"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)
My very young son became a father in mid-July 2009, when his girlfriend, Amy Tobias, gave birth to their son. They named him Jax Jesse Lamott, Jesse after Amy’s beloved grandmother Jessie, and Jax because they liked the way it sounded. Amy was twenty when she delivered, and Sam was nineteen. They’re both a little young, but who asked me?
Sam’s birth, on August 29, 1989, was by far the most important day of my life, and Jax’s was the second. Sam and I are quite close, and I’d always looked forward with enthusiasm to becoming a grandmother someday, in, say, ten years from now, perhaps after he had graduated from the art academy he attends in San Francisco and settled down into a career, and when I was old enough to be a grandmother. I was a young fifty-five. Maybe a medium fifty-five. Let’s say a ripe fifty-five, with a child just one year past his majority.
The day before Thanksgiving 2008, I had heard that Amy was expecting, when I got a call from Sam, in despair.
“Mom, I’m going to be a father,” he said.
I was silent for a time. “Oh, Sam,” I said finally.
He and Amy had been together, tumultuously, since his birthday a year earlier, but they had split up a couple of months before—although not, I can see now, in the biblical sense. Amy is beautiful, tiny and Hispanic, with her roots in Chicago and her parents now living in North Carolina. She had arrived in our lives on the morning of Sam’s eighteenth birthday, to attend cosmetology school in San Francisco: they had become friends at a camp on the East Coast, stayed in touch by phone and text, and begun a long-term relationship, which I hadn’t heard about. One day Sam told me he’d offered her his living room couch until she found an apartment. “Right,” I said when he told me this plan: I was not born yesterday.
“God, Mom,” he had said. Like, get your head out of the gutter.
She had moved off the couch by lunch that first day. They arrived for Sam’s family party at my house at four that afternoon, very much in love. My brother Stevo, his sunny six-year-old daughter, Clara, adopted at birth, and his fiancée, Annette, were there, as was our beloved uncle Millard, our aunt Eleanor, our best family friends, including Gertrud, a ninety-year-old German who’d always served as Sam’s paternal grandmother, and a scattering of cousins. We were all transfixed by this beautiful girl who bounced into the house, in tiny shorts that would fit my cat—she is around four-foot-nine, and weighed ninety pounds at the time—with long black hair, huge brown eyes, and a perfect smile; and my first thought was, “Who did I invite who has a teenage Hispanic daughter?” I thought she might be related to Annette, who is also Latina. Then Sam stepped inside, smiling sheepishly, and introduced Amy to me.
A little over a year later, Amy had terrible morning sickness that lasted a few months, and she spent a lot of time taking naps on my couch, and nibbling bird-sized snacks. I was happy all the time at the thought of Sam’s being a father, and my getting to be a grandmother, except when I was sick with fears about their future, enraged that they had gotten themselves pregnant so young, or in a swivet of trying to control their every move, not to mention every aspect of their futures. She and Sam had moved back in together, into his tiny studio apartment on Geary, two blocks from his art school, and I was paying all of his bills while he was in college. Although Amy’s parents were also contributing generously to her expenses, I was paying their rent, and much of their monthly nut. Amy frequently escaped to my house in Marin, mostly for companionship, as Sam was in school full-time, but also for the sun and relative peace, as their apartment was dark and loud. By the time the morning sickness passed, her belly was huge, especially because she is—or rather was—so tiny. She had an elaborate space-age ultrasound at four months, which indicated that the fetus was a boy: the technician printed out Jax’s picture for us. He looked like a bright, advanced baby. Even gifted.
Sam was woozy with pride and scared to death. Amy was clear, calm, and fiercely into becoming a mother. She did things the way she wanted to, even when it made me unhappy. For instance, two weeks before her due date, she skipped a routine doctor’s appointment for some youthful, willful reason, and I spent several days pacing around my house, trying to make peace with the idea that now the baby would almost certainly be born with some degree of disability. I cried. Sam tried to protect Amy from my neediness and anxieties—i.e., they purposely didn’t call or text me for days. And they fought routinely. Amy would threaten to move back to Chicago, which made me crazier than anything, but I would not interfere, and Sam would call in despair, and I would stay neutral, with undertones of suppressed rage, and they’d come through their conflict, and I would get to be the beloved tribal elder for having stayed impartial.
