Dear Switchback fans,
On Wednesday, January 5, I drove out to Woodstock. Since Mom’s death, life with Dad has been quite a roller coaster ride. For the third time since her passing, Dad was back in the hospital. At the farm he was tended to by my brothers Robert, Joseph, and Peter, who stayed up through the nights with him, took him to the bathroom, fed him his meals, and changed his clothes. Occasionally some of us would relieve them, but the heavy lifting was theirs. Since July, when my Mom was admitted initially for a hip replacement she would never return from, my Dad was never alone, night or day.
Mom’s death was a major shock for all of us, but most of all for Dad. He did not expect Mom to precede him in death. Not long before Mom’s death, Dad was diagnosed with stenosis of the heart, commonly known as congestive heart failure. Two of his valves were not working properly. At the time of his diagnosis, doctors said he had anywhere from three months to two years left. His identical twin brother Jim had died of complications related to a surgery to correct the exact same problem a couple of years earlier. As my uncle lay dying, I couldn’t fathom what Dad was thinking as he looked at a reflection of himself, knowing he had the same condition. Dad decided that he would aim for quality of life and spend his remaining days with Mom.
Years before, Mom and Dad had purchased a grave plot in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, right next to Mom’s parents. When Mom died, a burial date was carefully selected according to when our far-flung family could regroup and get out to Wyoming: October 3, two months after her passing.
But as it turns out, God had other plans.
The story begins back in 1953, when Dad had over 70 percent of his stomach removed in an attempt to control ulcers. It was a very dangerous and life-threatening operation; he very nearly died. Death seemed pretty certain and Mom was worried that she would be a widow after a year of marriage.
But Dad did survive. Now, over half a century later, the warranty had run out on the operation. It turned out his stomach had shifted over time, and he could no longer keep food down or get food out. In October my Dad was hospitalized. The doctors said an operation would be needed to correct the original surgery, but that chances were high that he would die on the table as his heart valves probably couldn’t take it. But Dad was insistent to have the operation because he wanted to be there when Mom was buried. So at age 90 he went under the knife. It was a severe operation, and in recovery he called out in pain for Mom and prayed aloud for the pain to subside. As it did, he reinstated his determination to get out West and see his wife laid to rest.
My Dad did get out to Wyoming. My brothers and sister drove him out in a friend’s RV, complete with wine, a bed, and bathroom. He loved the trip, and incredibly by November 4, with a break in the weather, he did see his wife of 63 years laid to rest.
That a man over 90 could pull this off was incredible. But Dad was not your average man. He married my Mom, which was a feat in itself, and they stayed married through all the trials of 10 kids, a farm, and a career as a dentist. But backed by his Irish Catholic faith, Dad was up to the challenge.
And Dad had this way of facing Death and saying, “Not now.”
Long before we McCormack kids were born, Dad joined the Army Air Force as a tail gunner in a B29. His basic training over, he was ready to ship to the Pacific Theater. Life expectancy was about 30 seconds during battle for a tail gunner. My Dad caught pneumonia, which delayed his deployment, and by the time he was en route to his unit, the war had ended.
When he was about 60, I watched him from the front window of the farmhouse. He had just put a foot in the stirrup of our Arabian horse Arky when it bolted. Across the yard came Dad and Arky. Dad, with one foot in the stirrup, one hand on the saddle horn, and the other on the cantle. No look of fear, no thought of death, just a natural born horseman as he swung into the saddle and brought the wide-eyed, nostril-flaring horse under control.
And of course there was the time he and my brothers Joe and Fran were caught in a freak storm while on a Boundary Waters fishing expedition. Dad was in his 70’s at the time. In a canoe out on the open water, the October gale capsized them and left them treading water for over two hours. Hypothermia had set in and death looked like it was going to take three McCormack men that day.
They ended up washed up on an island with no belongings. A little butane lighter found on the beach helped them create a fire. Some packs floated in and once they were able to push back the hypothermia, they feasted on water and cake mix. A Canadian Coast Guard boat found them the next day and took Fran back to where they got the canoe. He came back with a bigger canoe and they finished the three week fishing expedition.
At age 75, Dad fell two stories while painting a house we had in town. He lay on the grass with a broken ankle, leg and other injuries. A neighbor who happened to be looking out his window when Dad fell called the paramedics. After operations to set pins, Dad was confined to a chair at home. My Mom lovingly cared for him, but mainly through “Irish Therapy.” She was so mad he was up on a ladder at his age in the first place that she would thrust a rosary at him and growl “PRAY!” After about a week of that, my Dad willed himself to walk.
My Dad was a quiet man. Mom more than filled up the airspace in the house with ideas, orders, and exclamations. Dad had a way of speaking just one line and that would be all I needed to hear.
For example, as I was agonizing over whether I should take the leap into a full-time career of music, I was out fixing fences on the farm with Dad. He had heard Mom telling me what I should do and how I should do it for a good chunk of time (mainly by finding some cast doing the Sound of Music and touring as Rolfe, the telegram delivery boy who becomes a Nazi). He could tell I was pretty frustrated. We worked silently for a while and then he said to me, “You know, there’s a guy here in town named Mario who plays accordion for a living. Has a nice house out west on South Street. Seems like he can raise a family on music.” And that was it.
Or the time we were out loading pigs for market. He was backing up the truck when I accidentally caught my hand between a steel gate post and the tailgate. Although I managed to pull it out almost in time, my left index finger was ripped by the force. I stood there holding it and bleeding. Dad looked a bit pale and said, “Oh, no, that’s your guitar fingering hand!” I was amazed that he knew and cared. It was all I needed to hear that he believed in what I was doing. We went to the ER and I was so grateful that I didn’t lose a digit that day.
All of this came back to me on January 5. I sat all day with Dad, not eating or moving from his side. Through the clouds of confusion, bits of sunshine:
We talked about Áine. “She needs a companion,” he said.
We talked about him first meeting Mom on the west side of Chicago.
“Did you like her right away?” I asked.
He grinned and purred, “Oh yeah.”
We reviewed his life. He told me his one regret was that he never flew a plane.
He was happy he traveled to the farm in Ireland. That he would love to see Wyoming again.
He wanted to get sheep back on the farm in spring.
He teased me about music.
