There is a Ship
After checking with my lifetime archivist, my best and monogamous childhood friend, Gladys, who, unlike me, has a steel-clad memory, this is a fact: the first concert I went to in my life was in our hometown of Scranton, Pa., at the Catholic Youth Center. We were in high school, the year was probably 1964, and I was already fully in love with Mary Travers.
Peter, Paul and Mary were coming to town. There was no greater joy possible. My elation, after listening obsessively to their album for a few years while compulsively and secretly watching Mary on television performances, with every flick of her blond hair, with every pouty move, I was sure she was the solution to my life’s pain. It made no sense; I knew it wasn’t real. But neither was wanting to kiss girls; no word or concept existed for that in my world in 1964.
I remember little about the concert, as sometimes happens with profound life events. It came and went in a blur of zealous excitement. The ending was a hollow, an emptiness, a return to fantasies at night, “stories” I would write in my head, pretending to be an author, imagining Mary close to me. Shame blurred out those years, as high school merged into college, as comfortable nights eating pizza with Gladys became drunken alienation at college frat parties.
I followed Mary and the group, of course, through the years, as they followed me. They provided the soundtrack to my life. Their political integrity inspired and energized me; they were on the right side of It all, for the People, against the War, appalled by the Man. Even though I was a faux hippy, always plugged into the system, they represented that which I believed was real and right.
Mary represented everything to me, everything and nothing.
Time passed, as it somehow does.
I remember seeing Mary alone in a performance venue on Washington Square in NYC with my first girlfriend in the early ‘80’s. Stoned out of my mind, as I imagined the situation demanded, I watched her seemingly flirt with one of the younger male musicians throughout the set. I was incensed, personally upset, as if she violated our commitment to each other. It’s a strange memory for me today.
More time passed. Rock and roll more loudly dominated my head as folk music hushed itself and receded further away, but always lived in my heart.
Through the years, I saw the Peter, Paul, and Mary perform here and there, always with deep fondness, always with a profound sense of intimacy with the songs, and always with bitter-sweet tears. They aged and quieted down, as I aged and slowly found my own way. Mary forever held a place in my heart, undefinably precious.
And then, although it seemed impossible, it happened in 2009; Mary Travers died from leukemia. My heart felt torn open in my chest. I felt as if someone I intimately knew had passed.
How is it that the death of celebrities can be such a personal and powerful transition for us?
Although I didn’t know Mary Travers, she followed the course of my life, she lived my life with me.
The sound of her voice resides in my body.
The words and music of their songs follow the flow my life, each song invoking and mirroring a time of me, becoming more of who I really am.
Mary was bigger than life; how could she ever die? And die, she did, early, too early. If she, this blond, hair-flicking beacon of the folk era could pass, what does that mean about me, mortal little me?
Perhaps because she wasn’t “real”, perhaps I can more fully feel, I can more totally grieve her passing.
Our celebrities are like place-holders, marking times of joy, times of not, times of connection, of loss, for us, all. Their passing shakes up the memory, rattles the heart, opens the body to the shared experiences with these people we never really knew. Those folks who give us music, who create beauty, who become characters in movies that move us and grow us, they give us so much. Their leaving really does diminish our hearts.
Mary came back to me the other day in this song. There is a ship, and Mary and I traveled in it together. Here is a three-minute gift to your heart:
And dear readers, what about you? What celebrity passing has touched you? Where were you when John Lennon died? What do you remember—what do you understand—about our relationship to these mythical yet somehow real personas?
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