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The Madonna Timeline: Song #101 – ‘Mother and Father’ – Spring 2003

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{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

There was a time I was happy in my life
There was a time I believed I’d live forever
There was a time that I prayed to Jesus Christ
There was a time I had a mother
It was nice
Nobody else would ever take the place of you
Nobody else could do the things that you could do
No one else I guess could hurt me like you did
I didn’t understand, I was just a kid 

He is chasing me up the stairs. I struggle to run faster, my feet slipping out from beneath me yet somehow I do not fall. It feels like the harder I run, the slower I go, as if I’m suspended slightly above the ground, on some virtual treadmill, my legs running faster and faster but my body moving ever slower. He is gaining on me. I scramble up more stairs, around the landing, and grab the banister to dash into my brother’s room. It still feels like I’m flying in slow-motion, over the rust-colored shag carpeting, around the corner and through the bathroom into the room where my Gram used to stay when she was alive. There, it happens, there he catches up to me, there I fall.

I turn around and see the frightening visage of something that was once amusing – the vampiric form of… Grandpa Munster – ? – from the old Munsters television show. Only he is an evil version of that character ~ eyes gouged out, fangs dripping with death, the malevolence clear and concisely concentrated on me. It is a monster, and it has a hold of me.

I have landed near the door to the hallway that leads to my parents’ room. It is open, and I try my best to scream out, to shout, because there, twenty feet away, stands my mother. She is putting on jewelry, her back to me, and the louder I try to scream for her, the less sound comes out. She doesn’t hear me, and if she does – the most terrifying possibility of this nightmare I’m having – she doesn’t respond. I scream and scream and scream because I know I am about to die, and she simply fastens her necklace and moves out of sight.

The dream ends. I wake in a panicked sweat, my face sore from crying, my jaw weak from trying to yell. It is one of the few recurring nightmares I will have in my childhood, and by far the most frightening.

Oh mother, why aren’t you here with me
No one else saw the things that you could see
I’m trying hard to dry my tears
Yes father, you know I’m not so free
I’ve got to give it up
Find someone to love me
I’ve got to let it go
Find someone that I can care for
I’ve got to give it up
Find someone to love me
I’ve got to let it go
Find someone that I can care for

Another entry from the maligned ‘American Life’ album illuminates what an under-rated record this was in Madonna’s career. ‘Mother and Father’ addresses the loss, betrayal, often-difficult and ever-complex relationship between parents and children. In this song (as in some of her most powerful – like ‘Promise to Try’ and ‘Oh Father’ – Madonna laments the loss of her mother, the resulting distance from her father, and all the messy overlapping emotions that informed her entire childhood and made her into the woman who conquered the world. The woman who wouldn’t need anyone else.

There was a time I was happy in my life
There was a time I believed I’d live forever
There was a time I prayed to Jesus Christ
There was a time I had a mother
It was nice…

Anyone who’s ever had a parent can relate to something in this song. Anyone whose parents have ever treated them unfairly, or misplaced their blame, or simply felt hurt themselves, will be able to access the anger and rage, pain and heartache, so raw and tender that the scars have never gone away. It never can go away, either – those scars are with you for life. What you choose to do with them is what determines whether you can forgive. The alternative though, is the case of Madonna, who lost her mother very early in life.

My mother died when I was five, and all I did was sit and cry
I cried and cried and cried all day, until the neighbors went away
They couldn’t take my loneliness, I couldn’t take their phoniness
My father had to go to work, I used to think he was a jerk
I didn’t know his heart was broken, And not another word was spoken
He became a shadow of the father I was dreaming of
I made a vow that I would never need another person ever
Turned my heart into a cage, A victim of a kind of rage

And then the messy mix of emotions, the ravaging cuts of guilt, the way time works to heal some wounds while re-opening others, the never-ending push and pull between people whose love can work in ways both wonderful and hurtful. When the love you have in your childhood is tempered by those conditions, when you can tell that you might not be as well-liked as others, you wonder if all love will be like that. It’s debilitating in a way, and the harm that results is irreparable. You must choose then to move on or let it destroy you.

I gotta give it up
I gotta give it up
I gotta give it up
I gotta give it up
Find someone that I can care for
Find someone that I can care for

Yet even if you move on, even if you give up and let it go, even if you find someone you think you can love, who loves you in return, there will be doubt, there will be worry, there will be the nagging thought that you may never be worthy of love. Some of us can’t give it up. Some of us battle with the demons because they continue to battle with us. Some never change, repeating history, making the same misguided mistakes over and over. How do you give up on something so inextricably bound to the heart, even if it hurts?

I’ve got to give it up
I’ve got to let it go
I’ve got to give it up
Oh mother, oh father
I gotta give it up

I’ve got to give it up
Song #101 – ‘Mother and Father’ – Spring 2003
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