May 11, 2009, 11:29AM

Tom Waits: Bringing Mothers and Daughters Together

A heartwarming Mother's Day story.

Perhaps Amanda remembered me listening to Tom Waits through that awful period of divorce, when I was consumed by pain and the prickly defense of my choice to leave my marriage and terrified about the new life I was trying to build. Waits’s raw music boomed through our house, loud and snake-bite potent. In the car I’d turn up the volume so that the percussion would beat hard under my sternum.Soon enough the four girls would clamor, “Turn it off!” They wanted Madonna, Bill Joel, Joan Jett, any singer but Waits, whose raspy voice seemed to frighten them even as it lulled me.By the time Amanda and Stephanie had acquired the punked-out gumption to jump a freight train to San Francisco, to New Orleans — anywhere that wasn’t the boiling ground between their parents — Tom Waits had become their troubadour, their piper. His songs, the way he sang them, allowed the girls to make some kind of crazy sense of the misfit life they had entered, an existence that was to me dirty, forlorn, dangerous and hideously far away — a life my girls considered at the time an endless adventure.STEPHANIE tells the story of climbing atop a freight car and singing “You’re Innocent When You Dream” at the top of her lungs as the sun rose and the train underneath her screamed its way across the Cascade Range, past snowcapped and shimmering Mount Shasta, the pure vibrancy of being alive coursing through her 14-year-old body. It’s a tale I can hardly bear to this day.In fact, that story and many others caused me to despise Tom Waits for a while; I came to loathe his position with my daughters, he the only adult who could possibly understand why they had hit the road. At least that’s how they thought of it. Tom Waits knew what it was like to be torn apart by people who claim to love you; Tom Waits knew why they chose to abandon their home, their sisters, their town, their mother.


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