“Good luck with that,” he said. “I’m just kidding you.”
And then, he would drift. Some nonsensical talk about buying a tractor or fixing the fence.
“Dad, we’ll get that taken care of later. Try to rest,” I would say.
I knew he was dying.
By Sunday he was not responsive. We brought him over to hospice. Annie remarked that it was like watching someone in childbirth, the idea of being surrounded by loved ones, but having to go through the process alone in some other realm to create this new life.
On Monday, Brian and I drove out to Woodstock. We brought our guitars and gave Dad a last concert of our music. Fran, Tony, and Robert joined in as we sang "Bolinree,” “Take Me Home to Mayo,” and favorite cowboy songs. I told Dad it was OK to go and be with Mom. That we would play him to the other side. I told him that if I didn’t see him the next day, I hoped to see him in heaven.
Tuesday was a blustery, Irish weather day. A perfect day. As my brother Tony said, “A Good Friday type of day.” Rain in sheets and a stiff wind from the West. Dad died around 8 a.m., quietly telling Death that they needed to get going.
Mom, I suspect, was waiting and probably mad that he was taking his time.
Dear Switchback fans,
It’s amazing to see how a box of Christmas ornaments can stir memories. I was recently in Woodstock, Illinois visiting my dad on a cold day. The sun was out, but the wind chill was around 2 degrees Fahrenheit. The open fields of McHenry County picked up the granules of snow and flung them into the air so that the back field sparkled in sun. The prismatic effect carried through the fences and over the drifts before curling around and shaking the old farm house. The house was warm and Dad was drowsing a bit and when he awakened, we would talk. I brought out his tackle boxes and together we went through all three of them (fishermen, you can relate) and I organized each one. One shelf had the plastic worms, Mr. Twisters, another shelf had the spinner baits and small spoons. The next shelf, the plugs, the Shimmy Shads, and the poppers that looked like frogs. All the while, I held them up to Dad and he peered through a magnifying glass to inspect one or another. It was fun to talk about summers past, and just looking at the tackle boxes made me anticipate the warmth of summer, the open lake and a chance to get that fish. It’s something that is hard to do as a full time musician, and it is even tougher to schedule that time with your parent.
So while Dad took a nap, I walked into the living room. My brother Robert had brought up the boxes of Christmas decorations from the basement. There was the Allied Van Lines box that contained all the glass ornaments for the tree. That cardboard box had been part of the family since 1967 or earlier. It was amazing to see that even a cardboard box would stir memories of Christmases past.
In our family, we had a lot of traditions for Christmas and they all came out of cardboard boxes. Decorating the tree took place about a week before Christmas. Dad would bring the tree and it would sit out on the porch for a day or two until we were ready to get at it. Nevermind if it snowed on it. In it would come and the snow and cold would drop off onto newspapers set on the floor. We had an old, metal tree stand that had three sockets for full sized light bulbs. The sockets had long ago burnt out, but the stand was sturdy and could take an 8 foot tall tree. We would anchor that tree into the dull, green metal stand, twisting the bolts and making sure it was secure. And then we would bring out the lights. Not these LED, dainty lights we now have, but thick cords, wrapped in cloth, with a good sized blue, red or green bulb. A wooden red ball would be around the cord near the bulb so you could get it on the branch. You always had to work from the inside of the tree out and from the bottom of the tree up. The bulbs would get hot and slowly, the glowing bulbs would help the tree fill out by their sheer weight.
Next would be the tinsel. Yes, remember tinsel? Tinsel was what separated the men from the boys when it came to Christmas trees. And you could not cheat when putting it up on the tree. Again, from the inside out, one strand at a time. Inevitably Peter or Colin would take two or three of these strands, and licking them, would put them on the front hall antique mirror. Calling Mom over, they would point and say, “Mom, David broke the front hall mirror!” And my Mom would then would scream and it would take about 15 minutes to convince her that indeed, it was only tinsel and not really a crack. She would then forget about the trick until it was repeated a year later. If you really wanted to get Mom mad, you would carelessly throw tinsel in the air and see if the branches would just catch it and have gravity do the rest. That was not allowed and tantamount to desecration of the Christmas tree.
Finally, lit and tinseled, out would come the ornaments. Beautiful German ornaments that had winter scenes hand painted on their hand blown surfaces. Delicate Italian metal ornaments of miniature nativity scenes. Wooden cut outs, again hand painted, of all the Peanuts characters from “Merry Christmas Charlie Brown” taking residence next to antique frosted pine cones. Hundreds of ornaments gathered over the years, each having a unique story.
Mom would have the Firestone Christmas album on the phonograph and in spite of its soothing tones and joyous melodies, there was always time for shenanigans to ruin another attempt at a peaceful family moment. Like the horrible day that Peter took the box that had the “piece de la resistance,” a hand blown, painted star that had been in the family for generations. Thinking the box was empty, he went over to David and cracked it over his head to shock everyone into thinking he had broken the star. He did not realize that the star had actually been placed back into the box to keep it from being broken. That was as close as we ever got to seeing Mom go thermonuclear. And of course “Joy to the World” would be playing. And for each year after that, the broken star remained in its original box, kept with the ornaments, the albatross of the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" for our family. That and the bad plastic star from Hornsby's that replaced it with intermittent Italian lights. The goal was to find another antique star, but alas, that was impossible.
Out of another old cardboard box (from Reebie Movers of Chicago and featuring a rather solemn Sphinx on the front) would come the hand-carved nativity set from Italy. This was something that one would never mess with. Each were in smaller cardboard boxes, some from old toys that had been opened and destroyed twenty Christmases earlier. Metal race cars and supersonic passenger jets stamped into metal from Japan (if you tore those toys apart, you could see Japanese characters!) that by now were antiques and the boxes themselves probably collectables on American Pickers.
We would read the story of Christ’s birth and as it unfolded, we would set up the nativity set. Shepherds in the field would bring out the carved sheep and the Italian shepherd, with his felt hat glued firmly in his one hand, a miniature shepherd’s crook in the other. A wonderfully carved cow lying down and looking like it was chewing its cud, and a tired donkey with half closed eyes looking like it was still recovering from the long journey to Bethlehem. Tall stately camels for the three wise men who were resplendent in thick, laced-trimmed cloaks, each bent low to look on in wonder at Jesus in the manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes and with the most beatific smile.
