Remembering My Mother in Her 25 Greatest Songs

At my mother’s funeral I stood and spoke of music.

When your mom dies nothing makes sense. When she died I was working in a prairie, and when I was told, I collapsed among the tall grasses. My burly 6-foot coworker had to search for me amongst the goldenrod and sumac because he could no longer see me. He cradled me to his chest and showed me the baby birds that were born that morning, in hopes to soothe something that had broken within me. He spoke to me of grief, but I wasn’t listening because I was too busy thinking of what to say at my mother’s funeral. When your mom dies nothing makes sense.

I learned to love my mother as I watched her create and animate. On Chicago theatre stages, the woman who I knew to be my mom disappeared. The loving, imperfect woman who had created me was now someone new every night. Lady Macbeth and her famous ‘out damn spot’ monologue. The woman whose child had died at the age of four. The scientist who was slowly losing everything she knew to dementia. The toxic and venomous Imogen of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. She was all of these women, but when she came backstage to kiss me during intermissions, she was always my mom.  

As time persisted, I became accustomed to sharing my mother. She was Lia Mortensen– well-loved and famous in Chicago before I was even a thought in her mind. Her name held weight in an industry– albeit an undeniably niche industry– and nobody viewed her as a mother. She was first and foremost an actress. But, when she swept through the door past midnight to make a post show snack of nachos– she was my mom: someone nobody else got to see. At night, she sang lullabies I thought she had invented herself. And as I fell asleep to songs of horses and stars, I would think to myself that no one else got her voice. No one else got her music. That part of my mom was only seen in the dark corner of my childhood bedroom. That part of her was only for me. 

In 2016, she was cast as Joanne in Stephen Sondheim’s Company. She had a solo: Ladies Who Lunch. A wickedly bitter song about a woman unhappy in every facet of her life, thinking about the women who do nothing but lunch together. She spent hours and hours researching different renditions, mirroring her voice to fit Meryl Streep, Patti Lupone, Barbara Streisand, finally landing on Elaine Strictch’s haunting and furious version.

Elaine Stritch’s Ladies Who Lunch using original Michael Bennet choreography.

She had a solo. Hundreds would soon hear my mom- and it would be the real her, because there was no hiding behind anything else when she sang. And sing she did. Standing in center-stage, 5 foot-nothing in her leather pants, my mother stopped time. 

How on Earth do I describe my mother’s voice?

My mother, Lia Mortensen, performing “Ladies Who Lunch” in Writer’s Theatre Production of Company in 2016.

At her funeral, I wanted to speak of musicals. Of Elaine Stritch’s famous rendition. Of my mother- forever thorough- sitting at our out-of-tune piano engraving this song into our bones. Of how I sat under the piano, next to the pedals, feeling each note in my teeth. I wanted to speak of our secret. But still in my notebook lays a wholly unfinished eulogy to my mother.

To know my Mom was to love her, but to love her was to see her revel in music. When I think of Lia, an ungodly amount of all that sappy stuff they talk about pops up. This past week I’ve been telling all sorts of anecdotes about my Mother to people who never got the chance to meet her, and it’s uncovered all sorts of wonderful realizations about her. Whether it’s the fact she has two copies of Anna Karenena both given to her by different boyfriends, or the fact that she never read them….

So the day of the funeral, I abandoned my half-thoughts, and I stood and I spoke of her music. 

More specifically, of her 25 greatest songs she had ever heard. It was a project my best friend had been working on: you ask people from all walks of life the 25 greatest songs they’ve ever heard, and you compare– looking at metrics based on generation, life context, and location. It also serves as a snapshot in time for the people in your life. I sent her the prompt a week before she died. She asked me when I needed it by. 

“Oh you can take your time. There’s no rush.

“Okay. Well, I’m already on song number 17.” 

A year later I wonder if she knew the severity of this question I had asked her. Of how massive it is to know what her greats were, and how connected I can feel when I hear John Prine or Glen Campbell. How permanent this music is. 

21 is a terrible age to lose your mother. There is so much she has already missed, and so much more she will continue to miss. My mother will be dead for the rest of my life. But her music? Her music will stay here, and I will forever hear her, forever see her in these songs she considered to be the greatest music she had ever heard.

I’ve never shared my mother’s 25 greatest songs with anyone. For over a year now, they’ve remained written out on a piece of paper that stays underneath my mattress. They are our best kept secret. Sometimes it seems as if she has died with the music on her lips, and so in the spirit of music permanence, and beginning to share our secret, one of my mother’s 25 greatest songs ever:

David Bowie’s “Heroes”

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