By Stuart Mitchner
When I think about the people who have questioned my mother’s choice to have me the way she did, or the people who have asked me if I was ever angry with her, it’s easier than ever to answer no, rejecting the antiquated assumption that a real father is a necessary element in a real family.
—Nabil Ayers, from My Life in the Sunshine
Today I’m writing about three admirable single mothers I found in the memoirs of a president and two musicians. If you look online for novels or stories with a single mother as heroine, you’ll find depressing results, with cover images often featuring men out of Harlequin Romance fantasies.
I tried upping the word-choice ante to single mother protagonists in classic literature and came up with the likes of Medea and Mrs. Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. Without doing any research on the subject, my first thought is of Eliza fleeing across the icy river with her infant son in Uncle Tom’s Cabin — which seems a fitting analogy for women dealing with a post Roe v. Wade reality.
In Dreams from My Father (1995), Barack Obama recalls going with his mother Ann and half-sister Maya to the film Black Orpheus, which Ann saw when she was 16, her first foreign movie and, as she told her children, “the most beautiful thing” she’d ever seen. Obama found the film patronizing, with its “black and brown Brazilians” singing and dancing “like carefree birds in colorful plumage,” but when he looked over at his mother, he was touched by the sight of her wistful face “lit by the blue glow of the screen.” In that moment he felt as if he were “being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth,” a white middle-class girl from Kansas waking to the promise of another world: “warm, sensual, exotic, different” — where she would meet, marry, and bear the child of an exchange student from Kenya.
The former president celebrated his 61st birthday last week by naming a new installation at the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago the Ann Dunham Water Garden. In a release, he pictures his mother, who died in 1995, “sitting on one of the benches on a nice summer afternoon, smiling and watching a bunch of kids running through the fountain,” which he thought “would capture who she was as well as just about anything else.”
“Porcelain” is the title of one of the most affecting compositions from Moby’s 1999 international breakthrough album Play. In his 2016 memoir, also titled Porcelain, he describes a song about being in love with someone you shouldn’t be with. The music, which is for a “really, really wonderful woman,” was composed when he was grieving for his mother, who died in 1998. Although he never says as much, Elizabeth is the soul of the song and the book. She appears in the opening paragraph “wearing blue jeans and a brown winter jacket that she’d bought at the Salvation Army for five dollars.” She’s standing at the “cracked linoleum counter” of a laundromat in a mall in Stratford, Connecticut, smoking a cigarette and folding clothes belonging to neighbors who paid her to wash and fold their laundry. Richard Melville Hall, a descendant of Herman Melville by way of his father, who died in a car accident when Moby was 2, has said that “all my mother wanted was for me to spend my life being creative. She would have been profoundly disappointed had I become a lawyer or a doctor. From an early age I was just encouraged to make music and take pictures and draw and write.”
I thought of Obama’s Ann and Moby’s Elizabeth while I was reading Nabil Ayers’s My Life in the Sunshine (Viking 2022). The title refers to the most famous song by the author’s father, Roy Ayers. As the first 120 pages of Nabil’s book make clear, however, the source of the “sunshine” he lives and thrives in is his mother Louise. Describing the song’s impact while he was in the theatre watching the film Straight Outa Compton, he writes, “The music is so loud that I physically feel it …. The lyrics offer the first voices in the scene. ‘My life, my life, my life … in the sunshine’ blasts from the modern theatre speakers.”
Although you’d expect the intensity of the moment to center on Nabil’s pride in this connection with a famous father, it only heightens his disappointment, just as the song, which is ubiquitous (Roy’s signature 1971 album is called Ubiquity), having been covered and sampled so often that it’s become “a perennial, persistent reminder” of his father’s absence.
The Stuff of Dreams
In the course of Nabil’s life in music and his quest for his father’s recognition, there are, as in Moby’s life, lots of DJs, agents, managers, musicians, friends, ravers, and relatives, but the true life force, the most powerful and determined and determinative person in the book is his “tall, perfect-postured dancer mother” with her “wavy, golden-brown hair” and “striking blue eyes.” So Nabil pictures her from photographs taken at the time she met the “charming and charismatic” Roy Ayers at a jazz club in the Village and “felt an instant chemistry.” Finding that he “didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs, and that he ate health food like she did,” she was already telling herself that this is the person she’s “going to have a baby with.”