And of course Mary, looking none the worse for wear after her virgin birth, her arms outstretched in a protective pose and Joseph, standing a bit behind her and gazing at the scene with a look of “what did I get myself into?” on his carved face. Above it all an angel, beautiful in its flowing robes and wooden, delicate wings. It would bear a banner “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” that would sum up the whole miracle of Christmas.
Over the years, as a joke, one of the brothers might put the porcelain monkey that was dressed as a doctor (a gag gift from medical school), with its hands behind his back holding a big hypodermic needle, peering over the shepherd. Or the carved tarantula that was brought from Venezuela by Aunt Nancy and Uncle Jim, penned in with the donkey and cow. Just a test to see if Mom or anyone else was paying attention to the nativity scene. These would be removed by the Nativity Police, only to be replaced by other strange knick-knacks that existed in the house.
Mother had a massive Santa collection that would come out and dominate the mantelpiece over the fireplace. Soap Santas, wooden Santas, a porcelain Santa from Japan, with his hands on his hips and a smile on his Asian features. Santas taken out of more cardboard boxes, wrapped in old wrapping paper, newspaper or gauze. And each unfolding, each opening of the box would bring out memories of Christmases past. Tiny little Santas made of bone china and plastic Santas that could survive a shot from a cannon. Each would take their rightful place over the fireplace mantel.
And in these little boxes would be bits of pine needles from trees past, or a twisted piece of tinsel from when each would be taken away and placed back in the box until another Christmas.
And still more cardboard boxes, with plastic wreaths that were older than me and still would be ready to hang in each window of the house. A big plastic holly wreath for the front door. A pink frosted fiberglass wreath festooned with silver ornaments for the other.
There they all sat. In the boxes. Memories of Christmas past.
On Christmas morning, we would come into the living room (always blocked from view by a sheet from a bed) and witness what Santa had brought. When we were really little, Dad would film us with a super 8 camera and a row of bright light bulbs that would blind you as you entered the room. And all the gifts that came in boxes. All the toys. Eventually Mom got tired of boxes and changed to big plastic contractor bags. We would go around, each kid closing his or her eyes, and pull out a gift. As we grew older, we knew that the sweater vest Joseph just received would be duplicated for Tony, for Fran, for David, myself, Peter, Colin, Robby and even Celia. Or the Christmas of the Morris Flow-Ball pens. Everyone got one and it became a joke to exclaim, “Oh, a Morris Flow-Ball Pen” as each kid pulled it out of their bag.
It was amazing how my Mother could gather gifts and store them for future Christmases. It was not unusual to get a shirt from a defunct store, circa 1980, twelve years later. Such was the power of the room at the end of the hall that contained all of Mom’s purchases, and called “The Little End Bedroom Store.” Even with Mom's passing, the Little End Bedroom Store probably has enough gifts to keep going until 2035.
I suspect all of us have these memories, these cardboard boxes. I chuckle as I see the boxes I am starting to fill for Áine.
Such memories are the heart of Christmas, those wonderful time capsules, those benign ghosts of Christmases past that conjure that one moment when the earth truly seems in reach of “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.” All the memories are passed on to future generations, unless broken when smashed over the head of a sibling. Those that survive secure the bonds of love, of family, that are in our grasp at Christmas. But the important note to me is that it takes the cardboard box to keep safe the delicate memories. Each one of us is like that box, and we all have the delicate beauty of the true meaning of Christmas to hold sacred and keep safe for the next generation to treasure. In time, they too will have their cardboard boxes, their memories, and on and on it goes. So, my holiday wish to you, dear Switchback fans, is that all your memories be special, delicate, and beautiful, and may all your boxes be of sturdy cardboard.
Dear Switchback Fans,
For someone living in another solar system, perhaps it would come as news that one of the most divisive and cacophonous elections in American history just took place. For those fans outside the US, it probably seems strange, even dangerous, to see America, well, so vulnerable.
And it seemed weird to me as I sat at the Bob Evans restaurant in Kokomo, Indiana, eavesdropping on the folks at the tables around me. People were nervous with this election, and to me it sounded like winners and losers alike shared an uncertainty about tomorrow. People spoke in hushed tones, with heads bent forward and hands nervously kneaded before grabbing their cups of coffee.
I looked around thinking, "There must be some sign that things will be OK."
Then I saw it. It was silhouetted against the rising sun of the morning. And I had to smile as I realized what a reassuring sign it was. It was the American flag, slowly waving in the breeze over the parking lot of the Bob Evans restaurant. I looked at it and realized in the flag there was a poignant message to all Americans and in turn to the world.
One cannot point to a star on the flag and say, "That's the star of Illinois.” There's no way of telling which star is which. Same for the stripes. I can't tell which white stripe or which red stripe represents which original colony. Which one sits above the other.
I can't tell what percentage of the flag is made up for African-Americans or Irish Americans or Italian Americans or Jewish Americans or Mexican Americans. I can't tell if it's a flag for gays, for Catholics or Muslims. I can't tell if I'm looking at a Republican flag, a Democratic flag, or an independent flag.
The irony here is clear to me. By its anonymity, the American flag represents everybody. The marchers on the street carry this flag, carrying with them the representation of the very people they march against. The Republicans waving it at their rallies and the Democrats waving it at theirs wave a representation of the very people they campaign against.
There is a tendency to look at the world through an "us versus them" mentality. In this day and age it seems continually easier to become polarized even though we have at our disposal technology to bring people together. Perhaps it's fitting to look on our flag as a wonderful creation that reminds us that we cannot succeed through division. That our very willingness to live under the flag means that we must be willing to live as one people. And just as taking a star away or ripping a stripe renders the flag no longer the flag, so too the country.
Yes, it is a tumultuous time, and yes, we walk in uncertainty, but if we look at the flag, even one waving over a chain restaurant, there is hope. And that we as neighbors have the responsibility to continue to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Dear Switchback fans,
David Bowie’s song “We Can Be Heroes” touches on the idea that all of us have the capacity for doing something large in our lives. Some of us do that without ever realizing that we are. More than any other celebrity or notable figure of the past, I have found my own everyday heroes.