We went to our little church, St. Andrew, many Sundays, unless Sam had too much homework. The month before Jax’s birth, Sam was both in summer school and working for a contractor, trying to sock some money away. I would still be paying the bills, as I had promised Sam a four-year education: room, board, books, transportation. It was extremely expensive, and I had a nagging hunch that things were not going to become cheaper after Jax was born.
I had loved being pregnant with Sam, mostly: all the parental blessings of feeling bigger, envied, completed, astounded, proud, grateful. And I loved Amy’s being pregnant with Sam’s baby, mostly. I was excited that Sam was going to have all these feelings for someone, too. It would be better for him in some ways than it had been for me; I had not had any money our first few years, and that had been hard. And it could be only good for a baby to have two parents around. Yet having a child ends any feelings of complacency one might ever have, and I knew what Sam was in for. It was like having a terminal illness, but in a good way.
I frequently got to put my hands on Amy’s belly and feel Jax roll and kick around in his chambers. She and I would take afternoon naps together on the two couches in my living room. She gained sixty pounds; I gained five. Her mother, Trudy, and I would get to be there at the hospital for his birth, which Amy passionately hoped to accomplish without drugs. Her mother would fly in from North Carolina near the due date, and she and I spoke or texted from time to time, making plans for Amy’s hospital stay, and for just after. Amy, Sam, and the baby would come to my house from the hospital, along with Trudy, and then at some point Amy’s father, Ray, would come from North Carolina to stay for a few days. We would all be one big happy family, as Ray liked to say.
I prayed every day for a healthy baby, for an easy delivery, for Sam and Amy to be good parents, and for me to let God be in charge of our lives. I prayed to be a beneficent grandmother, and not to bog down in how old that made me sound. I had two slogans to guide me. One was: “Figure it out” is not a good slogan. And the other was: Ask and allow: ask God, and allow grace in.
Amy delivered late last night by C-section after eighteen hours of hard and heroic natural labor, at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, one of the nation’s great teaching hospitals, in the upper Haight-Ashbury, just beyond the southeast corner of Golden Gate Park.
Sam had called me at two yesterday morning and told me to meet him, Amy, and Trudy at the hospital. Trudy is five-foot-six, an inch shorter than I am, brunette, and very sweet, and a few years older than I. Her grandma nomenclature will be “Grammy,” and mine will be “Nana,” which is what Sam called my mother. Amy was given a private room, and was plugged into various monitors. Sam coached her for the first few hours, and then Trudy and I coached her, and then Sam again. After many hours, Amy was dilated to six centimeters, but she wasn’t getting any further.
She refused any drugs for hours, even Pitocin to intensify the contractions, and watching her I felt crazy with powerlessness and thwarted Good Ideas: Let’s everyone settle down and take a lot of drugs! Get this show on the road! Of course, I pretended to be supportive of whatever she decided. Sam, Trudy, and I took turns going to the cafeteria for snacks, while Amy was brought hospital meals which no one ate, because the meals looked like upscale pet food, with a side of boiled vegetables. When all was said and done, we ate mostly Cheetos and M&M’s. And when I say “we,” I mean me.
Amy’s contractions were wracking her body, but they weren’t quite productive enough. She was in maternal warrior mode, and I was humbled by how hard she was working, how much pain she was able to bear, and how stoic she was. By this point in my own labor, almost twenty years before, I’d already had the Pitocin, an epidural, and a few refreshing shots of morphine to take the edge off. I felt stunned and teary about what a good birth coach Sam was—it wasn’t so long ago that we were bickering about wet towels on the bathroom floor or why the hell he can’t manage to keep his cell phone charged.
