Susie Bright: Daughter Songs -- Death and Loss at the End of the Year

200812231108 My mother died four years ago, on a Christmas week. My father passed the next winter, when the light started changing and the warm days were gone for good.

A nurse called me one night from my mother's hospital bed and talked about the winter chill -- how when the temperatures suddenly dropped, even though everyone was well-heated in the nursing home, a score of people would pass away. The dying of the light at the end of the year was more than just a metaphor.

I feel a kindred spirit with others who've lost close friends and family during the holidays -- our memories of those relationships, warm or troubled, close or estranged, are overwhelming this time of year.

I was fortunate to find a book after my parents died, called Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents, which is a collection of interviews with an incredibly diverse group of people who don't mince words about the transformation of loss.

Who knew that actor/rapper Ice-T got his nickname as a result of how cold he became as a child when he lost his mom and dad. I sobbed over Geraldine Ferraro's story, of all people. Each story is  illuminating and comforting, especially during the holiday mania, when "false consciousness" seems to be in overdrive.

Listening to my parent's voices, the little bits of recording I have, is especially poignant to me, more than photo albums. Both my parents were linguists; that's how they met as students, each interested in Native California history.

The only recording I have of my mom, Elizabeth, is her interviews with elderly Patwin tribe members in the 1950s, sharing stories and songs from the last of the original fluent speakers. Even though I don't understand most of what they're saying, I'm spellbound by the timbre of my mother's voice.

In my father's case, Bill Bright, he was a veteran broadcaster from KPFA, and delighted in being on the air. I interviewed him about his life and language interests at length on my Audible audio program: 

MP3 file: Bill Bright, 8/13/28 - 10/15/06

In the first segment, Bill talks about his book, Native American Place Names in the United States. You will learn why the origin of the town name, Loleta, CA, comes from an elderly Wiyot man telling a lumber baron's wife, "Let's fuck!" There's more than one story of American place names like this!  He also explains the political and sexual controversy behind the much-abused word "squaw" -- which is a lot more complicated than you might think.

In the second segment, I asked my dad what was his first experience was of looking at something "erotic." He describes a series of "Tijuana Bibles" that circulated on the Oxnard Union High School playground in the 1930s -- and how his eyes were opened when he came to Berkeley in the post-war years.

At the end of our interview- and this part always makes me cry -- Bill recounts some of Coyote's mythic and erotic misadventures. He sings me a song, in the Karuk language, as a girl would sing to capture the attentions of a young man she might have her eye on. He has such a beautiful voice! He learned this song from Nettie Rubin, one of the native speakers and consultants he met when he was just a young man with a wire recorder, traveling up the Klamath River. She told Bill that since he didn't have a daughter, she was going to have to pass on all her special "daughter songs" to him.

Photo: Elizabeth and Bill Bright, 1954, on Army leave in Florence

(Susie Bright is a guest blogger)


  1. It’s hard to lose a parent. I can only imagine how hard it is to lose both in rapid succession.

    My mom passed away Christmas Eve 1987. Christmas sucked for years afterward. Really, Christmas hasn’t been the same since.

  2. My father passed away January 2 in 2006. I told him when he was diagnosed with brain cancer the fall before that he had to make it to New Years. He kept his promise.

  3. My father passed away suddenly just last week so it’s been especially tough to handle all of the funeral details and coordinate Christmas activities at the same time. The shock still hasn’t fully hit since I’ve been so busy with all the details.

    Thank you for recommending the book. I will definitely check it out when things calm down.

  4. Doggo, Cinemajay, MikeKStar, my thoughts are with you!

    My dad died of brain cancer too. Gave me a whole new perspective on Teddy Kennedy’s diagnosis.

  5. The deaths of my parents were expected and no surprise. The old man kicked about ten years ago. At first I told myself this was a good thing and good riddance. But, I had to come to peace with the nasty fuck and try to understand his motivations. Of course, as you get older, you constantly find your parents acting out in your own behavior, sometimes not always bad. Sometimes downright noble. There have been times when I bowed towards his grave and said, “Thank you.”

