When I was about 13, I came home from school to find my mom and a few of her friends drinking and smoking and laughing. It wasn’t unusual, so I went into the kitchen to get something to eat. The refrigerator was gone. I had a bit of dizziness. There was a dirty square on the floor where the refrigerator had been. It felt like a dream sequence.
In it’s place was a styrofoam cooler, a weak, stained little thing that had already started to deposit little balls of foam on the kitchen floor.
“Mom? Where’s the refrigerator?”
Laughter broke out in the living room. My mom staggered into the kitchen. “It’s okay, honey. We only pawned it. I had to have some money to pay the electricity and get some food.” She didn’t mention the beer and cigarettes, and her new group of friends.
“It’s not too hot outside. We can manage with a cooler til the end of the month.”
“You pawned the refrigerator?” I asked, still not quite sure I wasn’t dreaming. I pinched myself, but nothing changed. Mom was still there, smiling, smoking, and swaying in our now spacious kitchen.
“I got us some food. Go ahead and have whatever you want.”
I was hungry. I opened the cooler. Most of the ice had melted. Floating around between the beer cans, was an open package of American cheese, bologna, and a package of ground beef. The seal around the beef had come loose in the watery ice and rivulets of blood ran through it all.
“Mom,” I whined in my most irritating teenage voice, “This is so gross.”
My mom could go from happy to angry so fast it could give you whip lash, crashing head first into the power of her wrath.
I don’t remember her exact wording, but by the end of it I knew I was the most ungrateful child in the world who had no idea how hard her life was.
I had a younger brother and sister. They were wisely staying out of the way of her and her friends.
I remember feeling so lonely and frustrated. It hadn’t been long since my grandmother died. She had her flaws, too, but she never drank, and she kept a clean house. Even cleaned our house sometimes. And she was a great cook. I couldn’t call her and ask to spend the night with her anymore.
My mom was a binge drinker. We moved around a lot. She got sober, got a boyfriend, we got luxuries like refrigerators and televisions. Then she’d fall of her wagon, and it’d all be pawned. And we’d be on our way to another boarding house, or some squalid apartment to share with her new man.
Years later, my husband and I were listened to “Souvenirs” by John Prine. I was in love with the song because it was simply elegant and spoke to my heart. My husband said, “He must be reading your mail.” Reading my mail, breaking and mending my heart at the same time.
I can’t say I like all his songs and there are a few I just don’t understand. But I dearly love a lot of them, the way they slip in a phrase that defines an emotion in a way I never could. He was funny and endearing.
I started listening to him when I was still a teenager. Now I’m nearing 60, and I still listen to Souvenirs almost every day. It’s like a meditation for me. And although the lyrics say, “It took me years, to get those souvenirs, and I don’t know how they slipped away from me,” the song kept my souvenirs from slipping away, made a place in my heart for the sorrow and the forgiveness that help me carry more lightly the weight of my existence.
This version is sung with Steve Goodman, because it’s good to have a friend to sing with.
I have no doubt Mr. Prine will rest in peace. He left us with so many songs. Up to the end he was singing. And he’ll always be with us through the magic of music.
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9 thoughts on “Souvenirs”
Your story is very moving, Joy. I’m so glad Prine’s music gives you some comfort. Take care.
Thanks. I think he gave being a poor person more dignity. And that all stories/ballads are powerful.
I listened to Souvenirs this morning on Tiny Desk Concert. I had never heard it- or really listened to it before but have thought about it all day. It seems these years I have learned more of many artists I had missed over the last few decades.
What a gift John Prine has been to so many to put words to those almost unfathomable feelings- feelings that people need to hear expressed.You have alluded before to your difficult childhood- thank you for sharing yourself in so many ways- helping me realize and touch those parts of life that burn, scorch and forge-
I loved that Tiny Desk Concert. You could really see his battle scars and his sense of humor, too. I think he took life’s complexities and made them manageable; he sang about love, war, loneliness, the environment. I feel so lucky to have had his music in my life. We don’t really have a peasant culture in this country but many of us are poor. Below a certain level, people regard you as trash. Prine gave us a different perspective. You can be poor and white but progressive and lyrical, too. We were lucky to have him singing to us for so long.
Have you read Louise Erdrich? I have found her novels so powerful and your story reminded me of her very poignant descriptions of families with big problems and big love.
Thank you for this poignant post Joy. I really appreciate both your writing and your art; or perhaps it is more accurate to say your artful life in so many mediums! I went to sleep listening to John Prine’s music the night I learned he had passed. And yes, Souvenirs is so sad, beautiful, and true. I’m about to find the Tiny Desk concert. Thanks for the mention of it. Blessings to you…
Blessings to you, too. Thank you for reading my blog and appreciating my art. I hope you stay healthy and safe during these strange days. Listening to Prine is a good way to keep our perspective.
Thanks for your message Joy. I love your strong and creative spirit. Prine’s sense of humor and empathy for humanity always inspired me too. He will rest in peace and in many people’s hearts.
He definitely brought clarity and delight to my life.