According to Wikipedia the word hero comes from the Greek ἥρως (hērōs) meaning "hero, warrior." I would like to add that I consider a hero one who obtains a doctorate degree from Adversity University. They manage to triumph, though they might not necessarily win.
The first hero that I want to laud is my father. Within a month of my mother’s death, my dad was in the hospital. It turned out that he had complications that arose from a stomach operation 62 years earlier. And, of course, just when he is reeling from the death of his partner, adversity comes to pay a visit. So my father spent over three weeks in the hospital, unable to eat solid food. His weight dwindled to 109 pounds. While I would have been an angry, whining man, my father was patiently enduring the slow process of determining just was wrong with him. Then the word came from the doctor that he had a choice to make. He could either have a surgery that had a 50-50 chance of his dying on the table or palliative care. He could have taken the easy way out and gone into hospice. He chose to fight and underwent the surgery. The recovery has been painfully slow. Our family had to go through the eerie familiarity of being in the ICU where Mom had died just weeks before. My dad, who has cheated death several times in his life, managed to succeed with the operation. He is now recovering, gaining weight and beginning to get his strength back.
Tom Hutchcroft and his wife Maureen have been long time Switchback fans. They had traveled to Ireland with us and, in fact, spent their honeymoon touring with us in Ireland! When we would come to play around Keokuk, Iowa, it was Tom and Maureen that would volunteer to come out and help sell merchandise. When we got word from Maureen that Tom had leukemia, we were worried for his health and the battle he would have to face. Maureen was right there with him through the battle and the roller coaster ride of finding a marrow donor and going through the procedure. It was heartbreaking when word came that the marrow transplant didn’t take. In spite of this he made the effort to come see us when we played at Music Under The Water Tower in Donnellson this past spring. He had to wear a mask as his immune system was weakened. It was a great honor to have him make the effort to attend the show. I thanked him and cheered him on in his fight. When word of his passing came, it was right during the death of my own mother. Maureen, who could have retreated into her own pain, decided to reach out and comfort me. I was struck by her faith and her determination to honor Tom by doing the things they both loved. Maureen will be joining us for our Songwriters Weekend and will be traveling to Tuscany with us. I consider them both heroes.
Another good friend, Cathy Osmundson, fought ovarian cancer for 20 years. We met Cathy when we played a BMW bike rally out at Money Creek, Minnesota. Cathy stood out at that event as she was the only one to come riding in on a Harley. It was obvious that Cathy was a rebel. We watched as Cathy earned her nursing degree and we played her graduation party out near Fairmont, Minnesota. Around the same time, Cathy’s long battle with cancer commenced. Through all the various treatments, Cathy stayed strong and reported through Facebook where her health was. When my friend Roger developed cancer, it was Cathy’s phone number I gave him. I knew she could encourage him and help him in his own fight. That was the sort of person Cathy was. Never retreating, she helped organize musical events and venues from Minnesota to Colorado for us. She made wreaths for the holidays and I bought one for our home last year because they were so beautifully done. Her energy was positive and always focused on reaching out to the other person. Many folks in the WayGood world came to know Cathy by her riding her bike out to shows. A couple weeks ago, I wrote her on Facebook. It seemed that the doctors had run out of treatments to assist Cathy in her long fight. She now was saying goodbye to all of us. I couldn’t think of anything other than writing “I love you, Cathy,” and her reply was “Love you more.” Cathy passed last week and we lost another hero.
There are many more heroes that I know. Being in Switchback and part of the WayGood world has put in me in touch with “ordinary” people who inspire me. Who make my everyday troubles, the sideswiped car, the popped veneer, the paying of the bills, all seem small and insignificant. Most of these heroes walk a path that constantly calls for courage and faith. They do not wear their suffering on their sleeves. To meet them you would not know you were in the presence of such heroes. But when you get to know them, you are in awe. And like Bowie’s song, they encourage me, remind me that quite possibly I can be a hero “just for one day.” I encourage you to share with the rest of us whoever you would consider a hero and write about that in the comment section below.
Annie and I wish to thank everyone who responded with beautiful notes of support and sympathy at the passing of “Mini-mom.” It has been wonderfully overwhelming, and in the course of reading cards and emails, the intention of personally responding to each has given way to this general “thank you” from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for such inspirational insights and in some cases, sage advice about the steps of dealing with the loss of a mother. It is a WayGood World that we all have created through The Music and it is deeply comforting to find that world supporting myself and my family through this sad time.
The hard part for our family has begun and that is the adjustment to life without a loved one. A long time ago, Brian and I wrote the song “Loneliest Road” which described a widow adjusting to life without her soldier husband. I am now able to watch first-hand my own father adjusting to the loss of his wife of 64 years. It is hard to see a man I hardly ever saw cry during my whole life, weep.
And it is hard to see how a two-and-a-half-year-old adjusts to losing her grandmother. The other night Annie put Áine to bed and told her about wishing on stars, a new concept. Aine looked up at the one star that can make it through the Chicago glare and said, “I wish... I wish Mimi could come back.”
And yet, in spite of all the sadness, the love and support from the WayGood World has been a mainstay in keeping my spirit afloat and focused on the triumph my mom’s life has been. My continuing mission of touching people’s souls through music is part of her legacy.
Thank you for being my musical family.
Dear Switchback fans,
I was five years old. My mother and I were sitting at the piano. The room was dark except for the light of the lamp that illuminated the music. As mother to 10 children, she didn’t have a lot of time to play, so it was a rare moment; one of the only moments, in fact, that I can recall when I alone was with her. As she played, I watched her delicate, small hands move over the keys.
Suddenly, I was moved to tears as a thought that I had never had before came into my head: I blurted out, “Mom, I don’t want you to die.” She stopped playing, surprised to see me crying and let out a little laugh. “Oh, Marty, I don’t either.” She then held me there, comforting me. That moment haunted me for years, for I knew that inevitably, like Grampy, Grammy, Uncle Frank, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Ida, Uncle Bill, Grandma and Grandpa and countless other people I loved, my mother, too, would die one day.