    Mom went down about 4 years ago. I regret that I wasn’t the most dutiful son. She always said that she worried about me, long after there was no reason to worry at all.

    But it did take a while before the full enormity of my orphanhood sunk in. Well, becoming an orphan at age past-fifty is hardly Oliver Twist.

    I miss you guys. (Is it OK to speak to your parents that way?)

  6. Zeroy, I know where you’re coming from. My parents were flawed people, and they caused me a lot of pain. When they died it was a relief. Now that I am in my 30s I can see them for what they were, not perfect by any means, and they certainly could have tried harder. But they weren’t evil like I used to think, they were just people.

    Being an orphan sucks. I would love to hear their voices again. My grandparents were my salvation from them and they are both long gone too. What I wouldn’t give to be able to give grandpa a big hug one more time.

    I’m not a fan of the ‘family’ holidays. They’re just too fucking depressing.

  7. Thank you for this. Stories like this make me appreciate my family even more – my parents are in excellent health, but you never know what will happen.

    That is a beautiful picture of your parents.

  8. I still have both my parents, and have no idea what it would be like going through their deaths. I just wanted to say this was a really lovely, moving post, and thank you for writing it.

  9. Hi Susie,

    Thanks for posting this. My father passed away a year and a half ago and my mother passed away on December 23rd 11 years ago.

    Mom always loved Christmas, both the traditions, decorations, music, etc. and the opportunity to get together with family so this has been a difficult time of year for all of us since then.

    Yes, I think this is a difficult time of year and many people who are elderly or ill do not make it through the winter but days are now growing longer and we can celebrate the return of the light.

    Peace and Joy to you,


  10. My father passed away in September 2003. Each year since, I’d begin to get insular and churlish as August ended. I knew the next month would bring memories that I disliked reliving. Father’s Day had no more meaning for me and if I watched anything with a depiction of a loving relationship between a girl and her father, the tears would come far faster than I’d like.

    I always sent him postcards when I traveled and one year in Toronto, I happily sat down with my stack of cards to send them out. Before I realised what I was doing, I began writing a card to him. Two sentences in, the futility of my task hit and I just folded the card into my luggage.

    Reading about your recordings, I wish I had one of my father. My boyfriend jokes that it was a less comedic version of Hank Hill’s. After he died, I came across a voice mail from him thanking me for something I brought to the hospital. It was before my scheduled work time at the clinic, so he knew that I wouldn’t be in my office when he called. When it was deleted by a co-worker, I thought I was going to come unhinged. There are times when his voice rings clear in my recollection and others when it fades the more you think on it.

  11. For all of the power this post has to move one emotionally, and for all of the value there is in that, this post belongs on a personal blog, not on BoingBoing.

    I do hope BoingBoing has not lost it’s way.

  12. Well, Suze, I for one am very grateful for your presence here, and your addition of this post.

    Don’t listen to anyone who says that it doesn’t belong on BoingBoing. I think that lone voice is much drowned out by those of us who are thankful for this.

  13. Yeah, hold tight Suze. I’ve quietly enjoyed your posts and will definitely be following you back to the Journal for more.

  14. Susie,

    My father died two days before yours. My mother died 18 months before. I wish more than anything that they could meet their first grandchild, born seven weeks ago. Christmas was my mother’s favorite holiday and the last time I saw my father “healthy” (before he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer) was when he visited me here in France for what turned out to be his last Christmas. After only going through the motions the last two years, this year I can start to see myself celebrating again, if for no other reason than to pass on the same kind of joy and hope my parents gave me this time of year to my son.

    Thank you so much for mentioning the book. I wouldn’t have found it otherwise. It may be a belated Christmas present to myself.

  15. Thanks for the post and book recommendation.

    I have a recording of my mom (talking about taxes on the radio in the late 70s) but I haven’t been able to listen to it yet.

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