"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Most of me was glad when my mother died. She was a handful, but not in a cute, festive way. More in a life-threatening way, that had caused me a long time ago to give up all hope of ever feeling good about having had her as a mother. She was a mix of wrathful Old Testament opinion, terrified politeness, befuddled English arrogance — Hermione Gingold meets the dark Hindu goddess Kali. And God, she was annoying. I mean this objectively. You can ask my brothers, or her sister. I used to developed Parkinson’s-like tics in her presence. Yet, most of who I have become is the result of having had her as a foil, and having her inside me: as DNA, as memory, all the weird lessons she taught, the beautiful lessons too — and they are the same.
I spent my whole life helping my mother carry around her psychic trunks like a bitter bellhop. So a great load was lifted when she died, and my life was much easier. For a long time, I did not miss her at all, and did not forgive her a thing. Perhaps this sounds a little angry; I don’t care. I was the angriest daughter on earth, and also, one of the most devoted. My brothers and I gave away most of her stuff — clothes, books, broken junk. There was one troubling trunk, though, that was left behind, and this was the plastic crematory box that held her ashes. We couldn’t figure out how to pry it open, and her name was misspelled on the label. I put it in the closet, and then, after time softened my heart, I discovered that I had forgiven her for a number of things, although none of the big-ticket items — like having ever existed, for instance. And then having lived so long. Still, the mosaic chips of forgiveness were a start, and I carried the box of ashes from the closet to a place in my living room, wrapped in pretty paper. Here is what happened next.
Around that time, my pastor, Veronica, gave a sermon about how sad and frustrated and hopeless some of us were feeling about our leaders, and about the war in Iraq. But she said that now was not the time to figure everything out, like who was to blame, or whom we would vote for. It was not the time to get a new plan together and begin trying to push it on through. It was time to be still, to get centered, to trust what we’ve always trusted in: friendship, kindness, helping the poor, feeding the hungry. So, having felt scattered for much of the past two years, I took her words to heart, and began to get quiet whenever possible, to take longer walks on the mountain, to sit in beggy prayer and fretful meditation. My mind kept thinking its harsh thinky thoughts, but I’d distract myself from them gently, and say, “Those are not the truth, those are not trustworthy; those are for entertainment purposes only.” Eventually I began to have quieter thoughts about my mother, to see her through what the theologian Howard Thurman called “quiet eyes.” Not quiet eyes, in my case. But quiet for me and then quieter still, and that felt like a small miracle.
Gerald May wrote, “Grace threatens all my normalities.” I tell you. It had taken two years for me to bring her out of the dark, dusty closet. Now I felt that it was time to scatter her ashes with the family, to honor her. The problem was, I didn’t honor her. I meant to, but all I really felt was sorry for how hard her life had been, and glad she had finally passed. This is what the elders of our church call dying — “She passed,” as in she aced her exams, or turned down the offer to renew her lease. “Oh, yeah, she passed,” they reassure you, and I believe, theologically, they are right on both counts.
That was where I was when Veronica urged us to be still. And when I did, I found out once again how flexible and wily the human spirit is. It will sneak out from behind the bushes like a cartoon cat and ambush you if you’re not careful, trick you into giving up a teaspoon of resentment, get you to take one step back from the frozen ground. Mine was lying in wait for me the day I found a photo of my mother when she was 60, and while my heart didn’t actually leap, it hopped, awkwardly, like its shoelaces were tied together.
She usually wore way too much makeup, as a way of maintaining both disguise and surface tension, and it had always humiliated me. But in this one picture, instead of feeling humiliated, I could finally see what she was shooting for: to appear beautiful, and worthy, a vigorous woman on this earth. She is posing in front of a vase of flowers, clasping one wrist with her hand, as if she is trying to take her own pulse. She had been divorced for eight years or so by then. One of her eyebrows is arched, archly, as if one of us had once again said something dubious or socially unacceptable. One-third of her is in darkness, two-thirds of her is in light, which pretty much says it.
You can see what a brave little engine she was, even though she’d lost everything over the years — her husband, her career, her health — but she still had her friends and family, and she stayed fiercely loyal to liberal causes, and to underdogs. And I thought, well, I honor that, so we’ll start there.
The next thing I knew, I had called my relatives, most of whom still live in the Bay Area, where we all grew up, and had invited them to dinner on my mom and her twin’s birthday, to scatter her ashes. Those ashes of hers were up against a lot — that our lives were better since her death — but I believed that if we released her, this would release us; and she could release herself. Releasing her would crack my hard shell, and some of the Easter egg dye of my mother might remain in beautiful veins. Or else I would have a complete breakdown and start to drink again and Sam and I would have to go live at the rescue mission. I only knew that it was the next right thing.