Two major gifts my mother gave me were the love of music and the love of the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. My siblings and I spent many summers out in Wyoming and it has placed an indelible mark on all of us McCormacks. Our family might have grown up in Woodstock, but Wyoming was the spiritual hub, the Vatican of the family soul. When I wanted to propose to Annie, I knew that the best place would be in Wyoming. When I needed to get somewhere to be grounded, there was no better place than standing on the foothills of Sheep Mountain, looking across the valley at the grandeur of the Tetons. If I was to die today, I would have to be cremated and spread part in Wyoming, part in Ireland, and probably a teaspoon sprinkled in Brian’s food when he isn’t looking. And so, Wyoming has always been part of that “inevitable.” My grandparents rest in Aspen Cemetery, the headstone in line with the Grand Tetons. This autumn, my mother will rest next to them. Someday, my father will join them.
Perhaps I should have taken note of all the signs that her passing was coming. Being Irish, I have an almost primal need to be affirmed by signs -- a year of great people exiting the world stage, a young woman in Sweden sporting a tattoo of the state of Wyoming at our last show there, followed by the appearance of a moose.
There is also synchronicity -- that my dad was hospitalized right before I left for Europe and I was able to see him recover, then return to the States to be at my mother’s side for her passing. And of course, the text message from my brother Peter right before our show in Herefordshire, England, that he was with Mom and Dad and they wanted to wish me a happy birthday. I was able to call and have a great conversation with them and thank my Mother once again for bringing me into the world. I described for them the beautiful countryside and of course, Mom threw in some advice about my music for me. In a lot of ways, things could not have progressed more perfectly in the passing of my Mom. We parted as always, with a lot of unspoken love.
The time leading up to her death was unfair. Prepping for her operation on her hip, Mom had to stay at a rehab center. It had an outbreak of the scabies and so was quarantined, which stripped us of the chance to visit her. Luckily her physician was able to get her out for appointments and we used those times so she could visit with Dad. That last time I saw Mom alive was prior to heading to Europe. I drove Dad to the Woodstock City Park and set up a chair so he could sit with Mom for a while. My sister Cecilia, driving Mom to her appointment, drove to the park. Probably one of the most tender moments was seeing my Dad, leaning on his cane, bend over and gently kiss my mother sitting there in Celia’s car. Like forbidden lovers, my parents were denied that chance to be together for the last two months of her life.
And perhaps, her final passing was also so unfair. Those who have lost a partner or a parent, and been there to witness death -- I know you know. And in spite of years of preparing for this separation, the thought that, as a traveling musician, I could easily die first in my family from a road accident, my mother's death caught me totally off guard.
My mother was a fighter and though she was scared, I knew she would fight. When I arrived with Áine last Tuesday, all seemed OK. Mom’s signs were stable. I spent the day with Dad, having Áine distract both of us. My brother Tony, a physician, arrived as word came that they had to intubate my mother. “You better get here to see Mom,” Tony said. And so, Áine and I came over. “What’s wrong with Mimi?” Áine asked. Her Aunt Cecilia and Uncle Robert, my two youngest siblings, explained. It was good for them to explain to a two-and-a-half-year-old the reality. “She may go to heaven,” Cecilia said. Áine seemed to understand. “Mimi is sick and may go to heaven,” she said. We drove home.
I was still feeling jetlagged from Europe and woke up at 5 a.m. to texts from my family urging me to head back to Woodstock. I woke up Annie. “Mom is dying,” I said. Annie hugged me and asked if she and the baby should come along. But I said I should just get out there as quickly as possible.
Miraculously, Interstate 90 was light of traffic and construction. I arrived in Woodstock in under an hour. The mood had changed. My brothers Fran, Joseph, and Peter were there. Tony was home with Dad, who had visited Mom during the night to say goodbye.
She was still hooked up to all the gadgetry to keep one alive. The fluids and medicines had swollen her, made her look not herself. She was not “herself” anymore. “Let’s try to make this beautiful.” I suggested. I reached down to her and started to sing some of the songs she taught us as children. Fran joined me and we wept as we sang.
When your hair has turned to silver,
I will love you just the same
I will only call you sweetheart
That will always be your name
Through a garden filled with roses
Down the sunset trail we’ll stray
When your hair has turned to silver
I will love you as today.
The Irish also need humor. It is a weapon we have in our arsenal, perhaps put there from all the grief that has been pounded into the DNA through the centuries. We teased Mom that we might have to bury her with Sheevra, the goat who was buried out on the back hill at the farm. It was a longstanding joke that Dad started years ago. One of us noticed that another patient was in the ICU alone in his room. “What if we all walked over and stood around his bed?” my eldest brother Joseph said. Little jabs of humor to ease the pain.
Finally, it was obvious we needed to say farewell. We all told Mom, “Go and be with Grampy, Grammy, Uncle Frank, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Ida and all your friends. We are OK. We will take care of Dad.” I said, “Mom, if you wish to stay, that’s fine too. But the decision is yours. We will miss you.”
At 7:40, the nurse said to my brother Fran, “Her eyes are not reacting to light.” Fran took out his doctor penlight and flashed it by Mom’s eyes. I pulled back her lids and looked as well. Empty. Gone.
“This is not Mom,” I said. “This is now just her shell.” We all joined hands around her and took her hands as well and prayed. We wept. We apologized that she had to die this way, when everything looked like it was going well just two days ago. The “would’ve, should’ve, could’ve” talk started. We stepped out of the room and allowed the nurses to take the tubes and needles and gadgetry away. Finally, we stepped back in as more family arrived. It still wasn’t Mom. It was just what was left of Mom. That wonderful shell that had carried us and still had those delicate little fingers, the elfin ears, the grey curling hair with bits of black that she would never go to the hairdresser for. We cut some of the locks. Joined hands again and prayed. Good solid Catholic prayers that are like salvos out of a battleship.
It was time to head back to the farmhouse and to see Dad. I looked one last time at Mom and walked out firmly believing that Mom made her choice and left.
From there, it has been a walk in pain, remembrance, laughter, meetings on the funeral, obituaries, taking in flowers, taking calls from friends, trying to reach the extended family and the flurry of activity that helps bury the loss. The house was filled at Rose Farm with grandkids running around, in-laws and the sort of activity Mom would have reveled in and would have ruled over. “It’s as if she’s in the next room,” Annie said. And she is.
