Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 25-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.
There’s a lot going on in David’s illustration. A lot going on in my mind. I haven’t asked him about his drawing, but clearly it is me reaching an extra long way up to pluck a black wedge off the family tree before it turns into a poison apple and rolls not far.
In 1986 we organized the first Black Wedge tour with anti-authoritarian musicians and poets. Earlier that same year, we’d released the first Mecca Normal LP, which, like 2002’s The Family Swan CD, had songs on it about family. Writing—songs, novels, stories—is how I think and understand more. Creativity is the essence of the lecture David and I present. How Art & Music Can Change The World intends to inspire self-expression, and typically I add something about political content. Most of the writing I do is about human interactions between men and women and within the family structure. Like they used to say back in the ’60s, the personal is political.
When I quit drinking 10 years ago, I wanted to figure out why I drank, so I looked back into childhood and family concerns and wrote about them. One thing I learned about humans is that we can’t change anyone other than ourselves, but sometimes the changing of self will go a long way toward altering how others behave. For instance, I made all these great changes in myself and my dad didn’t speak to me for three years.
I was on the phone with him, instigating a conversation that intended to show him that I was helpful and responsible. I’d asked him what he was going to do when he and my mother got too old to live on their own. I hadn’t got to the part in my evolution of realizing that fear manifests as anger in some people. He yelled at me and we didn’t speak for three years. He’s a guy who yells and can’t apologize; he feels terrible for yelling, but he can’t do anything about it. I was no longer available to be yelled at. He has not yelled at me since. Everything has been fine for years.
I couldn’t speak when he yelled. My brother, as a little boy, wrote him a note: “Please stop yelling at Mom.” Poor little kid. Both of them—all of them.
They are changing, too, going into survival mode as they subconsciously realize that they may need me at some point. I change in relation to how they change. They are old, and I hope I am here if they need me.
I phoned my mother on her 89th birthday. I was staying in a basement in the Bronx. The connection was terrible. I spoke loudly, repeating things slowly, very aware of the Colombian speech therapists who lived upstairs. I kept the call short and felt sad hanging up.
When I got back to Vancouver, I heard about her birthday dinner at my brother’s place. My father brought the cake and after dinner, my brother’s partner took charge of lighting the candles. Recently, my mother has decided that she would like to be called Isabella rather than Isabel, which doesn’t impact me because I call her Mom and I call my father Dad, although, for some time in childhood, I called him John, which I don’t think Isabella liked much, which is perhaps why I did it.
My brother’s partner brought the cake to the table and the singing began. “Happy birthday, Isabella,” sang my father and my brother’s partner stopped and looked down at the cake, at the icing he’d smoothed over to remove what he thought were extra letters, a mistake in the waves and curls of sweet lettering. I guess he hadn’t heard that Isabel was now Isabella. My dad, miffed that his good intentions had been erased, asked me, “Did they think I didn’t know what was written on the cake?”
On the phone, my mother tells a story about when she was a girl, how she made the chicken coop in the backyard into a playhouse, getting bits of wallpaper from the hardware store. One day her father decided to take down the chicken coop. “I came home and it was a shambles.” She’s had several lower teeth removed and some words now sound like she’s five years old. “Shambles” is all lispy, but she doesn’t seem to notice, in the way a five-year-old plows ahead with her story. “It was my playhouse,” she says and I can see her motioning with her hands—how my hands will look in 40 years and my hands now look like her hands did 40 years ago, when I was a little girl collecting up all that flew around, all that would go into songs and novels and paintings. Into trying to solve it all.
I’m thinking about the missing letters on the cake, the day I phoned her from the Bronx, the Colombian speech therapists. She’s telling me she wants to grow her hair long. “Down to my shoulders,” she lisps, and I see a little girl who looks very much like me, standing beside a busted down playhouse, singing the icing letters that were smoothed off her cake. “La la la la la la la la.” Isabel, Isabel, Isabella. Is this you needing me?