A Remembrance: My Mom’s Life In Music

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About seven weeks ago, three days after Christmas, my mom, Nancy, passed away at age 81.

The grief is still fresh, with lots to process, as much about her life as about her death.

Still, one thing that wasn’t complicated – in fact, a source of great joy – was my mom’s relationship with music.

Perhaps because she’d turned 21 five weeks before giving birth to me, my mom had music tastes much closer to mine than any of my high school friends could say about their parents.

Who saw Prince at San Francisco’s Cow Palace on his “Purple Rain” tour?

Who partied with friends and members of Dr. Hook in the late 1970s?

Who took me at age 15 to my first real concert experience, Billy Joel, on his tour for The Stranger and “52nd Street”?

Not my dad. As much as I loved him, I’m pretty sure he was the one who took my brother, sister and me to see Helen Reddy at the Mill Run Theater in-the-round in the Chicago suburbs. My love of MOR and countrypolitan music came from him.

Mom?

She bought all those K-tel albums in my record collection – or gave me the money to do so.

She shelled out for a two-year weekly subscription to Billboard magazine, so my friend Tony and I could go over each week’s Hot 100 over the phone.

She introduced us to Gladys Knight, via a woman who worked for Gladys who crossed my mom’s path as a Hyatt Regency O’Hare reservation receptionist.

She patiently gave us her opinions when we mimicked our favorite radio stations by having “Battle Weekends,” pitting one 45 RPM against another, until we had our winner. (Since we didn’t own “Hey Jude,” and “Stairway to Heaven” was never a single, our winners were always more diverse than what the Chicago stations picked.)

She encouraged us to disco dance, even when we thought we were born with two left feet.

Perhaps most astonishingly, in 1983 she threw a party…

Cavanaughfest: 1983

…complete with a Michael Jackson impersonator…

…renting a portion of Chicago’s Grant Park, out for a weekend afternoon.

So in 1992, when she turned 50, it only made sense that we collaborated with her friends on a soundtrack to play at her party. They provided the stories. My brother, sister and I provided the voiceovers. Together, we created the soundtrack of Mom’s life up to then.

The last song – the one I picked – referenced a running joke between my mom and me. Long before I set foot in a newsroom, she knew I liked to write.

“If anyone should ever write my life story …,” she’d start to croon.

I would cut her off, saying, “It won’t be me! I don’t want to know all the details!

On the eve of New Year’s 2024, I sat down and composed her obituary.

I’m sure she’d be gratified to know she was right.

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Chuck Small

Journalist-turned-high school counselor. Happily ensconced in Raleigh, N.C., with hubby of 31 years (9 legal).

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Phylum of Alexandria
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February 12, 2024 8:35 am

I’m so sad to hear that, Chuck. From what you’ve written here, she seems like she was a warm, passionate, and vivacious person. You continue to honor her memory in writing this piece.

It seems like your mom was a lot more of an active music fan than my mom is or was. But that’s not to say my mom wasn’t enthusiastic about certain songs she loved. Since my dad worked two jobs and my mom took care of the house, probably most of the joy I get from music comes from her. At least when I was a kid, she was really into 60s pop and folk, and also CCM like Amy Grant, Steve Camp, and Wayne Watson. The Chiffons were a personal favorite, so among the girl groups, they’re most deeply infused to my childhood memories.

This was a lovely tribute to one of the major foundations of your life. Thanks for sharing it with us.

JJ Live At Leeds
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February 12, 2024 10:28 am

Sorry to hear about your mom’s passing Chuck but this is a lovely tribute and great that you have such vivid and fun memories.

My mum didn’t show much interest in music. She’d listen to the radio but in my lifetime only ever bought a handful of records and rarely played them. Our shared experience was that if she ever came into my room while my stereo was on, she’d ask who it was. Having told her, her response almost without fail was ‘never heard of them’. She never offered any comment on whether she approved or not.

On the other hand once I got into record fairs she’d come along with me and my dad and wander round on her own without complaint. Only ever once buying anything (Ultravox Greatest Hits – she definitely wasn’t buying that for the early post punk stuff!). And if ever there was a new record I wanted and she was going into the city while I was at school she’d take my order and come back with it.

Strangest mother / son musical experience I had involved someone else’s mother. I was browsing in Virgin Records in Newcastle as a teenager. A woman came up to me, said she was from Norway, had a son my age and wanted to know what she should take him back as a present. I asked what he liked, she told me I looked about his age and he liked ‘music’. Yeah, thanks for narrowing it down. She looked stressed. With the entirety of ‘music’ to pick from its not surprising. I couldn’t take the pressure either and told her I couldn’t help. Last I looked she was randomly picking up band tshirts. Still, we both learnt a valuable life lesson to take an interest in your kids interests!

Virgindog
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Virgindog
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February 12, 2024 10:55 am

That would be a good playlist even without the meaning behind it. Well done, Chuck, this is a loving memorial

rollerboogie
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rollerboogie
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February 12, 2024 1:22 pm

Very sorry for your loss, Chuck, and thank you for sharing this wonderful tribute to your mother. The great musical legacy she passed on to you is a precious gift.

LinkCrawford
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LinkCrawford
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February 13, 2024 10:37 am

I’m glad you had a good relationship with your mom, Chuck. This was a great read. I feel like I know your mom, too, just a little bit.

Low4
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February 14, 2024 9:58 am

Condolences on your loss. Sounds like the world lost a bright light.

Any playlist heavy on Gladys Knight is OK by me.

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