Now, 48 years from that evening at the piano, I think about my mother and myself. In life, she was dubious at best when it came to her approval of my career. “If only” would be the preface to a lot her conversations with me. In many ways, her familiarity with me, (for she was responsible for starting my path in music), clouded her ability to accept that perhaps when one is acting to the best of his ability, the rest is up to a higher power to decide on what being successful looks like.
There is no sure-fire path to “the top” in music. And I personally reject what society considers “the top” in the music business. Mom could have been a performer and she had the goods to be one. Her mother and she were both models at points in their lives. She could have pursued the path. But her calling was to be a mother and for that she succeeded wonderfully.
But music, unlike all of the other arts, is not a business, after all. It is a calling. Success in music means a complete surrender to music. Although we both loved music, we didn’t share a common language of the practice of being a musician. So, Mom didn’t want me to be Bono, but the blonde haired “Rolf” from the Sound of Music Stage Tour? Yes, that would have been OK for Mary McCormack.
If I have any regret over our relationship, it would be that she could have seen that in so many ways, I did meet her expectations. Her own doubts about herself, I had to subdue and not claim as my own. My own embracing of the calling and surrender was reward in and of itself. Still, it would have meant the world to have heard that she understood and approved.
My mother was the inspiration behind the Switchback song "The Fire that Burns." The refrain goes, “The fire that keeps me warm, is the fire that burns.” And in the end, I was able to let go of that burning and embrace the warmth. And that is the part of my mother that truly shined, not only for us kids, but for so many people as well. And that is why she is and will continue to be an amazing, living, guiding force.
Two days after Mom died, Brian and I had to play an outreach performance in Evanston. At the end, I asked if there were any requests. A man waved his hand, stood up and waved frantically. “Wyoming!” he said. “Play something from Wyoming.”
Immediately, Brian said, "That's a sign from your mom." We played "Why Oh Why Did I Ever Leave Wyoming" for the gentleman, who hailed from that great state that my mother so loved. A sign indeed. Mom, your requests from the audience will always go straight to the top of the list.
Dear Switchback fans,
I brought Áine to the St. Louis Center for Head Injury a couple of weeks ago. This is a place that serves the metro area of St. Louis and its collar counties. They are there to help rehabilitate, encourage, and nurture people who have suffered injury to the brain. The reasons for injury are myriad but unique to the individuals there. The clients of the facility are of all walks of life, all colors and creeds, united in a common reality that they are in need of care, the ability to heal and embrace their challenges. The brain injuries are from mild to severe. I was curious to see what Áine as a two and a half year old would do and how the people would react to her being there. Would she be aware that these folks had such injuries? Would it matter?
When I carried Áine through the door, both she and the group lit up. Áine did her “I am so shy” wave routine that she does when she sees unfamiliar people for the first time. One client came over in her wheelchair right away and reached out for her. Áine backed off at first, but then allowed her to shake hands and be hugged by the lady. The staff was equally beautiful, making sure Áine was safe while we played and really winning her over with some Sweet Tarts.
Brian and I started playing our song Swingin’, Rockin’, Rollin’, and Áine began to dance in front of the band. I have loved her spontaneity to music, that fantastic subliminal soul-driving reaction that I believe all of us have. The group at the Center quickly followed suit and soon we had a nice party going on, with dancing, hand clapping, and shouts of laughter and joy. Áine was happy to be in the midst of it all, stopping occasionally to head back to some of the staff for more Sweet Tarts.
Later that day, Áine came along to Friendship Village. This was the second of our outreach programs that day, this time for a group of independent living seniors. It was Áine’s first show of this kind. Again, she took to the stage and waved to the audience. “Hi, I’m Áine,” was what she said. She gestured to me. “That’s my Poppa.” And then she looked at Brian. “That’s my Uncle Brian.” The audience loved that introduction, and they really started clapping when she began step dancing to our Irish music.
I also learned that the old showbiz adage never to have kids or pets on stage can ring true as well. Áine was getting tired. She decided to stop dancing and go through my bass case at one point. Out of the case she pulled a thin screwdriver needed for repairs. Of course, it was in the middle of a song. She started to wave it like the baton she has seen on her favorite cartoon, “Little Einsteins.” However, to Uncle Brian and Poppa, it was she was going to take on one of the Jets in West Side Story. We quickly wrapped up the tune and I took the screwdriver and locked the case. “Good thing that wasn’t a Bowie knife,” I nervously chuckled to the audience.
Uncle Brian came to the rescue with a huge coloring book. Brian raised his daughter Siobhan, now 20, on shows and she was able to quietly work on coloring while he and Maggie entertained. Not Áine. She indifferently whipped (and ripped) through the coloring book. All the crayons were examined and then dropped on a little table we set up for her. And then Áine put her head down on it.
A full day of playing at parks, dancing and hanging out with Poppa and Uncle Brian had taken their toll, but there was still 15 minutes left in the performance. Áine got up and walked over to me. "Poppa, we go home now?"
And soon Brian and I were “two men and a baby.” Áine broke into crying so I put down the bass and picked up my little daughter. We did the rest of the show with her resting on my shoulder.
She punctuated some of the more tender parts of “Danny Boy” with her tired sobs. Fitfully, she fell asleep.
At this point, I thought folks would be fairly put out by a crying kid during a concert. But it was just the opposite. A lot of folks came up and commented on how much they enjoyed having her there and that it made them think of their own families. One lady came back after the show was over and it was just Poppa, Uncle Brian and Aine in the room. “I want you to know how wonderful it was to see how much love you have for your daughter,” she said. "It was amazing to see how you showed so much grace under pressure." I laughed and thanked her.
It was always my hope that my daughter would have the chance to meet people throughout the WayGood World. And it is nice to be reminded that in a child’s eyes, we are all the same. That the world is a great place. Music is meant to be danced to with as much gusto as possible. And that 7:45 p.m. is pushing it for bedtime.
Dear Switchback fans,
2016 has turned out to be a strange year thus far for our tours. While we had a blast in Costa Rica back in January, we have decided to wait a while and see what happens with the Zika virus before planning for next year. Seems to be the prudent thing to do as our experts cope with a strange new disease.