Two weeks later, three aunts, an uncle, half a dozen cousins, my brother and sister-in-law, a 6-year-old second-cousin named Dallas, and a friend came to dinner at my house. I adore these people. I have also had fights with some of them over the years, have said terrible things, have been accused by one of great wrongs, for which I would never be forgiven. We’ve had the usual problems, failed marriages, rehab, old resentments, miserable lumpy family secrets, so much harshness and intensity. But if I had the time, I could tell you all the ways we have loved and cared for each other over the years. We’re just another motley American family, still enduring: My friend Neshama’s father-in-law used to look around at holidays, shake his head and say, “We are a bum outfit.” I love that.
After dinner, we hiked up the hill to the open space. One of my aunts, who says to say she is 54, totters when she walks now, and needs arms to hold onto. Dallas, my 6-year-old cousin, glommed onto Sam, who dragged him along like carry-on luggage, rolling his eyes but pleased. It was really blowing, and the sun was starting to go down. Sam and Dallas tore to the top of the hill, while the rest of us took each other’s arms, blown and buffeted by the wind, walking in a tottering procession the rest of the way.
The sun was setting behind a ghost cloud, illuminating it, imposing a circle of light over it, like a cookie cutter. There were eucalyptus trees in a circle around us, at the edge of the grass, as if they were holding down the earth, like bricks on a picnic tablecloth in the wind. The trees were the only things between us and the horizon. We could see 360 degrees above fleecy trees, golden hillsides, towns. The wind made us all feel even more exposed than usual: It was so gritty that it flayed us — but lucky us, someone pointed out, with bodies to be assailed. Dallas tore around the periphery having goof attacks, flirting with Sam.
“Does anyone want to see my fireworks?” he kept calling out. “Will anyone come and see them?”
“When we’re done,” his mother told him sternly. “Now leave us alone.”
We stood in a circle for a few minutes. “I knew that if I asked you to come tonight, you would,” I said. We all cried a little. My cousins really loved her. She had a sweet voice, one of them said, and was always kind to them. My aunt Gertrud said, “The nature of life is harsh, and Nikki got some terrible breaks. It wasn’t fair how things turned out for her. But she did a lot of good in her life, and we will always miss her.”
“Yes, we will,” a couple of people said responsively, the way we do at church. My heart was suddenly heavy with missing her, even as I felt the old familiar despair that she had been my mother. I just tried to breathe.
The reason I never give up hope is because everything is so basically hopeless. Hopelessness underscores everything — the deep sadness and fear at the center of life, the holes in the heart of our families, the animal confusion within us; the madness of King George. But when you do give up hope, a lot can happen. When it’s not pinned wriggling onto a shiny image or expectation, it sometimes floats forth and opens like one of those fluted Japanese blossoms, flimsy and spastic, bright and warm. This almost always seems to happen in community: with family — related by blood, or chosen — at church, for me, and at peace marches. Rachel Naomi Remen said, “Perhaps the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.”
Then my brother Stevo walked a couple dozen feet away from where we stood, and began to pry open the plastic box with a knife. “Want to see my fireworks?” Dallas cried, and his mother shushed him again. He raced about on the hillside. It was distracting, like having a puppy in church, but the sun defused my annoyance, and I remembered C.S. Lewis’ wonderful observation, “We do not truly see light, we only see slower things lit by it.” Except for Dallas, we were as big and slow as herd animals at a watering hole. We watched Stevo take out the bag of ashes, and open it into the wind. He flung her away from the sunset, and the wind caught her, and whooshed her away. Of course some of the ashes blew back onto my brother, and onto Gertrud, who stood beside him scattering flowers into the plume. Ashes always stick and pester you long after you have scattered them: My brother looked like he’d been cleaning a fireplace.
Then my cousin Dallas called out again, “Want to see my fireworks now? Doesn’t anyone want to see my fireworks?” We all turned back toward the sun, where he stood, and gave him the go-ahead. He reached into his pockets, withdrawing fists full of something, and looking at us roguishly, flung whatever he held up into the air. It turned out to be tiny pebbles but because he tossed with such ferocious velocity, as high as he could manage in the wind, when they rained back down on us in the very last of the sun, they shone.
Anne Lamott's most recent memoir, "Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son," is out in paperback Tuesday, April 2.More Anne Lamott.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)