Tragically Hip

I sing: In the car, in the shower, at home alone, the cat cocking one ear and looking puzzled. Sometimes in the afternoon, home from work before my children and husband, I dance, the cat my only companion. At these times he looks peevish. Bring the other one back, he implores. The one who carries in the groceries and picks the clothes up off the floor. She’s the one more likely to feed me.

I sing in the car, and my children object. My teenager hisses, Stop that. I sigh. I point to the windows, fully closed. He retorts, You can still hear, through car windows. I consider asking how he knows this, for a fact, but instead I stay silent. He is fourteen and knows everything, evidence be damned.

So I do this: I cry, This is Blondie! Heart of Glass! Good stuff! Now both children are eyeing me. It’s the sympathy I glimpse that I cannot abide.

As if in mourning for me the teenager shakes his head and mutters, Not cool, Mom, not cool at all. The tween giggles, before catching my eye and flashing me his repentant face.


What has made me think that I am any hipper than my mother singing opera on the streets of Manhattan? When I would separate myself from her by a foot or two and pray, really pray, that strangers thought I was not with the crazy lady shouting Mozart?

I may be forty-four years old now, older in fact than my mother was when she sang opera (in a startlingly sweet soprano voice, considering her smoking habit) up and down Third Avenue. I am certain that I look forty-four. But I feel like a teenager. How can that be? Debbie Harry starts singing (on the soft rock station, I notice, but pretend I haven’t), and I am again sixteen, singing to the girl in the mirror, watching with pleasure and horror both as her halfway-to-womanhood hips (body as foreign as it’s ever been) shimmy to the beat without any recognizable input from me, idly wondering if I will be able to pass for eighteen when my friends and I go out on Saturday night. (Newsflash: No.) God: I am still at the point where I am wishing for a few extra years, a more advanced age. How long does that last? I never thought to mark the moment at which I’d stop wishing for a few more years on top of my own.


Here’s what I want to tell my chronically mortified son:

There will come a time when you will remember your mother singing in the car, and instead of cringing with shame, you will smile, to think that in those few minutes your mother was carefree enough to sing out as if a mere teenager, to feel (despite all evidence to the contrary) cool. If cool means not caring what anyone else thinks about your singing, or dancing. If cool means marching to your own drummer, even if the drummer is by now a leathery hollow man of sixty-eight years old. Yes, I think you will treasure this evidence (for by now you will have learned to appreciate the scientific method) of your mother’s happiness. You might even recognize, with a little shock of surprise, “Damn. She was actually pretty cool, singing in the car.”

…this one’s for Brian Thomas, who wondered if he’d ever be cool.

14 thoughts on “Tragically Hip

  1. Oh yes. I recall the winces and the ‘Puhleez Mom, be quiet’. Not only my kids but also my husband.
    Today I am wearing purple. And a ball cap. But not a red one.
    Love this!

  2. It is something I never, ever understand, that pains me even though I pretend it doesn’t: the way some of the people I love insist on criticizing my buoyancy, my joy, my booming laugh, my impromptu dances and singing.

    At times when my spirits have been crushed by the efforts to make me acceptable to the widest possible audience, I have then been criticized by the very same people for seeming flat and disengaged.

    Go figure.

    One day some one will say something to me and I will finally say, “F*ck off. Take your crimped heart and uptight self elsewhere.”

  3. I think Brian’s cool.
    I think, as always, you’re beautiful.

    (reading this reminded me of my mother, in the rec room, putting on some Marvin Gaye and biting her bottom lip, eyes all a-sparkly, as she wiggled her hips. I was mildly mortified then; I am delighted now: GO MOM GO)

  4. i love that you sing.

    i sing too. my elder is just beginning to be embarrassed. i remember the feeling and smile at him, sympathy that neither of us wants going back and forth between.

    this is part of what mid-life is, i think…being able to see beyond the beginning and the cringing self-consciousness to what will be missed, in the end. smiling at you. singing along.

  5. I think to be cool, you have to identify what is uncool. And if your mom is too cool, then what are you? Like you said, one day, when they are more confident in themselves, they will appreciate your coolness.

  6. although i was met with an ocular bakery’s worth of eye rolls when they were younger, my now adult children tell me that they reveled in the fact that we were weird. thhey enjoyed going to school on the Monday after Thanksgiving and reporting that our family had pizza instead of turkey.

    brian sent me, by the way. very glad he did!

  7. For me, it was ZZ Top. “Sharp Dressed Man.” I’d zig and zag and sashay across my bedroom floor, air guitar in hand, and woo all the ladies with my awesome beard.

    As I’ve aged, I’ve grown more calm. I’m no longer the larger-than-life life of the party that I once put on such airs to be. In exchange, I notice more things. Listen to people, instead of trying so desperately to think of something to say that might be funny or witty.

    And I think I care more.

    But I do still sing. Poorly, but who cares. It’s my voice, and these are my songs . . .

  8. My 12 year old seems to really still think I am cool…until the day that I took him to the movies with some friends, then I had to stay outside of a 20 foot radius…. I guess it happens to the coolest of us.

  9. My mother pointed. With her bony finger. At strangers on the train, or passers by, or people on the promenade at the New York State Theater. Singing would have been less embarrassing!

    I sing in the car with all the windows down. So far, the kid sings along.

  10. My kids are still too young to be embarrassed by me. I know my time is coming. I just I hope I have a few more years to work on “Mommy!” the musical before that day. (Other people make up songs about making breakfast or getting dressed or doing laundry, and go about doing these things while singing loudly, right? Right?)

    I don’t actually remember being embarrassed by my mother, though I’m sure there must have been times. I do have some happy memories of us singing and dancing around together…but I can’t remember how I old I was. Then again, I never was one of the cool kids.

  11. I sing all the time, but especially in the car. Loudly. My kids are still young enough that it doesn’t mortify them. I probably don’t have that much time left before it does.

  12. This is why I find it hard to return to blogging. Your writing reminds me. It’s because there is pain, raw and tremulous, resting on the lip of these places from where we draw forth our stories. And you know what, Sarah? I don’t like pain. I don’t!

    Remarkably, I can find my way past the pain and into your words. Though the pain sings more loudly than I am able to do, even if the windows are rolled all the way up. Your writing makes it possible, the words are so well placed.

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