However, Ireland has become something completely different. For the first time in a long time, we may not have enough fans joining us to justify a tour. And that, I think, has more to do with a more threatening element than any virus-laden mosquito can offer. One family that withdrew from the tour was honest enough to say that they were afraid. Terrorism was the reason they gave, the idea being that away from home they might be more exposed.
And I suspect their fear is probably something that we all have to some degree. And it might be making people hesitate about traveling.
As a traveling musician and one that has to travel outside the United States, the odds of something happening ramp up. The odds of getting hit by a semi-truck are equally enhanced in our business. Or electrocuted on stage. We've dodged three tornados in our career. Bad things happen.
The point I am making is that this year is one of great uncertainty. The election cycle in the United States isn't at all reassuring for anyone it seems. The violence that just devastated Orlando, the vacation mecca of the United States, certainly makes one think it might be better to hunker down on the farm. And the senseless killing of a young musician is just that, senseless and beyond the capacity of understanding. Can one come out to a show and not have to dodge bullets? It makes the mind reel.
And so it seems that Ireland, one of the most benign places in the world, might even be giving people a chance for pause this year.
Franklin Roosevelt said, "The only thing we need to fear is fear itself.” And ultimately he was right. As someone explained to me, the people of Lockerbie, Scotland, probably thought they were in the safest place in the world until one night a terrorist act brought a whole plane crashing down on the village.
Nowhere is completely safe. And our thought that things were safer in the past might be just as illusory. Things have always been dangerous, probably not just as well-covered and excessively detailed as in today's media-hyped world.
So what to do? We can stop traveling, stop going out to shows and just order in, but again, that doesn't make things any safer or really lessen fear.
As much as I am afraid of dying, I know that I have to keep on living. As much as I am afraid of the bad guys, I know I have to be a good guy and continue to give joy to the world. And Brian and I offer you, our fans, an opportunity to celebrate life by joining us in Ireland this October. We are running out of time to make this trip a reality, but my hope is that our fans will rally and truly help us keep it a WayGood World.
Dear Switchback Fans,
2016 seems to be God’s idea of a clearinghouse for musicians. David Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, Paul Kanter, Maurice White, and Phife Dawg have all exited the stage, and we’re not even half way through the year. And who was going to tell me that Frank Sinatra, Jr. died? Who have I missed? As someone said to us, “Just wait, we aren’t over yet.” Indeed. It is enough to make a bass player a bit nervous.
Now in the case of about half of these guys, they lived to a ripe old age for the type of lifestyle that musicians have typically led. Aside from the Stones, with whatever Faustian bargain they have made with the guy they have sympathy for, and Willie, who shows proof in the efficacy of the medicinal qualities of a certain organic substance, all these guys did have their moments in the sun and we are all the better for it. But one can imagine that they all had one heck of a rodeo ride in the process. The life of a musician, especially an independent musician, is filled with a lot of temptation, pitfalls, and setbacks. Then there is the bad stuff that can happen as well.
In the case of several of these musicians, I can, like most people, take a song and remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard it. “1999” was being blasted on WLS AM through a radio (boom boxes had not been invented yet) as we detasseled corn out in the back fields of Hughes Hybrids. We would dance to it as best as we could in our metal baskets, our faces wet with sweat and flecked with corn pollen. The beat of the song pulsed with the grinding noise of the power steering as the behemoth of a detasseling rig lumbered its way over the swells of corn. A long way from what Prince had in mind, I guess. And 1999 seemed so far away at the time. Like I had all the time in the world to reach it, too.
With “Take it Easy,” well, I was being chased around the Woodstock City Pool by Suzy Draffkorn. I was just nine years old and Suzy had a crush on me, I think. She would run after me and try to pull my swim trunks down. Since the trunks were hand-me-downs, I am sure they had a head start already, and Suzy was determined. I was afraid of the deep end, and so I would seek refuge in the three foot deep section of the pool and dog paddle like crazy to escape. I never had any other woman chase me like that since, even when I became a musician. (One would think all these famous guys would have lived a lot longer if they were being chased all the time. Good for the heart!) Suzy’s affection always comes back to me as soon as I hear those first three chords of the song. Yes, I only got as far as Pollywog in my swim class, but I did go downstate in Cross Country. So thanks, Suzy.
“Let’s Dance” was one of two big Bowie moments in my life. That song came along as I was in college. I was totally taken by the guitar solo, and it was little wonder that the player was some young guy named Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was spring and the smelt fishermen were lined up along the breakwater of Lake Michigan. I was dating a girl named Maria at the time, and we walked along the water at night and the fishermen would have their lamps out, pulling in the fish and grilling them right there on the concrete. School was coming to an end, and life seemed wide open and frightening at the same time. “Space Oddity” was a 45 we would listen to over and over again when we were out in Wyoming. My brothers and sister would do interpretive dance to the song, play-acting Major Tom “floating on my tin can.” It was a song that a five year old could easily memorize. The funny part would be that the cut would fade out on side one. One of us would flip it to side two and back into the song. Those were the late 60’s and early 70’s and not one of us ever stopped and said, “Hey, that’s lame!” You just accepted the limitations of the technology. I miss those limits, too. The sharing of a song was so important. Today, we can plug in our earbuds and tune out everyone around us.
“September” was one of those songs that even the melody was happy. To this day, I can’t repeat all the words. It was one of those songs I would think I knew all the words to, but didn’t. I would start in singing it with the radio and end up mumbling happily along to the chorus. I knew the inflections, the chorus, the joy that was Earth, Wind and Fire.
And Merle? “Okie from Muskogee” was in the bar in Pell Lake when Dave Heuvelman and I were treated to our first beer by his grandpa. Um, we were 14 at the time, but that day Grandpa decided Dave and I were men. We had been out on the farm, working hard to help him put up his shortwave radio antennae. Part of the wire had to cross a two acre pond. I had capsized a boat filled with the wire spool in the process, resulting in an aquatic salvage operation, but finally got the wire across, strung up on telephone poles and the shortwave working. Grandpa saw something: he saw us work like young men and felt we deserved a beer. So we got in his big Cadillac and drove to Pell Lake, over the border in Wisconsin. The bar was a tiny building, with several good deer heads on the knotty pine walls. Smoke from cigarettes filled the air and tinged it a hazy grey color. It was magical, sitting at the bar on the cracked deep red vinyl stools, with the music playing, lights dim, a burger on the plate and a beer sitting in a tall frosted mug in my hand. My life had changed.