Hours later, Amy finally let the nurses put some Pitocin in her IV, and the three of us took turns breathing with her. But the baby, who had been estimated to weigh nine pounds, was just too big for her small body, and she was exhausted. At seven at night, a number of doctors came by on rounds, with third-year medical students in tow, and said, Tut-tut, like Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood, and then that everything looked fine — and finally, at around eight or so, a doctor who looked a lot like a young Ethel Kennedy, scrappy and beautiful, bounded in, as if we were all on a tennis court. She was about my age and she exuded intelligence, and we all instantly knew she was perfect—although her eyes squinted like a mole would in sudden bright sun. My first thought was, “Oh my God, she’s a blind gynecologist. Affirmative action has gone too far this time.” There were so many nurses in the room, with a few scattered leftover med students thrown in, and a new batch of med students. Within a minute, Dr. Ethel had most of her arm inside Amy.
All of us held our collective breath when she said, “Oh, jeez, is that the umbilical cord?” and some of the medical students and the labor nurse made the quiet face of studious concern that nurses are taught in their first semester. And then the doctor said cheerfully, “Oh, it’s just an ear.” Like, Silly me! Sighs of relief all around. Then her arm disappeared again, up to her elbow, as if she could wiggle her fingers and tickle Amy’s heart. She squinted off to one side, way in the distance, as if to the hills whence help comes, like Mr. Magoo in Pharaoh’s Egypt, and I realized she was not seeing with her eyes, but with her hand and her mind.
As I watched her bend in, with her head and shoulders sideways, I was reminded of all those times as children when we stretched sideways over a storm drain, an ear pressed against the grille, reached our arms through, and blindly tried to grab a coin from below with our fingertips, before resorting to sticking a wad of bubble gum on the end of a stick.
Finally the doctor’s arm reappeared, and she explained to Amy that there was way too much amniotic fluid, which posed a dangerous hurdle, and she needed to break Amy’s water. We all nodded knowingly, even the medical students. The labor nurse gave the doctor a needle, and the doctor’s arm disappeared again, and after a minute she announced that she had pierced the sac and would let the water out slowly.
But the water gushed out of Amy, about ten gallons of a green soup from “The Exorcist,” and I thought with my ever-present Christian faith: Amy’s dying now for sure; I just hope they can save the baby. But the doctor squinted at the hills again and repositioned the baby’s arm and hand; she was, we learned later, trying to keep the rivers of soup from pouring over the sides of the banks all at once: she was siphoning it off.
Amy lay in a widening pool of green soupy fluid; nurses tried to shove towels under her butt without bumping the now one-armed doctor. The doctor’s head tilted, in full squint; she worked on until she seemed to listen for a minute, but not with her visible ears. Then she withdrew her arm and took off the glove.
She told Amy that she would give her one more hour, but she didn’t think there was a big chance of success, even with more Pitocin. Amy should have a C-section, while there was still a choice. I was silently begging, Please have it. Amy looked to Sam, and he told her that it was her body, that he supported her in whatever she decided. I wanted to scream into his face, “Stop saying that! You’re encouraging her,” but somehow I didn’t say anything. Amy asked for more Pitocin, yet an hour later when the nurse checked her cervix, she said it was just the same. She left the room, and the four of us prayed together as a family. After a few minutes, Dr. Ethel came back, and her arm disappeared up Amy again. In full Mole Squint, the doctor said, “I recommend we do a cesarean,” and Amy said, quietly, “Okay.”
Trudy and I went off to the waiting room, where we writhed around and read the sacred texts of crisis — People and the National Enquirer — and ate the temple foods — Cheetos and M&M’s — for about an hour, until a huge male nurse came to tell us that Jax had been born. Amy was fine, but she desperately needed to sleep for a few hours, before she could begin nursing. He said we could go meet the baby. Trudy and I hugged and jumped and pumped our grandmotherly fists.
We found Sam in the nursery, dressed in scrubs, holding his swaddled new son, peering into his peaceful face, crying and saying over and over, “Hi Jax, I’m your dad. I’m your dad, Jax.”
Jax was the loveliest baby boy I’ve ever seen, a dead ringer for Sam as a newborn, but Latino, gorgeous as God or a crescent moon, with huge black eyes, black hair, lightly tan. I felt as though I was seeing a river gorge, from way up high on a bridge, silenced by the vastness of his tiny face, the depth of his brown-black eyes.
Excerpted with permission from “Some Assembly Required” by Anne Lamott, now available from Penguin.
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)