BY GWENDOLYN KISTE
My mother went to Woodstock. The real one, not any of the imposters that came after. She says she met my father there, but since I’ve never met him myself, I can’t be sure. And seeing how I was an eighties baby—a product of shoulder pads and Aqua Net, not mud and free love—I doubt she kept him hidden away from relatives and friends for a decade and a half just to pull him out of cold storage and declare “Let’s make a baby!”
My mother never really left Woodstock. When I was growing up, she listened to the concert album every day. She kept a scrapbook of press clippings too and a picture on the wall taken there of her and four friends—two girls and two guys, all mud-covered smiles and mud-covered bell bottoms.
“Are any of these my father?” I asked again and again, but she’d just laugh and shake her head.
“If you know who he is,” she said, “he won’t be so important anymore. He’ll be finite then. One pair of eyes, one nose, one body. Trust me: not knowing is better. This way, your father is everything to you. Everything and anything.”
For all its flowery and existential underpinnings, that reason was a copout, but I couldn’t get more than that from her. And because neither of the guys in the picture looked anything like me, I decided I belonged to the man who took the photo instead. My mother never talked about him except to say he was a good photographer, and since I always had an affinity for pictures, that made the most sense. As if anything even tangentially related to my mother made sense.
But sometimes, I wondered if I had a father at all. Sometimes, I thought she conceived me at Woodstock and incubated me inside her for fifteen years. Fifteen years of reminiscing, of repeat listening, of repeat everything. Like maybe my femur was the neck of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar when he played “The Star Spangled Banner.” And maybe my hair came from Janis Joplin as she sang the bluest blues you ever heard. Maybe my father was everything my mother loved. And maybe that made me more real than anyone and everyone else.
In 1969, my mother was twenty-nine. On the cusp of thirty, which makes you too old for the cool crowd. After all, thirty-one meant you couldn’t be trusted. Hippies are odd like that, all arbitrary and whatnot. Communes and acid and tie-dyes are nothing compared to the minutia governing the social girders of their world. They want you to believe they’re free, and they like to pretend they’re free too. But out of every person I’ve known, my mother was the most trapped creature of all.
She would lie next to that turntable, and right through the night, she’d merge with the music, merge with the chords of Joan Baez and the shrieking vocals of Grace Slick.
Most kids get Old McDonald’s Farm. I got Country Joe McDonald and the Fish.
I learned to sleep with my fingers in my ears, blotting out the sound just like my mother blotted out everything except those three-and-a-half days from an August that might as well have been a millennium ago.
Her first social security check came on my twentieth birthday.
“Well, little girl, your old lady’s really old now,” she said as we went to the bank to cash the whole $72.03 of it. “We’ll all be dying soon. All us hippies.”
“Don’t be morbid,” I said and didn’t think about it again until the first one went.
It was the girl on the left in the picture. The girl with one arm around my mother’s shoulders and the other hand holding up a peace sign. What else would she hold up? The middle finger?
“Poor Norma Jo,” my mother said and removed a permanent marker from a drawer in the kitchen. I watched as she scratched out Norma Jo’s smiling blond face.
“That’s really creepy, Mom.”
I wanted to pull the frame from her hands, but it was hers to do with what she wanted. But I still felt obligated to lodge complaints.
“It ruins the picture too.”
“The picture’s fine,” she said, admiring her work. “At worst, it ruins the glass. And that’s nothing.”
She handed me the photograph, and on instinct, my fingernail scratched at the black marker. The ink never budged.
I gave it back to her. “Why do it?”
She hung it in its rightful place beneath my first grade school picture. “To keep track.”
“Because you can’t remember which of your friends is dead?”
“Maybe someday I won’t be able to,” she said. “And you don’t care enough to remember for me.”
“Mom,” I whined and never asked about it again, not even when the man in the middle went the next spring or when the other girl—a redhead with a vibrant smile—died from heart failure in the fall.
By my mother’s hand, their faces turned to inkblots on our wall.
After each funeral, she played the Woodstock album all the way through and sometimes listened to it a second or third or fourth consecutive time. Those nights, she never enjoyed it. It was just in their honor.
When a stroke took the last gentleman in the photo and hers was the only face remaining, the world got darker. She rarely left the turntable. I had to cash her checks, buy the groceries, cook the food. I didn’t mind so much, but she stopped all spontaneous speech, opting instead to answer in song lyrics and hummed melodies.