Yes, we all die. And really, it is not about a famous musician dying. With musicians, especially songwriters, the song is what matters. And for all of us music becomes something very personal. Prince, Bowie, Lennon, Rodgers and Hart, Carmichael -- it doesn’t matter. They were just the vehicles to deliver the goods. The songs make our lives, who we are. The song for the first kiss, the birth, the death. It is an honor when the Good Lord allows us to write a good one.
And yes, big successful musicians who are lucky enough to get the airwaves and their songs pounded into our heads have a good chance of having their songs remembered. The music business is not a level playing field. It is more like a minefield. It is a rarity when a songwriter is lauded before his or her death. Carole King comes to mind as an exception. She has a musical out about her life and she deserves it. But there are lot of Caroles out there, juggling a kid and a part time job while pursuing a full-time dream.
There are a lot of songs to take and make your own. A lot of beautiful songwriters out there. We should remember, appreciate, and honor those songwriters who have died, but do us living songwriters a favor too. Get out there and enjoy us while we are around. Allow us the honor of you taking one of our songs and making it your own. And let us know about it. I have a feeling Prince would have appreciated feeling all that love while he could still smile and savor it. No amount of fame or money can take the place of love.
Dear Switchback fans,
With Mother’s Day approaching in just a few weeks, I thought I would focus on writing about my Moms. That’s right, my many moms. Of course I have one mother and that is Mary Virginia Lang McCormack or “Mini-Mom” as I like to call her. She is only five feet tall and now that she is approaching the age of 90, she seems to be shrinking, but her personality seems to grow.
My mother was the one who inspired me to explore music. At our house out in Woodstock, there was a vast collection of records. Probably the most important to me were the 78s that came along with an old Victrola record player. My mother would allow me to play these and the other LPs of her collection. It was a way of finding out who my mother was, because although she wasn’t a musician, she was musical. And her musicality, her deep love of music, was something that resonated with me. My mother was not one to be on stage, although she could sing and play the piano. She recognized that I had an ability to sing and play. So, in spite of having nine other kids to look after, my mom began my career by bringing me to a nursing home at the age of four to sing “Silent Night.” I was so small, that I was placed on top of a table so that the residents could see me. That was my first stage.
My mother wasn’t a stage mom. She did not hover over any of us and push us toward music. However, we were a musical family. We did enjoy singing and ultimately that led us to performing as a family singing group. We sang for various functions around McHenry County and usually would perform for retirement homes as well. It was not that we did this with an eye toward being famous or even the idea of it being a career. There was a sense of service and the idea “to whom much is given, much is expected.” We did rehearse a bit for these shows and the rehearsals themselves would be a tedious affair, as most of us kids would rather be anywhere but working on songs over and over. Eventually, everyone in my family had a call to become something other than a musician, while it became clearer to me that I needed to pursue music.
And over time, I started to meet my musical mothers, the women who helped shape my career. The first was my guitar teacher, Eunice Mast. She was part of “folk royalty” and was close friends with Pete Seeger. She and her husband, Don, lived in Woodstock and converted their home into “a house of music,” literally opening up their second floor in the living room into a balcony and having visiting musicians present shows. I would visit her every week to learn a guitar song. Eunice taught me the importance of accepting that just being a musician was enough. I didn’t have to obsess about becoming famous. Her own joy at being a musician and creating joy was enough. She showed me how to take matters into my own hands when it came to creating a musical show. Over a bubbling pot of potatoes she was cooking for a dinner concert at the Masthouse (the name folkies gave their home), she explained how the business end of music worked…that the playing field was not level and instead of waiting for permission from others, take the power to make your music available in the present. When Eunice was diagnosed with cancer, she showed the same determination in how she wanted to live her remaining days. She participated in her own farewell party, surrounded by musicians who were nurtured and encouraged by her.
When I had graduated from college, I knew I had to find a good voice teacher. And somehow, I connected with Wilma Osheim. Wilma was an “Iowegian” (a Norwegian-Iowan) who did not learn English until high school, her town speaking the native tongue with English the second language. She went on to become one of the best voice teachers in the Midwest, teaching at the American Conservatory of Music. With Wilma, she taught me to see my voice as an instrument and to use it to master all styles of music. She would tell me how the singer is like a ship at sea, from the outside it looks like it is one complete majestic entity, serenely sailing along. But if one was to see what was going on inside, one could see all the work that was being done to propel the vessel forward. So, under her guidance, I developed my voice. She would have me dissect songs, breaking down lines and phrases so that I could sing with meaning and in the moment physically and mentally. She was a great drill sergeant, pushing me to be the best and use my ability to go from Irish ballads to rock originals to opera. When Wilma passed, I felt I lost the person who turned my voice into an instrument.
It would be a while later when I found another musical mother. Her name is Sheryl Rak and she probably is the best known musical teacher and coach in the Chicago area. I came to Sheryl to further my voice studies, but I found that what I really was seeking was the spiritual connection to why I was called to do music. Sheryl helped me fine tune the instrument, with exercises and a self-awareness in delivery that Brian and I still use today. But it was the time I spent with her, talking about music being a calling and how it directly applied to my life that I will always treasure with her. To visit Sheryl’s studio on Irving Park Road in Chicago was akin to entering a Himalayan shaman’s mountain temple. Everything was decorated in purple, her favorite color, including her clothes. Sitting next to the piano, Buddha-like, Sheryl pushed the spiritual training of the musician through affirmations. Her affirmations about singing, about accepting the musician’s path, helped me through some pretty rocky times. “I am music, I am flexible and flowing,” still comes into my mind when I step onto a stage. Now retired from teaching, Sheryl still has many musicians around Chicago who owe their survival and sanity to her wisdom. Brian and I are two musicians who directly benefited from her teaching.
There are many people who come into our lives that have an impact. But each of these women in many ways took me and brought my music to a deeper level. As only a mother can, they created, nurtured and weaned me when the time was right. I don’t know if I will come across another musical mother in my career. But I am grateful for the ones I have been blessed enough to receive. Happy Mother’s Day, Moms.
American Roots & Celtic Soul