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The Remains of Laura Whitney – Ezra Alie

Dec 28, 2021 | Fiction | 0 comments

The story is surely familiar by now—brilliant, troubled artist, spoiled and even more troubled offspring, it all ending in tragedy. Calla Seavey, a young woman forever grateful for the last name that obscured her relation to her mother, knew it better than most, and she proudly considered herself an aberration, an evolutionary throwback of sorts, recalling the generation that came before the fame. Calla had been raised by her father, an entirely ordinary man from Tacoma who’d divorced her mother when Calla was two, and so she had only seen Laura on summers and school vacations and rare weekends. And by the time her father died, tragically after a short illness at only forty-five, Calla was nearly in college.

All of this was public information, readily available on gossip sites if people were really curious, but they usually picked up on Calla’s unwillingness to discuss her mother. Sometimes, a stranger would stop her, loving and well-meaning, to gush about her mother’s work, but her roommate Sofia or her boyfriend Paul would interject, laughing, “No, she’s not her daughter. She gets it all the time, but she’s not.” And in a sense, it was true.

The older Calla grew, the more she resembled her mother. It was a strange thought—“resemble” from the Latin simulare, “to copy”, she remembered, though she wanted nothing of her mother’s life. But nonetheless Calla’s hair darkened as she grew older, until it matched the tangled, deep brown curls her mother wore down on every album cover from the seventies. Even her bone structure seemed to mutilate itself to imitate her mother as her lips thinned and her cheeks hollowed, and her eyes hooded. One Halloween, her freshman year of college, Calla dressed up as her mother, borrowing Sofia’s vintage clothes and shakily applying eyeliner for the first time in her life. “I’m Laura Whitney,” she’d declared when she was finished, and her friends laughed and shouted for her to sing her mother’s hits. But when she looked in the mirror, she could never quite capture the piercing gaze that radiated out from that iconic portrait of Laura Whitney, and suddenly she felt infinitely young and forever separated from her mother.

Calla looked nearly identical to her mother, and so everyone knew who she was. But they rarely asked her about Laura, after the basic “you’re Laura Whitney’s daughter, right?” Perhaps it was something in her personality or her demeanor that indicated to people that Calla wanted only to forget her mother, or perhaps it was simply that aside from her looks, Calla really had nothing in common with her mother to remind people of their relation, but the link between the two Whitney women seemed to vanish as people began to get to know Calla. “I forgot about your mom,” Sofia had said when Calla asked for help with her costume. When she was young and hated her mother, Calla considered dying her hair, or cutting it cheek-short, but that would only give Laura more power over her.

She was a junior in college the first time she really listened to her mother’s music. It was the day after she broke up with Paul, her first real boyfriend, and it was raining like crazy, and Calla was feeling young and melodramatic and silly, and she put the album on almost as a joke. But as she listened to Laura Whitney’s voice rise and fall over her intricate melodies, she understood what everyone had been talking about. The unflinchingly direct lines coupled with the twisted melodies! Calla was in love. But the music never seemed to be written by the woman Calla knew, who always and forever remained a stranger.

Calla guarded her obsession fiercely. She told herself it was because she feared it would seem like an invitation to talk about her mother to others, something she still dreaded, and that was partially true. Calla separated Laura the mother and Laura the singer as best she could, unwilling to reconcile the two. But it was also that she felt, strangely, that her love for her mother’s music was inappropriate somehow, that it was somehow voyeuristic and wrong. And so, Calla listened to her mother’s music in secret, slipping headphones on in the library with the music as low as possible, pretending to study. At night, leaning her laptop away from Sofia’s eyes, she looked up facts about Laura Whitney on fan sites, things she never knew or even thought to ask. Maybe some of them weren’t true, but they were something, at least, and out of them, she constructed Laura Whitney over and over in her mind.

In the deepest recesses of her heart and mind, beyond even her own admission, Calla began to suspect that the songs held the key to understanding her mother. As much as she pretended to keep a clear separation between the Laura Whitney of the music she loved and her mother, little details would stubbornly remind her that the two were one and the same, as Laura Whitney sang of the same pale yellow color the house was decorated with, or alluded to one of the countless Wolff volumes that filled the living room. The songs raised Calla, that year. They seemed to constantly swim in her mind, most vividly as she stumbled through her first relationship, but persistent still as she analyzed the role of pathos in her literature classes and read about protests in the news. There was nothing that Laura Whitney did not have the answer to. That summer, when she came home, Calla asked her mother about her song, the one she loved the most.

“When you sing that searching is more important than finding,” Calla asked, forcing herself to look up from her cereal and directly at her mother, “do you really mean that?”

“I don’t remember now,” she said shortly, and Calla could not decide if it would be more or less painful if she were telling the truth.

——

It was the Sunday before a state holiday, so there was no school tomorrow, and Calla felt the sudden urge to get outside. She had stayed in her small apartment for most of the weekend. Calla headed to dinner with a stack of quizzes to grade, hoping for a change of scenery.

In the city, Calla could be alone, and she relished it. Her only wish was to be ordinary, and only in the city could she truly blend in. Every so often, a passerby’s stare would linger on her, and rarely, someone would call out—“Hey, you’re Laura Whitney’s kid.” But in a city of celebrities and beautiful people, no one really cared about the low-profile daughter of a fading star.

She slipped into a cheap dinner a few blocks from her apartment and ate her food by the bright light of the window, watching strangers walk by. She’d brought a book, but she found herself strangely not wanting to read it. So her gaze instead wandered up to the television mounted on the wall playing the news on mute, on which the ticking headline read “LAURA WHITNEY DEAD AT 65.”

