adore kept arising in my thoughts, not out of concern, but compassion. One of them was you. I cried reading this and the piece from Sugar. Thank you for sharing. Both you and your mama are shining stars.

by April Violet on August 9, 2011 at 10:21 pm. Reply #

a lovely post only you are capable of. full of longing and inspiration. bless you.

by jordan moser on August 15, 2011 at 7:27 am. Reply #
“men with broken hearts”
mississippi records used to make these great mix tapes. now they are online here. you’ll like this one especially.
they have some cool mid eastern collections as well. check out: ‘radio isfahan’ and ‘this is where love has left me.’

by jordan moser on August 15, 2011 at 7:36 am. Reply #

Wow. It’s been 25 years since I’ve heard that voice too. I was 10. I must admit, I was actually afraid to click the audio. Would I recognize the voice of one of the most special persons in my life? Or would I hear a stranger long gone to time and memory? No. I heard a voice, or voices actually, from deep within. A voice that echos with hints of other long gone family members. Nonnie and Grover. Even Cleo. Uncle Ned and Davie have the same accent. Mom has the same sing-song tone. Profound. I never thought I’d ever hear that again. Beautiful. The ghost of a skinny redhead smoking a cigarette sits in the corner looking over my shoulder and smiles. Aunt Maggie.

by Luke on September 24, 2011 at 2:26 am. Reply #

Oh, my! What a joy and a melancholy this recording brings to me! And what a precious gift for you. Maggie was a treasure, and I know she would not only be proud of who you have become, but also be your best friend.
I am sad to know that her paintings were lost. I had hoped to see them in total some day, and had asked your dad a couple of years ago how to find them. I hope they do exist, and that they bring wonder and inspiration to whoever sees them.

by Betty V on August 9, 2012 at 11:25 pm. Reply #

Wow what a beautiful painting. If I find it I will let you know and if possible return it to you!
Did you ever hear about an artist musician named Jon Langford:
He also is a big fan of Hank Williams.
He had a show of paintings at the Cultural Center in Chicago a while back. It is the same building your Great Grandma Hilda wrote about in her book,
I came a stranger, the story of a Hull House girl
Back then it was a the main branch of the Chicago Public library.

by Annabelle Echo on October 23, 2012 at 2:26 pm. Reply #

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