I moved out. I stayed gone for months, gone until she called me.
“I have cancer.”
It was the first original thing she’d spoken in two years.
“Our tests showed something unusual about her illness.” The doctor in the office inspected me, the most curious lines on his face.
“What’s that?” I held my mother’s hand as she studied the floor, not hearing and not caring.
The doctor shuffled through a stack of papers, his gaze refusing to meet mine. “The tumors... are vibrating.”
I squinted at him. “Vibrating? What does that mean?”
“Well, we weren’t sure,” he said. “So we went in for a closer examination.”
“Your mother’s cancer seems to be producing sound.”
My fingers gripped her hand tighter. “The tumors are talking?”
“Not talking, no,” he said. “Playing music.”
“What kind of music?” I asked, though I didn’t need to.
“The first one we observed was on her right lung. It was resonating a perfect rendition of With a Little Help from My Friends.”
“So her tumors are crooning Joe Cocker?” I tried to sound surprised.
“Only one tumor.” He motioned to an X-ray. “These ones in her stomach are Dance to the Music. And this growth on her kidney is Arlo Guthrie.”
I pointed at a spot on her liver. “And how about that?”
The doctor shook his head and almost chuckled until he caught my glare. “I had to go back to my own albums to remember the name of that tune,” he said, straightening his posture in apology. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. Crosby, Stills, and Nash.”
I scowled. That was the only song from Woodstock I actually liked. And now I could never like it again.
“Is there anything we can do?”
“The cancer’s already spread through her whole body.” The doctor shook his head again. “I’m sorry.”
“Do you think the music caused it?”
“We have no evidence of that,” he said. “And there’s really no way of knowing.”
My mother didn’t mind resigning herself to death. It was as if the moment she fled Max Yasgur’s Catskills farm all those years ago, she was simply waiting to die.
“I want to help you plan my wake,” she said one morning as we drove to another inane appointment. The office visits were more for the doctors than her. They’d poke and prod and marvel over her illness. She’d even made it in the local paper, though the facts were mostly wrong, including a flagrant misspelling of my name.
“I’d rather not talk about your funeral,” I said.
“Too bad.” She stared out the window. “It’s coming one way or the other.”
“Fine. What do you want?”
“I want you to play the whole Woodstock album from start to finish. Then on the last song, on Jimi Hendrix’s solo, you lower the casket.”
“I don’t want to play that music,” I said. “I don’t ever want to play it again. It killed you, Mom. That music killed you.”
“Cancer killed me,” she said. “The music’s keeping me entertained on the way out.”
She had another request too. I screamed at her about that one, but she insisted. So on the morning her body sang its last Grateful Dead tune, I left the hospital and drove straight to her house where I took the picture from the wall and scratched out the glass over her face. Then I collapsed on the floor and cried so hard even Hendrix’s guitar couldn’t drown me out.
At her funeral, crowds of people attended, so many people it was as if all the survivors from Woodstock were there. Like that photographer I’d always been so curious about. He didn’t look as much like me as I’d hoped, but he was nice enough.
“Your mother was an amazing woman,” he said, and I wondered how he got the right to say that since he hadn’t seen her in years.
I removed the blacked-out picture from her casket. “She’d want you to have this,” I said.
It took some finagling, but at the graveyard, I was able to plug her turntable into a portable battery. We listened to the whole Woodstock album, which turned out to be three separate discs. There was never any pause when she listened to them. She must have been so skilled with the transition between records that I never noticed.
When the festivities were over, I slipped the caretaker a fifty and watched as he dropped the turntable and all the vinyl into the grave. They don’t like to bury things in the dirt around the casket, but the cords and cover art couldn’t fit inside with her. Besides, Woodstock happened in the mud, so the souvenirs from my mother’s life were at home there.
By now, there’s grass sprouting between the grooves of those abandoned records, and there’s probably worms making love, not war on top of the turntable. And in the middle of the night, I bet those songs still play. Maybe the tumors join in or maybe they’re like my mom and they just listen.
Just lie back and listen.
This story originally appeared in The Gateway Review and was nominated for a Write Well Award.
Gwendolyn Kiste is a speculative fiction writer based in Pennsylvania. Her stories have appeared in Nightmare, Shimmer, Interzone, and Flash Fiction Online among other venues. She currently resides on an abandoned horse farm with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. Find her online at gwendolynkiste.com and on Twitter @GwendolynKiste.