It should not have hurt, and at first, Calla did not cry. She left a pile of crumpled bills on her table and walked calmly out the door, staring down at the pavement as she began half-running back home. How could she not have known? But of course, she’d cut off all contact with her mother and those associated with her.

“Are you all right?” someone called out anxiously, and then the waitress was next to her, touching her shoulders.

“My mother,” Calla said, gesturing aimlessly towards the television. “That’s my mother.”

It was only when she arrived home that it hit her, and she staggered into her apartment, slamming the door closed behind her and collapsing onto the hard floor, and then Calla cried.

For days, Calla sat alone in her apartment, desperately avoiding the television news and magazine tributes and passersby staring especially long at her and wondering why she was so sad. She could not go outside—there, grief for Laura Whitney was inescapable, with magazine covers of her youthful face displayed across the city and radio stations playing her music lying in wait in every store. Laura Whitney the singer was nothing to Calla; it was her mother she grieved for. There were no photographs of Laura in Calla’s apartment, no voice messages from her on her phone. Her memories were all that remained.

The details were still blurry, at least to Calla. Perhaps they were online already, she thought to herself, but she could not bear to check. For days, she sat immobile, overcome by grief as she waited for the steady, resigned updates from her mother’s manager. Calla had known him since she was a child, and he was perhaps the only person Laura had truly been close to. He relayed the sordid details to Calla as gently as he could. Laura had been found dead alone, having overdosed on prescription pills. Suicide, they were saying, but Calla privately doubted it. Outside of her music, Laura Whitney had never done anything that deliberate.

——

At first Calla buried herself in her early memories, the purest ones, the ones mostly unsullied by hints of her mother’s depression and restlessness and resentment. Six years old and building sandcastles with her mother, eight and running outside by the brook behind her mother’s house, thirteen and calling her mother excitedly to tell her that she’d won a school poetry contest—storybook memories, all of them, like something out of a fairytale and not Calla’s own life. Out of them Calla could construct a new Laura, one that she could love and grieve for without reservations, and for a few days, this idealized version of her mother thrived. She crafted achingly vivid images of her mother for news organizations, searing enough to convince even herself (“Tell them she was the greatest mother there ever was,” she told her mother’s manager in a particularly passionate bout of delusion.). But none of it was real, Calla knew deep down, and yet her grief was one of the realest things she had ever felt.

To Calla as a child, her mother’s house had seemed magical, tucked away on the edge of the world like something out of a fairytale book, old records and novels and unreturned letters in elegant disarray. Her mother lived alone, having never remarried, and she kept her distance from her neighbors. Every so often, one of her old colleagues—a fellow folk singer, a producer or manager or someone else she’d worked with once—would check on her, but mostly, she was in isolation. She rarely talked. She wrote songs she knew she would never release and drew vivid sketches of people Calla didn’t recognize and could not conclusively label as old friends or imagined characters. She did not talk, but she hummed, and she sang, and she called Calla “Calla, love” every time she addressed her, and Calla felt like a princess, called away from her mundane suburban life to a mystical land, with a lush backyard full of streams and rabbits and no one else in sight.

But Calla could not shake the nagging truth that in the great scheme of their lives, Calla’s mother had meant little to her, and she had meant even less to her mother. It was a hollow relationship that had amounted to absolutely nothing significant, and the more Calla thought about it, the more unavoidable that simple fact became. The more Calla tried to search for meaning, the more apparent it became that none was there. The fading scenes of finger painting and Cape Cod beaches and pale yellow walls she had so desperately tried to imbue with significance were only exceptions. And yet in the mornings, when Calla awoke from two hours of impossible sleep, she felt like she could not breathe, and could hardly bear dragging herself out of bed and into her kitchen for a cup of coffee.

And so the mother of her childhood retreated and the mother of her adolescence stepped forward, sad and cold and quiet. Calla recalled how gradually, the spell was broken, at once too slowly and too dramatically to pinpoint to one time, and Calla began to hate staying with her mother. The house was ancient and aching and full of useless junk, not treasures, and her mother’s sadness weighed it down. And her mother was weak and incompetent, pathetically unable to connect to Calla, or anything, for that matter, other than her music. Calla longed for the days when visitors would come, when she could talk to Jim from the record label rather than her mother.

And then there was the night when her father died, when Calla, seventeen, was sent straight to her mother’s after she heard the news, when her mother’s manager was the one to deliver the news because her mother could not. And all night, Laura sat utterly still, silent, and Calla hated her.

But now Calla knew that it wasn’t that Laura hadn’t cared, that it was instead that she loved her ex-husband and Calla both very deeply, and that she had been trying. And if that was not Laura Whitney—brilliant, confused, lost in herself—then nothing was.

Calla absently turned the radio on as she began to cook herself dinner. The song changed, and the opening notes of one of the most famous Laura Whitney songs, began. Calla’s hand jerked instinctively to change it, but then she hesitated. Laura’s voice soared out of the speakers, still clear under the grainy static, and Calla raised her own voice, hesitantly at first. It was shaky and hesitant, nothing like her mother’s, but the lyrics came naturally, even after all these years. The song was as true as it had been four years ago, when Calla had loved it, and forty years ago, when it had captivated the whole world. Underneath the confidence and bravado of Laura’s music, there is that earnest striving, the echoes of that woman who knew she did not understand herself or her life but would not stop trying, the woman who cared. And if the Laura Whitney of her childhood, twisted and cold and empty, had been real, then this brilliant, proud one had been too. Calla stood still, leaning back against the counter, her voice rising to the melody of her mother’s proud, searing words of defiance, guiding Calla, in her own way, towards understanding.

 

Ezra Alie is a senior studying history at the University of New Hampshire. He lives in Portsmouth, NH.

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