Scott Woods: A Mother’s Largesse, a Father’s Indifference and a Surprising Musical Inheritance
In my mother’s basement, I’ve found countless gifts, including lessons my forefathers never shared with me.
My mother has one of those basements that never ends. There is always more to find or rediscover or, if her children ever listened to her, take out to the curb. During the course of my life, I have spent years down there, digging through boxes and stored things, usually when she was out working one of several jobs to keep me alive. The basement was that kind of Narnia wardrobe when I was growing up, and despite years of corralling the flotsam of numerous lives into a few dark corners, still is.
Over the years, the reef of the basement has changed. My mother is older now, so trips up and down the stairs are thankfully infrequent, and the curiosities of the basement have settled. Some things have mysteriously risen within view with no explanation, others have simply disappeared, either deeper into the darkness or out of existence altogether. On one such trip into the nether regions of my family home, I came out with a handful of Choose Your Own Adventure knockoffs from the 1980s, books with horror or Dungeons & Dragons themes. I loved those books when I was a kid, and as I have been collecting books my entire life, I don’t know how they ever got away from me, or how they reappeared with such ease that day. I don’t question my mother’s basement. I simply partake of the ebb and flow of its largesse.
During a recent visit to my mother’s basement, I was offered, with highly suspect ease, a stack of vinyl records. It was ease so blatant that it felt like a trap. To my knowledge, there shouldn’t have been a record left to claim in the house. Sure, I left her a few gospel records for display purposes in the living room, but that was it. These records were something else: some ’60s era jazz (the hard stuff: Monk, Coltrane, Mingus), a few James Brown joints, a couple of B.B. King platters. About 15 or so records in all. It goes without saying that these were first print editions, but they were decades-old basement finds, so in the worst possible condition you could find a record and it still be playable, maybe, if you’re lucky.
Point of information (and the possible admission of several crimes): Growing up, I was a thief of music, specifically the records of my older brothers, which seeded my personal collection. In a Mendel-like splicing of pea genes, I took liberally from my oldest brother’s R&B, funk and jazz collection; and my second oldest brother’s rock ’n’ roll stash. After years of colonization disguised as loans from girlfriends under the banner of “Let me borrow that record so I can make a tape” acquisitions, or worse, straight mobbin’ of a cousin’s collection now and again, I lord over my many spoils of war like Tolkien’s dragon Smaug ensconced in ancient Erebor, sleeping on endless dunes of gold.
So the vinyl find was maddening. There was no way I could have missed these records in my decades of scavenging, and yet here they were. Upon closer inspection, I found the back covers of every record branded by an ink pad stamp bearing my father’s name, a P.O. Box and a phone number. This confounded as much as it explained. The records would have belonged to my father, though I had never seen him play a record. My parents were divorced when I was barely more than a year old, but I visited him regularly during the summers or whenever visiting my grandmothers in Nelsonville, Ohio. In all of our visits, he never set needle to a single record. He may have been stoic and emotionally detached for the entirety of my life, but in any artistic regard, he was a known quantity.
It was in part because of our perennially distant relationship that I took a shine to the records, not as musical artifacts, but familial ones. I already knew all of the music captured on the albums. Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool and John Coltrane’s Live at Birdland lived in my soul, and there is no B.B. King I have not listened to at least twice. On the contrary, the records felt like discovering an unknown layer of my father. Our relationship never rose to the point of love, but I remained curious about the man. Had he played records when no one was looking? Did I somehow inherit my love of music in some way from him, no matter how ludicrous a notion that was? Was he hipper than I realized?
I walked a handful of the dusty records upstairs and showed them to my mother in her conference room of choice: the kitchen table. She shuffled through them, curious, but unimpressed. Knowing my penchant for musical heists, she thought the records might be ones I had left behind on my way to independence. I showed her the stamp on the back covers, and at that point she corrected both of our determinations about their ownership: The records had, in fact, belonged to my grandfather, who shared a name with my father. Somewhere along the way and well before my time, my father had taken some of his father’s records, and now, many years after his death, I was taking them from him. There is no honor among thieves.
As little as I was able to glean about my father despite our interactions over the years, I knew even less about my paternal grandfather. He died when I was 3, so anything I know about him is almost entirely secondhand. Memories of a few visits remain in my mind, but those recollections are of a man dulled by decades of back-breaking construction work, unkind living and cancer. Another Woods man I did not know well enough to love, but who had come crashing into my life now through perhaps the least expected path to me: a love of music.
In the basement of my grandmother’s house, my grandfather had a small, bare room where, as near as I could tell, he slept apart from not only my grandmother, but the world. It was a paneled, windowless room barely larger than a closet. It had a single yellowish light that barely lit anything except a wall calendar. It was the kind of room you imagine every old blues musician slept in and wrote songs about, the kind of room that captured the self-deprecating emotional states needed to make real blues. It was a killing floor for the soul, where you left behind every soft thing at the door. I could imagine him lying on his single bed, falling asleep listening to music playing from the next room, a basement world of blues and checking out. As a child, the room both fascinated and terrified me. I was not yet a blues man when I discovered it after his death, and I avoided it growing up. I explored my grandmother’s basement on visits, but stayed away from the kept room of my grandfather. Something about it told me to stay out, to not get enamored by the grain of its solitude.
I have these records in my basement now, where I keep my collection. These records have seen a lot of basements, and their fair share of Woods men. They probably haven’t touched a turntable in 50 years, and I don’t know that I intend to play them on mine. I think they serve best as cautionary tape, a warning to find a way to be a better person, a better family member, a better man, a better explorer of freedom. They are, in some freakish and poetic way, lessons none of my patriarchs were here to give. Perhaps I read too much into them. And yet, thinking more about the patina of unfinished business and the loveless resignation of my forefathers washed over my life, perhaps I should. Beyond biology, I am not who I am because of them. I am who I am because of a mother who raised four sons on her own, and a lifetime of crossing lines and reading books and razing record collections and all of the friends and enemies along the way. At best, the contributions of the patriarchs of my immediate family are based on the absence of anything we attribute to such positions. I’m not missing anything as a man or a person because of that absence. In fact, I have been fortunate to be able to fill those holes with so many other things. Today, it is with these ill-gotten musical gains. Which, frankly, is more inheritance than graft. Which I suppose is OK. They could have left me with so much worse.
Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.