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Someone To Watch Over Me: Missing My Mother, Summoning Her Voice

Why does no one tell you to record a loved one's voice while they're still alive? Wendy Francis, lacking a recording of her late mother, rediscovers her 'voice' in a piano songbook.  (jesse orrico/Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
Why does no one tell you to record a loved one's voice while they're still alive? Wendy Francis, lacking a recording of her late mother, rediscovers her 'voice' in a piano songbook. (jesse orrico/Unsplash)

A recent vignette on NPR about a mom diagnosed with ALS rubbed slivers in my heart. Her daughters talked about her diagnosis and what lies ahead, and she celebrated them as her proudest achievement. As I listened, I felt another emotion that took me by surprise: envy. It hit me that those women would always have their mom’s voice on tape.

We lost my mom a year and a half ago, and I’m still surprised by how the tears can well up unbidden, in line at the supermarket, or when I'm watching my 8-year-old son swing his small body across the monkey bars. There are so many things she is missing that I know would have given her a thrill. Like my son’s First Communion last month.

The little things, too, weigh heavily. How I wish she were around to hear her young grandson proclaim, after several sneezes in a row, that he’d just had “a festival of sneezes.” Or when my husband asked him what he thought “conscientious” meant, and he replied “obnoxious?” There are too many quotes like this that my mother, a lover of the vagaries of language, would have relished.

We lost my mom a year and a half ago, and I’m still surprised by how the tears can well up unbidden...

But what I miss most is her voice. No one tells you to make sure you have a loved one’s voice recorded before they go. It’s the one thing I wish I had, more than the photos and boxes of memories. That voice, shot through with love and humor, that used to reach out to me over the phone every weekend and ask, “So, how are you doing, honey?” Sometimes, we’d just chat about everyday stuff; other times, there were weightier issues, and I needed her advice.

How is it possible that I don’t have even a single voice-mail message of hers saved?

Recently, though, I found something close to her voice – or as close as I’ll get to hearing it in my head. I purchased an old piano, and it coaxed me to dust off my piano music, including my mom’s Carole King and George Gershwin sheet music. When I sat down and began to feel my way around the keys, both familiar and strangely new, I could almost sense my mother sitting next to me, coaching me on the beats. Sometimes, when I practiced as a young girl, she’d be making supper in the kitchen, but if I nailed a piece – or more likely, hit an errant note — she’d poke her head in and tell me to try again.

No one tells you to make sure you have a loved one’s voice recorded before they go. It’s the one thing I wish I had...

The other day I turned a page in the Gershwin songbook to discover an old favorite, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and a chill ran up my hands. There, beneath the tiny black notes, written in my mother’s neat handwriting, were names of the notes and the beat count. “1 & 2 & ah,” she’d written next to a half beat.

I could hear her voice, counting out the notes, as I played. A skilled pianist, my mom had played the organ in her church as a young girl, and she could hammer out a song by ear if someone hummed the melody for her. I lack that talent, as was evident early in my piano playing days. But who knows? Maybe with my mom watching over us, my son, who seems musically inclined, might reveal one day that he has inherited her gift.

For now, though, he likes to hit each note with his pointer finger, as if he’s pointing the way for us all as he plays.

Related:

Wendy Francis Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Wendy Francis is a former senior book editor, writer and author of the novel "The Summer Sail."

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