blackbirdonline journalFall 2020  Vol. 19 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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For the Female Folk Singer

Four days ago my brother called to tell me my mother was missing. My husband and I had been surfing, and we were riding home to Richmond in my husband's beat-up four-wheel-drive. Ahead of us, as we drove straight west on Interstate 64, the sun looked like a ripe nectarine as it sunk. Because my husband's four-wheel-drive Wagoneer doesn’t have air-conditioning, the wind rushed gallons of salty-smelling white noise through the cab, so I couldn’t hear my brother. I told him I would call him back, then Emmylou's version of “Pancho and Lefty” came on the SiriusXM station, and I burst into tears. My husband, who is acutely aware that in the structural support of my family, I am an insignificant interior wall (at best), asked me why I was crying. I answered with a lie about hoping my mother would be OK and chose for the dozenth time that weekend not to tell him I was pregnant.

That was when I began believing the baby must be a female folk singer.

After we got home to Richmond, I called my brother back.

“Mom’s gone,” he said, “She went to town yesterday and hasn’t come back.”

“Has it been hot there too?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said. “We reported her missing.”

“You know for some of us she’s been missing for thirty-five years.”

There was a pause, then he said: “Been pretty cool, actually. Rainin’ a lot.”

“How's Dad doing about it?”

“Oh, he’s up feedin' the cows, but we've been talkin’ to the tribal police. They’re handling it. She was at the casino having lunch.”

“Has anyone considered foul play?”


“The casino brings in a lot of people.”

“No one thinks that,” my brother said. My brother is number eight of my parents’ eight living children. I'm number seven.

“Who’s cooking for him?” I asked.


“Figures,” I said. The other, older six, don’t do anything. “Should I come home?”

“Well, now, that's up to you.”


If the baby is a female folk singer, will she hate herself when she’s a teenager? I did. Will she hate me for being a music promoter and her father for being a cover band guitarist? Will she write songs about us and our patheticness? If I had been born to parents who weren’t really tired of being parents, I would have written such songs. Even if my parents had been cool, I probably would have written songs condemning them, that’s the kind of teenager I was. Sullen doesn’t begin to touch it. Will female folk singer think those things?

My brother reassured me that nothing out of the ordinary was happening in North Idaho that might have caused my mother’s craziness. But my mother doing this completely unexpected thing cast me into the pirate’s grab bag of what might possibly live inside my skin with me: musician, mother, maniac? For the record, I am very familiar with being uncomfortable with myself. I am self-conscious and insecure. Some people are Libras; some people are cat people; some people are type A personalities. I am self-conscious and insecure.

When Mom and her new friend, Jake, showed up on my doorstep, I was watching a blue, National Weather Service storm warning blink on my phone screen. I was worried about my husband, the cover band guitarist, who at that moment was playing an outdoor festival. We had spent the morning fighting about the poor logistics of the festival at which he was scheduled to take the stage any minute—with his electric guitar and amp in a lightning storm—when I heard laughter from the back porch. I went to see what it was and found my mother.

You can imagine my surprise.

Four days missing hadn't dented her at all. She looked happier and more alive—somehow more herself—than I had ever seen her. Even before seeing her, though, I confess that I could not imagine her having been kidnapped or stolen. She’s not a passenger, my mother; she’s not first mate. It’s captain and driver or nothing. One thing I was thinking from the very first was that I was the runaway. I was the “rebellious daughter,” having been labeled as such after running away from home. That stereotype didn't fit me any better than stereotypes fit generally, but labeling their children helped my parents keep us sorted. My mother had not stopped me from running away when I was fifteen. At the time I had dismissed this choice of hers as not caring about me, but now I realize that she was probably just jealous.

My mom's short, fine, white hair was wet from the rain and plastered to her head. When she and Jake reached the house, her blouse was soaked through, so I could see the outline of her padded, underwire bra beneath it.

“Mom?” I said, opening the door. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Her cheeks were flushed with the excitement of running from her car to the porch in the downpour, and I was reminded instantly of the expression on her face as we watched a thunderstorm together when I was eleven. I remember the wildness in her eyes as lightning split the big air over the lake in front of our farmhouse, and she had grabbed my hand, squeezed it intensely, and said, “Holy shit!”

She smiled, opened her arms to me, and said, “Oh, sweetie, it’s so good to see you.”

I stepped out onto the porch into her arms, and she hugged me. She patted my back as if I were the one who had been gone for four days and shown up on her doorstep.

The man behind her was Jake. Jake looked Indian to me; Coeur d’Alene, I guessed from his eyes, his cheekbones, his build, but mostly because he was with my mother, who had recently disappeared from the Coeur d'Alene Tribal Casino. He could have been any tribe, no tribe. She could have picked him up anywhere. He might have picked her up. I was sure of one thing: he wasn’t thirty, maybe twenty-five. Maybe.

“This is Jake,” my mother said, linking her arm in his, bringing him up in front of me.

“Hello,” I said, “Nice to meet you, Jake.”

My mother smiled up at him, then at me. No one spoke. Jake and I were both a head and shoulders taller than my mother. He nodded to me and said, “Hi.”

“This is my daughter I told you so much about,” my mother said to Jake.

My mother looked the same as ever—short, plump, L.L. Bean khakis, running shoes, off-brand polo shirt, wrinkles, sparking brown eyes (just like mine, according to her), straight teeth. Young lover? No, no, no, no. No.


“You don't get to be the rebellious one,” was the first thing I wanted to say to her on the porch. Instead I said, “Come in” and stepped back to let them through the door.

