How to keep my mother

A brief reading at the cemetery for her committal

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory.

After her brain injury in October 2020, I remember sitting with my mother outside on the patio at the house in Vacaville. The most voracious reader I have known, she couldn’t, and could never again, see well enough to read due to visual field cuts. She would never fully regain her balance, and in these early days she was mostly drowsing and not very responsive. With help, we brought her outside and I sat with her in the stillness of this particular autumn afternoon and played audio of the readings of Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney. I like to think it helped her think of her homeland and Irish family.

Over the following several months she regained an astounding amount of function as family, and many friends old and new, bore loving witness. 

While she could not live independently again (and had not wanted to live alone at the house in Vacaville anyway after Dad died), in San Francisco, she did nevertheless have her own place with her own carers, worked very hard with therapists so that she could get her own self around the apartment, and thus did gain some independence for herself. We could visit every day; she enjoyed very good foods and very excellent care; she had a sunny window with a view of the city; and she made new friends. 

Despite her constant struggle after that to retain short-term memory, she was always happy to see us. She not only built loving new relationships with carers and our trainer, and even with therapists who perhaps visited only briefly, but she always kept precious the memory of long-time friends, some of whom went to heroics to visit and to constantly keep in touch.

And like a volume of books, she retained the memory of songs and poems from a lifetime ago — from a distant Irish past. She trotted out old Irish songs I had never heard before, and continued to recite poems from far and wide, as if not being able to read was not important, because the words were etched with permanence inside her mind.

Although her dad, Grandpa Norman, taught me to memorize the alphabet backwards, I have never been as talented at reciting poetry as Mom and Grandpa. But I thought if I could remember a poem like she could remember a poem, I could keep her. 

So I memorized this poem, and read it at the cemetery:

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Postscript by Seamus Heaney

It strikes me that this poem is breathtaking because it describes a moment that can never be captured or relived, which is, of course, what makes it precious. On the other hand, memory — especially in the short term — can be so fickle. When you have that one moment of the present, you can’t turn around to drive back to get it again. I am happy I got to say “I love you more” a million more times to my mother, but I can’t say it that one more time.

I was able to recite the poem from memory. But I was still unable to keep my mother.

After he died, a fellow poet said of Seamus Heaney: “His work will pass into permanence.” So maybe memory isn’t exactly the way I will get to keep her.

I will breathe in deep breaths, and when I release them, maybe each time I will allow a little more of my mom to pass into permanence in my heart. And I will know that she is there not in the keeping, but in the release, during every countless random hurry when the wind and the light catch it off guard and blow it open.

Me and my mom, Norma Moya Black Watson, 1936-2022

Father’s Day 2019 — via 1940


The Watsons at the World Fair in ~1940. Left to right: my grandpa Ernest, my uncle Ernie, my dad Richard.

This is the first father’s day I’ve ever known without my father. I don’t much like it, but although Dad has been gone for months, I still feel his presence and find reminders of him at all kinds of the right moments.

Recently, I was talking with Mom about what to do with a box of Dad’s old 78 records. I love music; I love records, and these old 78s are from a special era in the 1940s when music was not as easy to come by as it is today. Songs were pressed one to a side on weighty shellac record discs which played through to a deep groovy sound we don’t hear in digital renderings today. Clearly my dad prized and loved this collection, caring for and moving the box of volumes of 78s as my family moved several times over seven decades, keeping the discs in good shape even when the instruments for playback were no longer available at home. Knowing how special these were to him (and some of these discs were also hers), Mom was having a hard time letting go of or knowing what otherwise to do with these.

I took the box with me and mulled over it for awhile. Among the professional volumes, two particular discs were out of place, set apart in a tattered old paper cover with a pencil scrawl. (“Look,” Mom said, “This one says ‘Richard’ on it.”) We had no idea what they were. The labels on these discs were plain (branded “Recordio” and “Capitol”), and a scribble on each of them in an area where contents should have been listed gave no indication what they could possibly be — except, apparently, self-recorded.


The Wilcox-Gay Recordio: 1940 Home Recording – via

I didn’t know home-recorded records were ever a thing, but I did some research and I found out that was indeed a possibility in the 1940s. Given that my grandfather was an audio technology wizard of sorts for his time, he no doubt would have had a home recorder like the Wilcox-Gay Recordio in their home in San Mateo. Especially if these could have voices from our family’s past on them, I realized I had to find a way to listen to them.


Unlike most of the other quality shellac 78s in the box – songs from the likes of Al Jolson, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Count Basie and others – these two discs were pretty banged up. I wasn’t sure they’d be playable at all, and even so, with over 70 years of grime and scratches on them, I was not optimistic anything would be audible if they were playable. One of them, the disc with the Capitol label on it, looked like it was even fading away to some kind of strange metal underneath. And never mind that I long ago got rid of my own last phonograph. But I found a potential solution to this puzzle with Nick at a friendly and professional service across the Bay,, who would give digitizing these things a try for a reasonable cost.


The digitizations came out better than I expected. Noise, unavoidable, is reduced, and skips are all over, but the recordings are audible. I’m not sure what’s going on for a great deal of these recordings, but it is clear somewhere in all the noises, skips, pops, and hiss that here are voices from the past of my dad, his brother, maybe some friends, and even my grandparents, having a blast using a home recorder.

Nick sent me two mp3 files, one per disc. There isn’t much more than 5 minutes of recording per disc. I separated the audio files into ‘tracks’ of sorts and gave them titles reflecting my best guesses as to what’s going on in each segment. I tossed some completely unintelligible parts but liberally kept most of the action, in the order it was pressed onto each disc, and uploaded it all to two separate playlists on SoundCloud. Voila: Today’s Recordio: Voices from the Watson home in the 1940s.

I can’t help but wonder if this iteration will stand the test of time as well as heavy old 78 records to last another 70 years, until the next time this format becomes antiquated and needs to be transferred to something playable.

For now on the first Father’s Day without you Dad, I’m happy we get to join you long ago at home.

The Recordio