It’s March 13, and I’m driving Y. home from her last day of preschool, thinking about death.
“I want to listen to Tanya Tucker!” she yells.
On this short spin down I-80, Y. and I almost always sing along with Super Hits, one of the legendary country singer’s many retrospective collections. I sing quietly, an octave lower than Tucker, so can I hear Y., who has mastered timing and enthusiasm but not pitch, and test-drives a drawl I never taught her.
Now that the pandemic has shredded our school years and confined our family to a yardless West Oakland condo, I often hear Y. sing in the morning, like the birds nesting in the bottlebrush trees outside.
Many days begin with a butchered “Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone),” written by David Allan Coe, melody lifted from Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” We live in a three-story loft with few walls, and Y.’s singing slices up from the concrete-floored first level where she sleeps. On the top floor, a life-sized tracing of her body hangs next to our bed. A recent major art project involved drawing her own skeleton over this warped impression of her body, a misshapen heart sketched where the vagina would be. She told us the drawing would keep us from forgetting about her.
A week later, almost April, as the first strains emanate from downstairs, I check my phone for end-times predictions. There are forty messages in a group chat. A fellow public school teacher with two young kids, a heart defect, and recent stroke history sent the last one at 5 a.m. from his truck, on his way to Bolinas to surf. “The sun also rises,” he wrote. We’re in Ecclesiastes territory. The skeleton flutters on the wall.
Now, ten boxes of pasta on my shelves, toilet paper a bit low, I want only to bathe in wine, make vanilla-scented playdough with Y., and ogle herons on guarded escapes to wooded parks. A juvenile hawk has been roosting on a telephone pole in front of an upstairs window. My mother-in-law says people who love birds are jealous of their freedom. The rest of my time is dedicated to minor panic.
In the car, Y. holds her water bottle like a microphone and sings about collapsed romance, broken women, careless lotharios, bloody vengeance, and errant fathers. In “Delta Dawn,” a forty-one-year-old former beauty compulsively reenacts the experience of being ditched by a man. In “What’s Your Mama’s Name?,” an old drunk searches for his lost daughter, the product of a relationship his vices would not permit him to sustain; a “wayward soul,” he dies without fanfare or reunion, the letter announcing the girl’s existence preserved as a keepsake. In “The Man Who Turned My Mama On,” a girl recalls the charming ways of a father who vanished in her early childhood.
Listening to this last song, Y. sometimes stares out the window and asks why “Daddy” isn’t around. The titular man is a “travelin’ man” player, “killin’ good-lookin’ and easy to like.” But the narrator’s mother has told her the “fever took him” when she was Y.’s age, and her grandmother had warned her mother about such men. Is his death a symbolic warning about falling in love too soon, and with the wrong type? Is the fever a narrative constructed and maintained by her remaining family to service an illusion? Maybe her dad left. She remembers him but doesn’t necessarily know the whole story. She has some fond memories, asks her mother questions, and relishes the answers.
Y. likes Coco and Frozen, movies that hinge, like many fairy tales, on children losing parents. Still, her favorite stories are the songs Tucker sings. In my car, we recount them like ancient myths, these troubling narratives so far from the twists and turns of the journeys I imagine Y. charting. As many great country songs do, these songs ache with loss, or more accurately with absence. With sensitivity and subtle detail, they capture lives marked by gaping holes that can’t be filled.
A country music devotee, I’ve spent my whole life obsessed with my own absence. I was raised by devout hypochondriacs. My first anxiety attack was at age eight, when I thought I was going to die of chemical poisoning because I’d spent too much time fooling around with my friend Doug’s chemistry set. I sat on the back-porch steps, waiting for death, and Doug’s perky beagle wandered over and stared into my eyes. In my twenties, I worried about disappearing before I could accomplish anything, before I made good on the promise I hoped I had. I worried about cancer, car crashes, fast-spreading antibiotic-resistant infections from minor wounds, stray bullets, tumbling anvils: mostly obscure, slim possibilities that might render my passing particularly undignified. The fever taking me in my youth.
Of course, a person can disappear by choice too, which parents do out of desperation, need, or selfishness. The men in Tucker’s songs aren’t reliable; they evaporate from the lives of their dependents. They cheat, stumble, let their tempers get the better of them. They fail. I am not murderous, not a cheater, not a leaver. But I worry I will fail like these men. Hearing Tucker’s songs over and over again, and observing my daughter as she hears them—as she memorizes them like scripture—I also worry she will internalize these stories.
This is a girl who, at age two, overhearing a work-focused conversation between my partner, K., and me, asked, “What’s trauma?” This is a girl who encounters in her dreams the grandfather she doesn’t remember. Who nonchalantly announces the periodic death of her imaginary big sister.
“How did that make you feel?” I ask each time.
She shrugs. “Sad.”
“Does she ever come back?”
Y. doesn’t answer, but her sister does come back, because she dies again.
The women in Tucker’s songs leave too—like the mother who ditches her family for a new lover in “Blood Red and Going Down”—but more frequently they’re the searchers in the absence equation: lost, lonely, beaten down, stuck.
