The author and her mother
Outside my window in the August heat, the highway blurs by, liquid. As CDs rotate through the player, I’m suddenly alert at the first strains of “Far-Side Banks of Jordan,” a song that always makes me think of my parents. Dad, who, I suddenly realize, died ten years ago next week, Mom, a year ago this one.
In the song, a man anticipates his imminent death. He promises that he’ll wait for his lifelong love on the Far-Side Banks of Jordan until they can enter paradise together.
As the chorus kicks in, suddenly the words “fasten seatbelt” light up on my dashboard. Sometimes this happens if I toss a bag of groceries or a pile of books onto the passenger seat, but right now, it’s empty. The light pulses and the seat starts dinging as the song’s speaker describes his first glimpse of his love in the afterlife, how when he sees her he will
rise up with a shout
and come running through the shallow water
reaching for your hand.
* * *
Mom grew up a Nazarene, forbidden to dance or go to movies because even ballroom dance could be sensual and tickets to G-rated films supported pornography. Every Sunday in the back pew, my family stiffened at the first chord of every hymn, steeling our bodies against singing or humming or swaying or tapping a finger or jiggling a foot. We mimicked the onset of rigor mortis as if there was something embarrassing or disgraceful about public music. Still, the music of her childhood retained a hold on Mom. She dragged us to weekend festivals where my aunts could be caught tapping their toes even as they frowned at the shoulder-shimmying hip-rotating abandon of long-haired girls. When my uncle toured with the Jimmy Driftwood band, they stopped to play a concert in our living room, autoharps and dulcimers, men with grizzled beards, women with flowers in their hair. I was polite but bored.
By the time we were grown, Mom despaired for her children’s souls, since none of us were churchgoers. In my late twenties, when I rediscovered bluegrass and folk and gospel music, I imagined Mom would see me as less of a lost cause. But she shuddered at the mixtapes I sent her. “I just don’t like what they’re about,” she said, as if songs about the layers and complexities of love were somehow unwholesome.
* * *
After my parents married at thirty, they never alluded to the past, in the process mythologizing their love story. They’d met as teenagers, and it took them years to get together, but there had never been anyone else. “What was she like?” I asked Dad once, and with a distant, dreamy look in his eyes, he said, “She was—perfect.” In the Navy, stationed at Okinawa, he had a portrait painted of her from a photograph. It didn’t occur to me that this devotion appeared a little one-sided until I was in my thirties myself. My aunt started reminiscing about how Mom used to listen to popular songs, mooning and fretting about her crushes. But how could that be? I thought Mom had never looked at anyone but my dad. I thought she only liked songs about Jesus. When I questioned Mom, she refused to talk about the past. “I wouldn’t want to hurt your dad’s feelings,” she said. By the time they’d married, that devotion was mutual, and neither ever looked back.
I first heard “Far-Side Banks of Jordan” a few weeks after Dad died. Mom struggled daily under a heavy weight of grief, and I hoped she would take comfort in the song’s lyrics, in an image of my Dad waiting for her. But there was always a chance she’d instead disapprove of a speaker who refused to enter heaven until he could do so accompanied by his love. I found out later that gospel groups who have covered the song have objected to that implication, rewriting songwriter Terry Smith’s original lyrics.
The original was first recorded by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash in the mid-seventies and became emblematic of their love story when they died a few months apart in 2003. References to the River Jordan as a boundary not just between heaven and earth but between injustice and deliverance originated in the New Testament. It became a pervasive symbol in early African-American spirituals.
But though frequently recorded as a gospel song, “Far-Side Banks of Jordan” is really a love song with gospel overtones, Smith once wrote. I didn’t know how that would go over with Mom, but I took the plunge and sent her the CD with the song on it, Alison Krauss and the Cox Family’s I Know Who Holds Tomorrow. Mom said she liked the CD. That was it.
When Mom died, I found hundreds of birthday and Valentine’s cards from my dad, some of them sappy, some of them sensual. Her granddaughters sorted through them, pealing with laughter. “Grandma!” they’d exclaim, mildly scandalized. I felt oddly betrayed that I’d never before seen this playful, passionate side of the parents I envisioned as stiff and unsinging.
I also found Mom’s prayer journals, revealing that she’d prayed every day, futilely, that I would come to share her faith. That made me sad. I turned the page and found a draft of a letter to a friend. “I won’t ever stop missing Bill,” Mom wrote, “but there’s a song that brings me comfort.”
Underneath it, she had copied out the lyrics to “Far-Side Banks of Jordan.”
I felt triumphant that I’d subverted her into embracing a love song, or maybe it was she who’d triumphed, convincing me to consider the possibility of an afterlife. Through this song, we’d met in the middle, found some common ground. I was pleased by that, and by the evidence that I’d managed to offer some small piece of comfort.
Now, a year after her death, ten years after my dad’s, I am driving down a highway, and that song is playing, the passenger seat dinging like a metronome with a slow measured joy, under the impression of some invisible weight as if my parents are here, as if they have something to tell me. And despite the lapse in so many beliefs I grew up with, in religious doctrine and spirits and heaven itself, in my mind’s eye I imagine all the years Dad waited to marry Mom and then the nine more years he waited until he and Mom could catch their first glimpse of paradise together. How he rose with a shout, and ran, hand outstretched, to meet her.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to email@example.com and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Nancy McCabe is the author of six books, most recently Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, Massachusetts Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Newsweek, and others, won a Pushcart, and been made notable lists eight times in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading.