With my diabetic feet, throbbing always with neuropathy, on the cold hardwood floor I peer through the pre-dawn darkness toward a large oil painting at least 30 years old done by my then-stepfather hanging in a corner of our bedroom.
“Happy birthday, mom,” I say in a sigh.
She Mona Lisa smiles back.
Gladine Rosetta Hill Wilson (then, crazily, Wilson again) Parrish would have been perhaps 83 on March 10. “Perhaps” because she finagled her age to the point that some of her sisters believed she was younger than she was when she died.
The further I age from her May 2005 death date, the more I am strengthened and made calm by her absence.
It’s because of music.
It is not merely because Gladine was a masterful pianist who had played since she was a young girl or that I learned to write partly by her example of technical skill and improvisation — she read music on sight and she also sat down and followed any singer of any genre without sheet music.
My grief is assuaged because she was a savant when it came to music; she bought albums on principle: If she knew something about a songwriter and arranger like Burt Bacharach, then she had no problem buying an album by B.J. Thomas or even the Butch Cassidy soundtrack album. Then she fell headlong into Dionne Warwick, which is why I am a closet fan of the Dutch singer Trijntje Oosterhuis, whose Bacharach tribute album caught my eye during a rabbit hole search of someone else on iTunes late one night.
I learned to discover and love all kinds of music on spec from her. I can go into Shake It, run my mouth to the staff or slowly stalk the aisles and, based on my headspace that particular day, ferret out music new or very old to me based on what I know of the album’s producer, collaborators, or even era.
And it’s been this way my entire life, a life filled with Ohio Players’ 8 tracks, Judy Garland on wax, Ronnie Laws on cassette, then everything else on CDs and now Soundclouds, free MP3 downloads, one-off iTunes hits and always, always, always trips to the record store with my last $10 or $15.
The very first time I heard the plaintive and mellifluous baritone of Luther Vandross I was riding with my mom through a cold rain through the intersection of Kemper Road and Springfield Pike in Springdale coming from the old Thriftway grocery store.
The opening piano chords of Bacharach’s “A House Is Not a Home” came on the radio and we rode in silence all the way through the aching short story about the emptiness of abandoned love.
“This guy is a masterful singer,” she said. “But this is a very old song.”
“No! Really?” I didn’t yet know anything about cover songs.
“Yeah, Dionne Warwick did this first, then Mavis Staples did it again,” she said.
It was a master class.
A completist savant myself, I now have both those renditions in addition, of course, to Vandross, the black Frank Sinatra. I didn’t come by Warwick’s original or Staples’ version until decades later but I’d filed it away, like every other musical lesson taught to me by my mother.
At her memorial, I requested my Uncle Bill sing “Come Ye Disconsolate,” an old hymn tattooed on my soul by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway off their classic, eponymous 1972 record. Uncle Bill sang it a cappella through a hailstorm of tears, his normally powerful baritone reduced to a breaking quiver.
I have no memory of how much I cried then, but that song rips me to pieces these days when I listen to it.
There are three instruments — piano, organ and bass — and Gladine could play the first two and often skirted across the front of Israel Baptist Church to switch off on Sundays but stayed on the piano once she hired a young, gifted organist named Eubie who could barely stay sober long enough to be snatched up by Billy Preston.
Then she was back to double duty, and I think she liked it like that, set as she was in the comfort and perfection of her own song choices, arrangements, rehearsals and performances.
Though she was formally taught, throughout her mature musicianship she was autodidactic, amassing a voluminous collection of sheet music — show tunes, movie themes, Gospel, Pop, Soul — which she drove across Ohio to buy and I have stashed away in Sterilite tubs in a closet.
She augmented sheet music with hundreds of gospel cassettes and CDs. In the early 1970s when the late great Andre Crouch had his first hits (“Take Me Back,” “Jesus Is the Answer”), I rode with her and some Hamilton singers who’d later comprise her group God’s Way to a white church in the hinterlands of Butler County to see Crouch play and sing.
Afterward, he kissed my cheek and I’ll never forget his sweat, cologne and the prick of his stubble.
God’s Way sang Crouch’s music all the way to the end of Gladine’s life and I’d been there to see her meet her mentor.
When I reach heaven and pass muster, I will give Gabriel the nod like we rehearsed and he will drop the needle on “Back Together Again” by Flack and Hathaway while the angels first fetch my mother and after some dancing, laughing, hugging and maybe a quick off-key (on my part) duet, Gladine and I will break bread with her parents, Ed and Mary Hill, then we will all go sit crib side beside Kennedy Anne, my niece who died on the day she was supposed to be born.
The point of that James Baldwin-length sentence is not death, suffering or mourning; rather, it’s the significance of music in my love affair with my mother.
And when I lay flowers at her niche, up above my head I’ll hear music in the air.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]