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By Leila McNeill
On Christmas Day 2015, I spent the afternoon holed up in my old bedroom of my parents’ house, which now serves as a place to store things that are no longer useful but we can’t bear to part with because they are packed full of nostalgia. Among the remnants of my teen self, surrounded by the walls I once painted bright red, are board games, VHS tapes of family trips and holidays, Disney sing-a-longs, and recorded TV shows with commercials ripped from live TV, and a bookshelf full of my mom’s vinyl collection. My mom said I could have as many of her records as I wanted, so after a family Christmas breakfast, I sat on the floor in my pajamas for hours, carefully going through each record.
I sorted hundreds of records into three piles, “keep,” “leave,” and “maybe.” As I went through each one, the “keep” pile grew bigger and bigger, as I loaded it up with records of music that I don’t even like. Each record felt like a connection to my mother, not as my mom but as the woman she was before I was even a future she seriously entertained. Each record provided a glimpse of her womanhood that has always been—to me—obscured by her motherhood. As I sorted through her records, I began to place my mom in a history that I was yet to be a part of, and to piece together the life of a woman that I both knew and didn’t know.
Based on their various states of wear, I can try figure out what records she listened to the most and why. The cover of “Tapestry” by Carole King barely holds the record between its disintegrating ends. When I play it, I imagine my mother, with her long black hair falling in thick curtains around her face and a cigarette held between her slender fingers, nodding along with “A Natural Woman.” Was she thinking of my dad? The purple outline on Janis Joplin’s “Pearl” has turned to gray and white from being dragged on and off a shelf. When Joplin’s bluesy wailing plays, I can easily picture my mom adopting Joplin’s tough, sexy swagger. Did she know that she too is both of those things?
As wide-ranging as my mom’s collection is she seemed particularly attracted to certain artists. With her nearly complete collection of Beatles vinyl, I can tell that in the battle of “Stones or Beatles” she clearly took a side. Alongside numerous records of Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley there is Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and Young). Though different in genre and style, I can hear the thread of protest and social justice from a particular moment in time that brings them to rest on the same shelf. From Cream to Derek & The Dominoes to solo, Eric Clapton constantly appears, and so it seems that Leila (Layla) was always going to be my name.
Going through her records, I saw my mom not as the parent who made me do my homework or who wouldn’t let me stay out late, but as a woman. More than even old photos of my mom, the records, both their physicality and the music etched into their plastic, show me a more complete picture of a woman with a complex inner life full of passions and secrets and experiences. As a feminist, I've always believed that women should not be defined by their roles as wives and mothers, but I had been conferring upon my mom the same limiting and dangerous views about women that I fight against. For the first time, sitting in that room with silly red walls, I was able to see my mom as the woman she was, and I realized that motherhood is only one part of the woman she has become. Most of the objects in that room are a conduit to my family’s collective past, an archive of shared memories that we created together. But the records contain tiny portraits of my mom’s past, which was a making all of her own. Her wish for me to inherit them is like giving me permission to glance at some of the untold parts of who she is.
When people ask me to defend my love for vinyl, I cannot give an answer that satisfies them. It doesn’t have anything to do with fidelity because quite honestly some of the sound quality is shit, and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with reliable means of music storage. The love I have for vinyl is now impossible to disentangle from my relationship with my mom, and that cannot pass any purity test an audiophile demands of me. When I buy vinyl, I find myself filling in parts of the collection that she started. I haunt local record stores looking for more Janis and others. It’s become a way that I silently nurture our relationship; for all our differences, this an act of her past and my present that we have shared. Some records, if you listen from beginning to end, tell a story, but the story this collection tells is one that only me and my mom can hear.
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