I connected with Nabil’s mother as he described her love for New York City, with “its diversity, creative energy, and volatility,” mentioning how on long walks through the city, “she’d often stop to watch children play in the parks.” It was during those walks that she made up her mind to become “a young, single mother.”
It sounds like the stuff of dreams. Instead of imagining life as a dancer (she studied ballet for 12 years), a young woman simply decides to be a single mother, because the relationship she truly desired was with a child: “while she was young she wanted a friend to love who would love her back, someone she could shower with attention and who would never feel as lonely as she did growing up.” Although she wasn’t actively looking for the father of her imaginary companion, “the moment she met Roy Ayers she believed she’d found him.” And when he made it clear from the outset that if she did have a child, she would be on her own — “his career was on the rise he had no interest in a serious relationship” — it at least agreed with her single-mother dream.
On the night of April 27, 1971, Louise suggested to her brother Alan, also a jazz musician, that they visit Roy’s apartment. Although she and Ayers had been out together only three times in the course of a year, this was to be the night. After she bluntly told Roy her intentions, and he repeated his refusal of responsibility, they conceived a child, even as her brother was sleeping in the next room. As Nabil discreetly puts it, while his mother appeared to remember every detail surrounding the act, “no amount of prodding gleaned any information about her “conversation” with Roy on that night — “the conversation that led to me. My mother insists that it was that brief — that easy.” His uncle (and eventually part-time father) summed up the situation: “It was New York City in the early seventies.”
I missed Nabil’s mother when she got married and moved away, as the narrative shifted to her son’s evolving career in the music business and the challenge he shared with Barack Obama, that of a mixed-race person identifying as Black, and the risks and issues involved. Although Nabil presents his mother as a loving, sometimes doting presence, he’s painfully aware of the mixed blessing she’d created for him, not only the dilemma of growing up fatherless, but the racial conundrum, further complicated by the fact that he was Jewish.
From Kiss to Journey
As the parent of a son who also grew up in the music of the 1980s, I enjoyed following the evolution of Nabil’s interests and his career as a drummer, record store owner, and music label executive, not to mention his discovery of a family in orbit around the distant planet of his father. One of the book’s most captivating moments comes when his mother takes the 7-year-old Nabil to a Kiss concert at Madison Square Garden. It was “a life-changing experience,” full of “all the bombast and spectacle of arena rock,” where he felt “simultaneously overwhelmed, frightened, and ecstatic,” but “more than anything else that night,” he focused on the drummer Peter Criss, “feeling more strongly than ever” that he “wanted to do” what Peter did.
You see the single mother in her glory when she helps Nabil remove the mattress from his wooden bed frame and replace it with his drum set, “converting the frame into a drum riser,” and again when she paints his face like Peter’s, applying “a layer of white face paint” and “green-and-black eye makeup.” When she finished his red lips, “I put on my Kiss T-shirt, sat at my drums, and blasted Destroyer,” [the first album he ever bought, at 5]. “ ‘You look just like Peter Criss!’ my mother exclaimed proudly.”
When life in Greenwich Village became “unsustainable,” mother and son moved to Salt Lake City, “an extremely white place” where “most people were blond” but where his mother had a tempting job offer with American Express. On the last night of an exploratory visit, Louise took them to a Journey concert in the Salt Palace arena. Nabil was 10: “To this day, whenever I hear that song [the Journey anthem “Don’t Stop Believin’ “], I flash back to the moment when my mother and I stood anonymously among twelve thousand people, singing along euphorically to a song that at that moment meant everything to everyone present …. It meant a less stressful life for my mother and a more musical life for me. During the song’s four-minute build, my mother and I felt a connection to the band, to everyone in the room, and we looked at each other, bouncing as we belted out the songs’ uplifting chorus.”
Rereading this passage, I thought of the scene where Moby was driving somewhere with his “hippie mother” when he was 8 and “More Than a Woman” by the Bee Gees came on, and she started singing along, and he sang along, too. I have no doubt Obama sang songs with his mother, who may have given him the transcendental maternal nudge he needed to begin singing “Amazing Grace” at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
Quoted on the hill.com, Obama talks about “the notion of grace as a recognition that we are fundamentally flawed and weak and confused. So, we don’t deserve grace, but we get it sometimes.” And I think of three brave women taking charge of their own lives against all of the odds, and of the young black mother running for her life across an icy river.