Aretha Franklin’s death from pancreatic cancer last Thursday triggered in many of us the desire to hear her sing. I don’t listen to her regularly, although I love her voice. Because I couldn’t find my Aretha CD and have never uploaded it to my computer, I went in search of the best album to download. I ended up with a greatest hits.
When her voice filled my car with “Looking out on the morning rain / I used to feel so uninspired” it set off a chain reaction of emotions and thoughts.
The first thing that struck me is that Aretha is known and appreciated for the power of her voice, at least that’s how I’ve always loved her music. But she sings those quiet first two lines with exquisite simplicity, that resonant voice not needing—at least not yet—to belt out the notes.
My next thought was about what the song means to me, and it means so much. For some, Natural Woman is about romantic love and it was likely written with that intent. But like many other women I relate to the song as being about motherhood.
It’s these words that capture my mother’s heart: “When my soul was in the lost and found / You came along to claim it / I didn't know just what was wrong with me / Till your kiss helped me name it / Now I'm no longer doubtful of what I'm living for / Cause if I make you happy I don't need to do more.”
When my daughter was born I felt my world suddenly come into focus. A child is a holy responsibility and I embraced it with my whole heart. This child brought with her unconditional love: she felt it for me and it poured out of me naturally for her.
I was never sure that I wanted to be a parent, mostly because I thought I wouldn’t be good at it, that I’d somehow damage a child. Her first laugh freed me from that worry. She giggled as I wiped milk off her chest and the world changed. Things made sense.
She is now all grown up, living and working on her own. When I see her or read her texts I feel such pride. She is graceful and kind, adventurous and curious. She is smart and funny, and she throws love freely into the world around her.
While I’ll always be her mother—of course—my role as her primary caretaker is over. Along with that ending is the loss of a sort of purpose or intention. It’s not that my life isn’t (and hasn’t always been) full. I’m a writer and a teacher. I’ve always worked and have been engaged in ideas.
The core focus of my life for the past 20 years, however, has been on loving this child. Guiding and supporting her, protecting her and challenging her. Those days are over and new days have come.
Grief is an odd thing. There is a sweetness to it sometimes. As I read and hear the many testimonies about Aretha Franklin’s impact, I feel grateful that she was in our world. We feel the loss because of the importance of her presence.
Hearing Natural Woman this week reminds me and helps me to understand that I’m grieving the loss of motherhood, or at least of the mothering I’ve been immersed in. I suppose it makes me realize that I need to grieve this loss, to be with it and to let it sink in.
There is a sweetness to this grief, too. My daughter and I are each embarking on individual adventures. We are learning to connect with each other in different ways.
But I am going to take some time to listen to Natural Woman and remember the joy this child opened in my world. I’m going to sing along in the car and probably cry, wishing I could cuddle her baby self again.
When I look out at the rain, feeling uninspired and a bit sad, I’ll remember to be grateful for the power of song and the power of love.
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