And the children. They grow old but never grow. Like Delta Dawn. Or the narrator of “Blood Red and Going Down,” who shares her trauma in song but acknowledges the difficulty of expressing what she’s seen. She doesn’t describe the gunshots that kill two people, including her mother. The “little green-eyed” girl of “What’s Your Mama’s Name?” has been sought but never found, and grown up fatherless, likely wanting what the girl in “The Man Who Turned My Mama On” can at least mourn. She doesn’t have a voice in the song, but you hear it nonetheless.
Y. edits the lyrics of “Greener Than the Grass We Laid On.” She follows the melody but inserts a morsel of “Let It Go,” from Frozen. After several repetitions, Elsa’s angsty line—“I don’t care what they’re going to say”—morphs into something original: “They don’t know what you’re going through.”
You augment and perform a tune—blues, country, an earworm from a kid’s movie—because it says something to you and you want to say something through it. Tucker, a 2020 Grammy winner, doesn’t write her songs, but she inhabits them completely.
When I teach James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” I usually assign students short excerpts from a 1987 Arts in Psychotherapy article entitled “The Therapeutic Role of the Blues Singer and Consideration for Clinical Applications of the Blues Form.” The point is to help them better understand how Sonny, and any artist in this tradition, functions as both a conduit for and a reflection of experience—sufferer, documentarian, and consoler.
Of course, Sonny suffers from and responds to the drug addiction, racism, and institutional failures that his brother, the narrator, an educator, encounters daily. The blues engages injustice. Y. is, by contrast, a lucky girl. She does yoga, clamors for chapter books, takes nature walks, draws vivid pictures, and tours museums virtually. She plays intense, noisy, solitary meta-games in which she acts out pretending to act out conventional imaginary scenarios with school friends. Trips to outer space, forest animal intrigue, the doctor’s office. Institutions have not failed or robbed her.
But she sings blues nonetheless. She misses her friends and teachers. In two months she will enter virtual kindergarten. She sobs over breakfast options, over the idea of a friend she can’t see someday disliking her shoes. She refuses to dress, brush, and pee. As K. reminds me, Y. loses every argument. In classic harried parent fashion, I bark tiresome maxims to ward off my own uncertainty and sadness. For the third time in five minutes, I tell her it’s healthy to breathe fresh air, and she rolls her eyes and squeezes them shut and screams and makes talons with her fingers. I don’t know what she’s going through. And she doesn’t care what I’m going to say.
I don’t want Y. to feel hopeless. Though she’s privileged, I see what she will inherit, pandemic aside: a decaying natural world, the normalized and always ugly expressions of nationalism, perpetual criminal injustice. I mourn losses already. I know she’ll need to know how to sing.
My surfer friend caught and survived the coronavirus, forgoing a hospital trip he should have made. “I was worried they’d never let me leave,” he admits during a Zoom happy hour.
We’ve temporarily relocated to my mother-in-law’s place in Palo Alto. Y. comes with me back to Oakland once. Gliding over the Dumbarton Bridge, listening to Super Hits, watching egrets step daintily through sloughs on the Fremont side, I remark that Tucker’s music is “kind of sad.”
“Really?” she replies.
Though many conventional markers of time have disappeared, I’ve watched Y. change over the past two months. Since school closed, her art has grown more sophisticated in execution and concept. She captures scenes more than images: the skeleton will soon be joined by an asymmetrical “research center” housing wild-haired adults with lopsided smiles turning cheerily away from laptops while stick-figure kids and an animal of some sort frolic outside. Y. explains why the grown-ups are working. She says why the kids are happy.
At home, she puts on a purple dress and spins to Jeannie C. Riley, another country singer:
On one hot and sultry day Mama got sick and passed away
Givin’ birth to baby brother Ben
I stood there and I cried as I watched my mama die
I guess I was too young to understand
The purple dress settles to the floor. “Can we turn this off?” Y. asks. “It’s kind of sad.”
A week later, back in Palo Alto, I make Y. accompany me on a short birdwatching hike in Baylands Nature Preserve. We cue up Super Hits on the way home.
“Don’t play a sad one,” Y. says.
I want to say that they’re all sad. “Is this one sad?” I ask instead.
Would you lay with me in a field of stone?
If my needs were strong, would you lay with me?
“What’s this song about?” Y. asks, a question she has never posed so directly.
“Would a field of stone be soft?”
“Would you want to lay on it?”
Y. shakes her head in the rearview mirror.
“Would you be willing to hug someone you really loved if they really needed a hug, even if it had to happen there?”
“So would you lay with Mama in a field of stone?”
Y. nods. We’re at a stoplight.
“I would lay with you in a field of stone,” I say, thinking of some mornings in Oakland, when the singing starts and I pad down to the first floor, feet recoiling from the cool concrete, to leap into her bed like a bear or a lion, to make a nest around her little blanket-warmed body, to verify that her blood is pumping and her breath moving.
Y. nods again.
“Would you lay with me?” I ask when the light changes. My chest feels fluttery, and I imagine my twenty-five-year-old self, cocky but shaking inside, pretending to sneer into the future at the softness of my sentiment.
“Yes,” Y. says, serious, looking out the window at the empty Town & Country Village parking lot. The song ends. I turn off the stereo. We stop talking and hum it as we chew up the asphalt leading back to the condo.
— Andrew Simmons
Palo Alto, day 66