The crowd is perfumed with marijuana. Puffs of smoke pass through each stage light, revealing coat-pocket contents that crept past bag check and onto the ground floor. As a drum solo begins, Laura Jean stands with her arms extended in elation. She is in her forties, wearing loose corduroy jeans, a well-worn tie-dye, and a carry-on bag from an infomercial geared towards practical mothers.
“See the guitarist on the left?” she screams at me, competing with an eruption of snare and bass. The guitarist is shaggy, tattooed, and wildly talented. “I hooked up with him a few concerts back.” She chuckles at her daughter’s dumbfounded expression. “Julie brought weed brownies. You want one?”
My mother's name is Laura Jean, but tonight, she is Dead Head. She sways to the nostalgic and slow-tempo melody of The Grateful Dead’s To Lay Me Down:
To lay me down
To lie with you, once more…
She holds a hand to her heart. She is 16 again, hanging a poster of Jerry Garcia.
...To lie with you
With our dreams entwined together…
She is 25, driving to a two-day music festival in Chicago, stroking someone’s hand.
...To wake beside you, my love still sleepin'...
The crowd erupts into a uniform hiss. Laura-- the mother, daughter, businesswoman, professional pot-smoker and professional lover-- kisses her hand and sends it to the sky. The song and her youth are over. But, in this moment, with love and music in her life, the ride has only just begun.
From a very early age, Laura was into more than just music. She was a self-proclaimed tomboy with an interest in doing what the girls of her generation were expected to scoff at--basketball, science-oriented study, and the saxophone to name a few.
“The girls played flute,” she says.
Laura’s rage against the machine began at an early age. “A few times in elementary school, I felt that I was being discriminated against, being a female. We got treated differently… So I drew nasty pictures about my teacher, Mrs. Mckay. I said ‘Mrs. McKay can go to hell,’ and she got ahold of it and then my mother got called down to the school.”
Her father, on the other hand, hardly paid attention. He was a firefighter and social man, but never seemed to bring home his kindness or charisma or bring himself to her sports games and ceremonies.
“He never asked how I was doing,” Laura recalls. “Or how school was going-- or anything about me.”
Laura’s parents’ relationship was saturated with resentment, but to innocent (and preoccupied) Laura, things were just the way they should be. “My parents were married most of my childhood,” she says. “And as long as you had Mom and Dad in the house, you assumed everything was normal.”
Laura vividly remembers the beginning of her father’s affair. She was 14 when it happened.
“At first I didn't understand when my father would come home, eat dinner with us, get in the shower, and go out.” She describes her discoveries in a detached monotone, a storytelling tactic that requires years of forgiveness to accomplish.
“I had friends who would see my father at his girlfriend’s condo-- or I'd see her hiding behind a tree outside of the house. So I put two and two together after a while and realized that my father had a girlfriend.”
Although Laura’s father majorly influenced her life, she was incredibly naive at the time of his affair. She didn't overanalyze his girlfriend or the way he treated her mother but recognizes now how different her experience was to those of her older siblings, who managed to escape to college before the house erupted in chaos.
“My brother and sister didn’t see what happened,” she says. “They knew it but didn’t witness it. My younger brother got the worst of it because he was right across the hall.” Laura’s brother, Michael, was constantly plagued by his father’s thundering voice and his mother’s lightning silence.
“He heard a lot of the really mean things my father said to my mother, like, ’Lucy is so much better’ or ’I don’t care about you.’ basically-- I don’t give a shit about you. I only care about my girlfriend.”
After a year of watching her father play dress up and verbally abuse her mother, Laura Jean said goodbye to him.
“I remember when he left, my mother didn’t handle that well-- at all. I remember lying in bed when I was 15 years old, thinking, I’ve lost both of my parents in one day. My mother would be off in the bedroom every night, crying. My father had moved out and my mother had checked out, after being married for 25 years.”
During this time, Laura and her little brother, Michael, were under very little supervision. At one point, during one of their mother’s weekend trips, Michael threw a party so large that beer leaked from the basement ceiling. He left his own house. When a group of girls drove past and asked where Michael Schneider’s party was, Michael Schneider shrugged.
Laura was getting into her own kind of trouble. Thankfully, she found a group of likeminded juveniles to cling to. They showed up when they said they'd show up-- cell phone cancellations were reserved for the millennials. They walked everywhere. The only cars they came close to had absent-minded drivers who would nearly swipe a group member’s jean jacket as they sped past. Cigarettes and stereos were the themes of her adolescence. On weekends, her group hung out in random parking lots and listened to Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and other noteworthy artists to the nicotine dreamers and pot professionals of 1983. Laura was radiant beneath a crown of thick blonde curls, a face peppered with acne, and a worn-down pair of bell-bottom jeans.
