You Go, Girl!

On the second anniversary of my mother’s death, I am posting a piece I wrote in 2006. It doesn’t have anything to do with E.B. White, but I think both he and Mom would appreciate that I spent an evening revising it, “omitting a few needless words” from the original version.

There’s a first time for everything. In my mother’s case it is attending her first rock concert at the age of 89. “Rock” as in Bonnie Raitt, not Guns N’ Roses. Let’s not split hairs here – this will be Mom’s first concert not involving a symphony orchestra or a big band.

Mom’s giddy anticipation has dominated our every phone conversation for the two months since I surprised her with the tickets and one of Bonnie’s CDs as an 89th birthday present. The birthday read, “You’re just a young person that a lot has happened to.” I fly in for the concert from my home near Boston, bringing backstage passes secured by my husband, an old friend of Bonnie’s from her time at Harvard in the late ’60s.

“What should I wear?” Mom asks the afternoon of the show. Somewhat impatiently, since the question has been asked more than a few times, I explain that she doesn’t have to dress up. Raised in an era when people put on their Sunday best for air travel, Mom has her hair “done” the day before and now fusses that her arthritic feet no longer fit into dress shoes. In the end, after much deliberation, she chooses black pants and a gray button-down shirt accented with a batik scarf printed with African animals. She manages to look elegant, even in sneakers.

On the way to the theater, we pass the hospital where my father was treated for the cancer that took his life a decade ago. Mom muses, “Old age isn’t for sissies.”

I parry: “Yes, but it’s better than the alternative,” acknowledging the hard truth we all face. We both realize that for all the compromises and indignities old age has brought, she is one of the lucky ones. Her mind and memory are as sharp as ever, and she is able to live independently, in her own house.

Most important, she remains intellectually curious, the epitome of a lifelong learner. A French major at Smith in the late 1930s, she went back to school in her seventies and earned a second bachelor’s degree, this time in art history. Studio photography, a requirement for her major, became a passion and a source of immense pride, as she discovered a latent creative talent and overcame acute myopia and stiff fingers to master using a manual camera and working in the darkroom. She has learned to use e-mail and a cell phone, reads The New York Times online, and sees all the latest independent films, complaining that it takes ages for them to play in her Florida town.

Once settled in our seats (after the obligatory pit stop in the ladies room), Mom pays rapt attention, a bit taken aback that others are milling around and talking loudly during the opening act. We are a few rows from the stage, directly beneath the gigantic speaker towers, but she doesn’t complain about the pounding bass that shakes our ribs or the unmistakable sweet scent of marijuana in the air.

Mom is unquestionably the oldest member in a decidedly mature audience of grown-up baby boomers. At 56, Bonnie struts and sidles around the stage like a woman half her age. With her astoundingly expressive voice and virtuoso guitar chops, she both seduces and reassures her graying fans, contemporaries who recall her Grammy triumph in 1990 with nostalgia for their own ebbing youth. Her breakthrough album, Nick of Time, spoke to a generation crossing the threshold of 40 and exiting a prolonged adolescence into middle age. Sitting beside Mom, I feel as if Bonnie is directly addressing the two of us as she sings the album’s title song:

I see my folks, they’re getting old. I watch their bodies change…
I know they see the same in me and it makes us both feel strange.
No matter how you tell yourself it’s what we all go through…
Those eyes are pretty hard to take when they’re staring back at you.
Scared you’ll run out of time.

Bonnie’s folks were Mom’s contemporaries, and they ran out of time a few years ago. My own hair is gray. I realize that Mom must feel “strange” watching her youngest child enter middle age.

At the end of the two-hour concert Mom rises, with some difficulty, for the standing ovation. She is beaming.

Greeting us backstage, Bonnie apologizes for keeping us waiting. As gracious and down-to-earth as anyone I’ve ever met, Bonnie tells Mom she looks beautiful and asks if she knew her father, Broadway legend John Raitt. Mom glows with the attention, star-struck.

In a business and a culture dominated by the flash and sass of youth, Bonnie is supremely comfortable in her older and wiser skin. Sober for more than two decades, she looks healthier and happier than she did as a young hopeful. On stage and off, she radiates joy and gratitude for every mile of the bumpy road she has traveled.

As we slowly exit the theater, Mom leaning on her cane and holding my elbow and me carrying her pocketbook and my own, the roadies loading out Bonnie’s equipment step aside and applaud.

“God bless you,” one says.

Another calls out: “You go, girl!”

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2 Responses to “You Go, Girl!”


  1. 1 Betsy Munnell October 15, 2010 at 11:46 pm

    This is wonderful. Beautifully written. Wish had met your mother.
    Love EB White.


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