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Play It Again, Art

My birthday is just around the corner, a fact apropos of nothing in some ways. But in other ways, it sparks a whole bunch of other facts I normally don’t think about.

Normally the things I think about are of the worrying kind. I’ve always been that way. Unlike my daughters, who like happy endings and upbeat songs, I was an angst-ridden kid, nursed on Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, the saddest of Joni Mitchell’s songs and the darkest of Simon and Garfunkel’s.

“Saving my money, dreaming of glory/twitching like a finger on the trigger of a gun./Leaving nothing but the dead and the dying/Back in my little town” said it all for me.

So watching Madeleine and Linnea as they discover Simon and Garfunkel songs is a strange experience. They agree to skip over “Faking It.” They skip “Hazy Shade of Winter” and “America” and “Homeward Bound.” They like the “59th Street Bridge Song,” “Mrs. Robinson” and “The Boxer.” They like “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

I used to skip over “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” For one thing, I knew that Art was the earnest one, the pretty boy, but Paul was the edgy one, the one with the brains. I was interested in brains.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” was just a tad too nurturing for my acid, adolescent heart.

Anyway, the other day I was in the midst of a bout of worrying and I went off in search of supplies to make my car safe for winter driving. I bought a first-aid kit, jumper cables, trail mix. I bought flares and bottled water and one of those hammers you can use to break a window if you go over the side of a bridge, crash through the ice and into the frigid river. Not a pleasant thought at all.

I opened up the trail mix and started nibbling. I started twisting the radio dial away from the endless succession of insipid Christmas songs.

That’s how I came to hear “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

And before I knew it, I was doing that sentimental thing that I figure most mothers do when they’re stuck in the car with a sappy love song: think about how the lyrics applied to their kids.

Yeah, sure, when they’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in their eyes, I will dry them all. Hell, yes, I’m on their side when darkness comes. And pain is all around. And friends just can’t be found. And guess what else? Just like a bridge over troubled water, I would lay me down.

It’s not such a big deal, right? I’m their mother.

But it made me a little teary, actually. And I got thinking about Art “Pretty Boy” Garfunkel singing this song and in spite of myself, I started liking it. I started liking him. Suddenly earnest seemed good. Protective seemed just right. After all, all he wants is for the Silver Girl to be safe. Safe and happy.

Which is all I want for my silver girls, I figured. Safety. Happiness. I don’t want Madeleine alone in her room reading “Daddy” aloud to herself. I don’t want Linnea copying out lines from Joni Mitchell songs into her journal.

I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. Nothing. Not a paper cut. Not a broken heart. Not a lost job or a lost dream. Not a day of grief. And sure, I know that all of those things toughen a person up, give them character. But screw toughness. These are my kids. Like a bridge over troubled water, I would lay me down if I could keep them safe. Safe and happy. That’s what mothers want.

That’s what my mother wanted. It used to drive me crazy.

“All I want is for you to be happy,” she would say, “All I want is for you to be safe.”

But I had always been twitching like a finger on the trigger of a gun. I had always wanted to get away and start living. Heartbreaks, hard times—bring ’em on. And now, was it too late? Maybe all I had left was frustrated hope, an open bag of trail mix and a first-aid kit from Target.

But Art kept on singing—“Sail on, silver girl, sail on by/Your time has come to shine.” And I remembered something my mother’s pastor had said at her funeral.

“All Norma wanted,” he had said in his velvety, Texas drawl, “was for her daughters to be safe. And happy.”

I hadn’t taken that charge very seriously. Maybe that’s how I ended up the way I am: somebody whose normal thinking is of the worrying kind. Somebody who is afraid of happiness and suspicious of feeling safe.

But, right then, all of a sudden, that flight from safety and happiness seemed such a fatuous waste of time. It’s not right to have to live in fear. It’s not right to have to fear happiness.

And all my mother wanted was for me to accept the self-same gift I want to give my own girls, as their birthright and daily portion: the permission to feel safe, the permission to feel happy.

Maybe it wasn’t too late.

All at once, my knee-jerk angst seemed so dated. All at once safety and happiness seemed both tangible and sacred, a cause worth committing to. A long-unwrapped birthday gift, sure, but maybe also my daily portion.

I turned down my street and some rogue glint of sun refracted from my mirror and blinded me for a second. The orchestral histrionics of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” had ended. And I was almost home—in time, I think, for what is to come.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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