I bought my mother a Crosely portable record player for her birthday one year. I was maybe 20. It came in a light brown leather case. I had planned it for months. I had a plan in mind too, another one of my grand schemes at reconciling the disparate histories and memories wandering my mind.
There is a photo of us when she was 25 and I was two, and my grandfather is sitting in the green leather chair in the living room, my mother is on the couch, and I’m on a little two-step wooden stool. We are drinking Cokes out of green-glass bottles with straws. Even though my grandfather was long dead when I bought the Crosely, I had imagined we would once again sit around listening to the Sun Records boxed set. Maybe some Mingus. Definitely Patti Smith and Elvis Costello.
The Crosely was broken, she said, when she opened it. She returned it. She did not like it in the first place.
A few years later, my mother sold off hundreds of records in a yard sale. She placed an ad in the classifieds, and I wrote one for Craigslist. Album crates that once lined one side of her bedroom, stacked 2-3 high, now spread out on uneven asphalt, next to a vintage sewing machine and some garden tools.
I would try to look through the albums when I was in my preteens. She would tell me to get out of her room. But one thing I knew: she worked in a record store in the late seventies and early eighties, before her second nervous breakdown when I was five. And record store employees—like the infamous Rob Gordon and friends—never lose the critic part of their souls.
“Nirvana?” my mother would snort after hearing me play Nevermind until I wore out the cassette tape. “Black Sabbath did it first.”
These comments always confused me until I found whatever artist or album she said was better, and she was usually right.
But back to the yardsale: that day, people picked over the wooden crates; they interrogated her, and me, about quality, editions, possible artists in the clutter. She shrugged her shoulders. She no longer knew and did not care enough. I’m pretty sure one lady walked away with the complete boxed set of Sun Records for under $10. All of the collectors were collectors. They were nitpicky, cheap, looking for something to give them status, to add to their lists. They had never been to the shows, nor did they know all the lyrics; they probably didn’t even know who Patti Smith is. They knew what a round piece of grooved vinyl was worth.
My then-boyfriend was the one person who got why I was upset. An aspiring DJ, he bought a big crate of them for $60 and was gleeful and grateful for the vinyl.
Then-boyfriend and I broke up eight months later. He loved the music, and he was a pretty good DJ, but I was still angry at my mother and I could only take it out on him. His roommate let me in to pick up my stuff, and turned a blind eye when I walked out with more. I stole back all the Clash I could find, a Marianne Faithful British-release single, David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, and a few others after we broke up. I never did get back Tom Tom Club’s eponymous album.
Later my mother would tell me she should have charged him more. I said nothing. I used to think—hope—that we might connect on some level on how we experienced the key change that made something skip in our ribcages, how we experienced the joy of scratched personalities and sounds on a record player. A few times I would mention a show I had seen, or wanted to see. The responses were always the same.
Don’t waste your time. Don’t waste your money. All I have from those days are records I don’t even play anymore and crap I don’t want to remember.
I wonder if the woman I imagined, pieced together from nebulous fragments of memories, ever truly existed. I do not know what happened, but I knew she once loved music. I knew that a long time ago, in a parallel universe we would still listen to vinyl, new and old, on whatever record player we could scrounge up. Instead, this person is a fairy tale that comforts me in thinking that once upon a time, my mother was happy.