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


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)