mom, elvis and me

It was one of those moments when you say something you know you shouldn’t. But I couldn’t help myself. I was fourteen and still in the throes of teenage-girl-smart-ass disease. It was 39 years ago that I was sitting in the backyard listening to the radio when I heard the news. I went inside and found my mother in her room, making her bed.

“Hey, mom. Guess you won’t be going to that Elvis concert next week.”
“He’s dead.”

I may have snickered, I don’t know. Mom ran into the bathroom and turned on the little radio she kept in there. I remember the exact sound of the tinny, staticy voice that relayed the news to my mother in a much softer way than I did. Elvis was dead. My mother’s eyes filled with tears and despair while her face registered only that small “o” one’s mouth makes when they hear shocking news. That “o” stayed there for a while, but the despair in her eyes had become hard and angry. She was pissed at me. How could I have told her like that, knowing that she idolized Elvis in a pure, passionate way? How could I do that? What kind of daughter was I?

Well, I was fourteen. That’s my only excuse. I was a fourteen year old whose mother made fun of her own idolization of another self-obsessed, overly dramatic singer who similarly became a bloated replica of himself. And later, dead and bloated. Maybe it was my way of evening up the score.

My mother had this friend Noreen. Noreen was the largest woman I ever knew. Not just heavy large, but tall and broad and wide, with a thick, teased hair piled up on her head so she looked even taller. Her voice roared even when she whispered and her sneezes were legend in the neighborhood, said to be heard from at least three blocks away. She wore mumus and housecoats and tons of hairspray and sometimes she wore an ugly fur coat that made her look like a small woodland creature was nesting on her shoulder.

Noreen and my mom were the Elvis duo. They worshiped him. They loved him. They knew everything about him and owned everything to do with him including Elvis commemorative plates and I think one of them had an Elvis wristwatch. I grew up with Elvis’s hips grinding in my face and his voice grinding in my ears and I have to admit that at some point, I realized what the attraction was. When I would lay in bed on summer nights, trying to sleep while my mother and Noreen and the rest of their crew played Pinochle in the kitchen with Elvis on the stereo, I knew. His voice would come drifting into my room and I could feel the sensuality, and the passion within his words. I would never tell anyone this, of course. I went about my daily business of bowing before Jim Morrison and Robert Plant and never let on that I thought Elvis was cool. Especially to my mother. That would just ruin the taut, tenuous relationship that we both thrived on. Who was I to break the rite of passage of mother-teenage daughter bitterness and anger?

Noreen and my mother were going to see Elvis in August, 1977 at the Nassau Coliseum. They had seen him many times before but this one was special. They had a feeling this would be his last tour ever. They were like little giddy school girls in the weeks leading up to the show. Sometimes my mother would take out her ticket and just stare at it. She was 39 at the time. When I was fourteen, 39 was old and withered and wrinkled. 39 was too old to be getting worked up over a hip-shaking idol. I thought it was kind of creepy. Funny how that works. I’m 52 now and not old or wrinkled or past getting worked up about my musical idols. And there I was, a stupid teenager looking with disdain at her mother for being excited about seeing Elvis.

Then there was no Elvis.

She was so happy. And I crushed her world. It would have been a much softer blow if it came from Cousin Brucie or Uncle somebody on whichever oldies station she was listening to. It would have been a bit easier to take if her teenage bag of hormones didn’t make some smarmy remark about dying like a fat, beached whale.

The news of Elvis’s death spread around the neighborhood. It was like my mother’s sobbing set off some kind of bat signal and you could hear wails of anguish coming from housewives all down the block. When Noreen found out we heard her bellowing from two blocks away. Her booming voice sounded through the neighborhood like a siren, a mourning call for all Elvis fans to gather on her lawn and weep. It was a sad day for Elvis fans and all I could think to do was make fun of them.

I don’t think my mother ever told Noreen the way in which she found out about the death of their hero. I probably wouldn’t have lived to tell this tale if she knew. She would have beat my ass, and an ass beating from Noreen was unlike any other. I suppose I owe my mother for saving me from that.

When Noreen died, my first thought was that she would finally get to see Elvis again. My second was that I was now safe from my mother ever spilling the beans to Noreen about my youthful indiscretion. I had lived in fear all those years. Hell, sometimes I still think the ghost of Noreen is going appear 30 years later, wearing a sequined white jumpsuit, hell bent on haunting me.

I thought my mother had forgiven me, but judging from the look she gives me whenever the story is brought up again, perhaps not. Maybe that’s what drives every argument we have. Maybe she’s still mad at me.

I have apologized to her since. I told her I was sorry for breaking the news like that, but in a way it was her fault for making me sit through Viva Las Vegas and Jailhouse Rock, for forcing that horrid “In the Ghetto” on my ears, for making me try fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

One of these years my Elvis penance will end. I hope.