Jake set a knapsack down inside the kitchen door. He was average height and lean with long, loose, black hair. Even at first glance, Jake reminded me irresistibly of one of my first boyfriends, who, had my parents been more energetic when I was a teenager, they never would have let me date. So, of course, if my mother’s usurping my spot in the family as the rebellious one, the runaway, she’s going to show up with someone Jake-ish. Despite her obvious excitement about her adventures with Jake, no air of guilty sex seemed to be lingering around them. Thank God!

“Boy, you sure are having some kind of storm,” my mother said. She was sort of shivering with the excitement of it all. She smiled at Jake then swiped one hand along her other arm, wiping water off enthusiastically. Jake smiled at me and nodded.

I was absolutely at a loss for words.

Even if my mother had not shown up, I would not have gone home to Idaho after the conversation with my brother because I came along many years after my mother had streamlined the process of raising children. Children were her career, and she was certainly one to leave her work at the office. It's OK. I can't say that I blame her; no one should have so many kids that it takes a few minutes staring at each one to remember that kid's name. But whether it's OK or not doesn't matter anymore. The facts are: my mother had not given me much confidence or experience with which to face life or prepare anyone else to face life, and seeing her with Jake was kind of like seeing your boss at a Grateful Dead show. Weird. Uncomfortable. Maybe a little cool at first, but then you just sort of want to get away from it.

“Should you call Dad?” I asked my mother, after getting her and Jake cups of coffee.

“You know, I don’t think I’m ready for that,” my mother said. “I was thinking you might call him for me. Tomorrow. After we leave. We’re heading down to Florida for my birthday. I've never been to Florida.”

Of course, I had a million questions—one of the foremost being: have you lost your fucking mind—but, for some ridiculous reason, I agreed to be the one who phoned my father. I am unsure whether I was more stunned at my mother's actions, the unavoidable fact of her being an equally unstable, fallible person like I considered myself to be, or simply the fact that she had come to see me—of all people: me.

“Are you staying here tonight?” I asked.

“Well, of course, honey. I didn’t come all this way to not spend some time with you.”

“OK, then,” I said suspiciously.

They sat, drinking coffee. My mom had her hands cupped around the mug and her shoulders drawn up, obviously comforted by the warmth of the ceramic. The steam spiraled up under her chin. I do the exact same thing. And, suddenly more than anything else, this small action made me want to ask her—as we sat there in the kitchen, she and Jake in their wet clothes, me in my shock and awe—why. What had she expected from life? What had she hoped for? Why did she have all of us? Had it made her happy? Or, was she happy now? And, how will I know what happy is if I've never seen it in anyone else’s eyes or in my own in the mirror? And how am I supposed to teach another person (i.e., female folk singer) to be happy? But, of course, I couldn’t ask because Jake was there. Maybe that was the purpose of Jake: just another way for my mother to keep our relationship professional.

Feeling empowered and undeterred, I said, “Mom, can I ask you something?”

“Of course,” she replied, lifting her eyebrows in challenge.

And I was a teenager again, confused by the direct conflict of words and body language that was my mother, and I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t ask a single one of the questions I so desperately wanted answered by this one particular human who miraculously had appeared exactly when I needed her.

“What is it?” she asked, at the very edge of losing patience. Again, so familiar.

“Nothing,” I said, “never mind.”

“Okay then,” she said. And, I could see her say to herself in her head, See? I knew you didn’t really want anything. You just thought you did.

“Driving in that rain was so frightening,” my mother said, “but very exciting. Thank goodness Jake was driving. I would never have been able to hold the car on the road in all that rain. The rain came down like driving in a car wash, but for miles, for hours!”

“Mom?” I said again.

“Yes. Dear.”

“How much money did you win at ‘lunch’?”

A slow, conspiratorial smile appeared, and her eyes lit up. “Oh, a good bit,” she said.

“Well,” I said, eyeing Jake, who, despite everything, seemed harmless. “That’s it then, I guess. That’s a little disappointing.”

My mother shrugged. “Well, that’s life, dear, it’s a lot of treading water.”

Jake and I looked at one another.

She sighed pointedly and said, “You know, just swimming in place. Keeping your head up and your mouth closed?”

“Hmmmm,” Jake said, nodding.

“Let’s get you guys into dry clothes,” I said.

Mom and Jake went upstairs into separate bedrooms and changed. We ate dinner together then streamed a movie. While I was in the room with them, they did not even sit together, made no indication whatsoever that they were more than traveling companions. My mom went to bed immediately after the movie, and Jake and I watched the news.

“Maybe you should go with us,” he said.

I shrugged. “I can’t,” I said. “I’m having a baby.”

“Now?” he asked, confused.

I didn’t even bother to answer.

In the morning, they were at the breakfast table. My mother fixed pancakes from scratch, and they left at 10:30 a.m. They were driving a red convertible. I waved as they backed out of the driveway and watched them pull away, my mother driving, Jake riding shotgun. Later that afternoon I called my brother. I decided he could tell my father. Arguing and fighting with yourself, with your dreams, with your hopes becomes exhausting, especially when other people—like children—are watching. I get that. My father and brother would have no use for this mother, this winner of Indian casino money, this co-adventurer of Jake. As I went upstairs to rest up to tell my husband about the female folk singer, I noticed that one of his guitars was gone. They’d swiped one of my husband’s acoustic guitars! The one named after me and that I had always planned on swiping if I ever left my husband. I had never dreamed that my mom and I might possibly have such things in common. Should I be encouraged? Maybe female folk singer will have a chance to swipe her own guitars someday.

“That’ll be a good song,” I told her.  

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