I’ve been doing a lot of traveling lately. In the last month I’ve sailed on an ocean liner and watched my mom catch her first wave on Waikiki Beach as her surf instructor Panama, who also taught my grandmother to surf, cheered her on from the water. I’ve danced the hula to classic Hawaiian songs written by my great uncle Boy for his wife Aggie Auld, a famous and beautiful hula dancer. I’ve picked oranges in groves that extend as far as the eye can see, where my great grandparents’ home sits right smack in the middle. I’ve propelled myself so high on a swing that I could see Douglas Aircraft far off in the distance, camouflaged in clotheslines to foil a Japanese invasion. I caught Sinatra at the Sahara, along with Louis Prima and Keely Smith. And then I hung
out with my mom and dad for awhile, just as they were beginning their romance. The journey I’ve been on this past month has been my best to date. Granted this is not your typical travel experience. But then, time travel never is. Here is my story.
It started about a month ago when my mom called on a Friday night to say that she’d just recorded another song with her vocal coach. “Lesley!! The most exciting thing!! I’ve just recorded another song! That’s nine now! Isn’t that marvelous? And they’re good!” My mom’s vernacular, as with her life, is built upon exclamation points. Emphasis and enthusiasm are her stock and trade. She is gorgeous and warm and funny and she can light up a room like nobody’s business. She is a preferred traveling partner for sheer amusement value. I have witnessed it in multiple countries – her life force needs no translation.
My mom has sung her entire life –strictly as an amateur – around the house and occasionally, at parties. She’s got perfect pitch, as she will tell you, and an extensive song list rattling around in her head, causing her to frequently punctuate conversations with outbursts of a related song lyric. (You can imagine how this slows down conversations, but we’ve come to accept it, and to our horror, find ourselves doing the same thing!) Her musicality is innate and her phrasing second-to-none. A couple of years ago, she decided to pursue her singing more seriously. She hired a vocal coach and takes weekly lessons. She likes to sing over pre-recorded tracks and play them for her friends just for the fun of it.
In our conversation that Friday night, I responded to her news in equal, apple-doesn’t-fall-far-from-the-tree, enthusiasm. “Mom – that’s great! Hey – why don’t you make a CD? We’ll put together a website and launch your music career!” Looking back on this conversation, it sounds vaguely like something Wally would say to the Beave, but in that moment, the direction of both of our lives changed. By the end of that weekend, her website, Patty Coquillard – It’s Never Too Late! was up and running. Her CD, Footprints In The Sand, debuted October 1st. At the ripe old age of 76 (nearly 77), my mom has embarked on her singing career. Go figure.
I knew my mom’s story, like her boundless energy, would be infectious. Sure enough, she is now doing interviews for various media outlets eager to feature a woman whose courage, enthusiasm, passion for life and talent have led her to pursue a singing career in the third chapter of her life, a concept espoused by a new idol of mine, noted Harvard professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, whose message of the third or penultimate chapter in life as being the best has stayed firmly attached to my last existing brain cell for months now.
Moreover, my mom is rapidly gaining icon status among her peer group. This past weekend, she called to tell me – in total astonishment – that a group of members of her church have asked her to speak about her story – her courage to pursue singing at this, ahem, penultimate stage in her life. They tell her she has inspired them to get off the couch! She loves that. She now sees herself not only as a diva, but also as a new breed of motivational speaker – a female Tony Robbins to the over 60 set. With a little bit of Cole Porter thrown in for good measure. And preferably, a full orchestra behind her. As her star ascends yet again, I am thrilled to be along for the ride.
Yes – I am undeniably thrilled to be along for the ride. No question. But truth be told, I was seriously unprepared for the journey. What started as a lark quickly took a serious turn, sometimes taking me to painful places. It began with the music. I had not heard several of my mom’s new songs prior to putting together the CD, and was eager to see what story they told when viewed as a whole – not only in terms of a theme for the CD, but in terms of what they told me about my mom. When I listened to all the tracks for the first time, really listened to them, I was overcome with a tremendous sense of melancholy and loss. The songs, standards from the 40s and 50s, felt so sad and wistful to me. Listening to them, I experienced what I imagined my mom has felt in looking back on her own life. I grieved for her. For the loss of people she has loved, of precious times that have passed. I grieved for her and I grieved for myself. It shook me to the core. I wondered how she could live with this pain. How would I live with this pain as I entered my penultimate chapter?
I was shocked to learn that she didn’t feel what I had imagined. For reasons I’m only now beginning to understand, this was clearly my issue. We talked a lot about this, about her song choices and ultimately, about her life. I came to realize that she chose these songs not only because the vocals and melodies of the period came naturally to her, like riding a bike, but also because she deeply associated certain memories with the songs. Precious memories. Happy memories. Bittersweet memories. It dawned on me that these songs, like mom’s memories, are her footprints in the sand. As she shared more of her stories, I found myself further propelled back in time, experiencing her life – her history – through her eyes. Consequently, I have spent the better part of this month firmly entrenched in the 50s – spiritually stuck in an idealized era – lost in my mom’s history and more than a little concerned that I could not or chose not, to find my way back.
Through her eyes, I have basked in the warm sun on Waikiki Beach, while watching her take her first surfing lesson with Panama, a then-famous beach boy. She was only 17 at the time, and it was her first trip to the Islands, as my family refers to them. I watched as she rode her first wave in, excited yet mortified as her bathing suit top had fallen down just as she got up on her board. I watched her dance each night to Harry Owens’ orchestra at the Royal Hawaiian – the Pink Palace. I saw how beautiful she looked in her white organza dress and satin sash, flowers in her hair. I listened as the orchestra serenaded her with “To You Sweetheart, Aloha” – always the last song of the evening, and frequently sung to my mom when she was in the audience.
Through her eyes, I watched her with my dad, before they were married, playfully washing his car in the driveway of his house on a hot summer afternoon, as Call Me Irresponsible, one of the songs on my mom’s CD, played on the car radio. I can feel the love they shared like a warm embrace. Like my dad’s embrace. I find myself subconsciously sniffing the air in hopes of catching his familiar scent confirming I am safe and loved. I am devastated when I don’t catch it, and am painfully dragged back to a reality without him.
Through her eyes, I watched as she entered my brother David’s room one day when he had just woken up from his nap and was standing in his crib, waiting for her. I can hear Little Girl Blue, another song on her CD, playing on the radio. I watched as they looked deeply into eachother’s eyes, as if sharing souls, and I understood in that moment the enormous love and connection they have always had. When my mom sings Little Girl Blue, I know she is back in that room, gently swaying to the music, holding my brother in her arms.
I cannot say that this journey is over – indeed, in many ways, it feels like it is just beginning. Nor can I say that I won’t again find myself down the rabbit hole again, lost in another period of my mom’s history, comfortably ensconced in a life that is not my own. I consider though, that if I have been so moved by this experience, than perhaps my role is to chronicle – to compile the information so that our family – the kids, grandkids, and so on, can feel even a fraction of what I have felt– can hear her voice tell the stories, can know the richness of my mom’s life – of our family – of our legacy. So now, I record her memories in addition to her music. And I am struck by how a simple idea can spin into such a profound life change and by the irony that in helping my mom realize a dream, I have tapped into my own soul – for better or for worse. As Sinatra would say, “ain’t that a kick in the head?”