In the parking lot, Laura was often visited by a friend named Scott, a driver from the local St. Jude's hospital.
“He would literally be driving around getting stoned with the special needs adults,” she describes, giggling. “Those poor guys had no idea what was going on.”
Laura remembers the majority of her teen years with a mix of nostalgia and astonishment.
“It might as well have been the Sixties,” she says. “Everyone was getting drunk and stoned, and it was like a free for all. That’s what everybody did. And we all carried these big boxes, radios, that’s what they called ‘em. And the bigger the box you had, the cooler you were. And I always had a cool box, a Sony, top of the line, because I was always really into music.” She pauses before adding, “and my friend Jessica had a really shitty one.”
When asked about high school romance, Laura has to chuckle, sigh and oh, man, before finally settling on Joe Renda. Renda had thick hair, plump lips and a father in the music industry. The studio attached to his house kept Laura attached to Renda.
“He was really sweet,” she says. “I really should have treated him better. At the time-- I think I was having an affair with this guy Kenny Montevaro… I was probably in tenth or eleventh grade.” She pauses, shaking her head disapprovingly at the pretty and pimpled player of her past. “Joe was sweet, but I really liked Kenny, who was dating this other girl with really big boobs.”
Music had always influenced Laura’s life, but her first Grateful Dead concert was the most notable turning point. She was 16.
Laura and her Dead Heads had to walk through Times Square to get to Madison Square Garden. In the 80s, this journey featured Triple X strip clubs and street-corner peep shows. People were selling weed and LSD and themselves.
“But the Dead Heads were the same,” Laura grins. “They smiled, took drugs, and twirled.”
“When I went to that first show I had no idea was I was in for. It was great. It was fabulous. That was it-- I was hooked.”
But she was still hooked on her troubled home life. Morrisville College was an escape. She had spent her high school years hiding behind figurative trees of humiliation while her father’s girlfriend hid behind literal ones. Lucy, his girlfriend, was the town tramp. Everybody knew about it. When college began, nobody knew anything about Laura except for her Sony stereo and developing a collection of tie-dyes.
Dormitories in the 80s were slightly less restrictive than today's dry-hall, quiet hour counterpart. Laura and her floormates would take garbage cans from outside, toss a Hefty bags inside, and pour in a concoction of liquor and juice. “Bug juuuuuiceeeeeee!” Someone would call from the hallway, triggering an emergence of girls and solo cups.
And then there was Brett.
Scrawny, blonde, and unibrowed, Brett wasn't the hottest or even the fifteenth hottest guy at the bar. Laura describes him as being unlike any man she's ever dated.
“He definitely had to woo me,” she smiles. “And boy, did he woo me. He'd show up in my dorm and say he was just in the building-- an all-girls dorm. And then one night he played guitar outside my dorm room window. He kind of wore me down, in a way.”
Laura and Brett fell in love through music and the unfailing optimism of youth. The future was bright. The world was theirs.
“I really, really, really fell in love with him,” she says-- and says again. “I really did. And then he transferred schools.”
The two dated on and off for eight years, but there was unspoken tension between Laura and Brett’s family of Orthodox Jews. His parents would not support a non-Jewish marriage in the family. She could convert, he could be disowned, or they could split permanently out of mutual respect and love.
They have not seen each other in 20 years.
When asked where she met her first husband, George, Laura begins the story by introducing another fallen soldier on her battle-field.
“When I was 21, I moved in with a guy named Greg. We were, I guess, a couple.. but I cheated on him many times. There was a biker bar called Jumping Jack that we'd go to once in awhile.” That's where she met George. He was settled, with a stable job, medical benefits and a motorcycle. “I think, at the time, with me having no father figure, I thought, wow, wouldn’t this be a good thing?”
But Laura divorced George, tried to reach out to her father, failed, and decided to move back into her mother’s house to reconnect with family. Her siblings were having children. Scott, the pot-smoking, special-needs driver, still lived in the area. They began touring with The Grateful Dead together and falling for each other-- or so she thought.
“I showed up at his house one night to hang out,” Laura recalls. “And he was leaving to go out on a date with somebody else. I was devastated. He never apologized. I had known Scott for years and years and thought we were the perfect match, but I guess he didn’t feel the same way.”
Broke and heartbroken, Laura began driving buses for the local school district. Here, she met Sean, the most gorgeous man she'd ever seen. He was kind, charming, intelligent, and had piercing, ice-blue eyes.
“I let his good looks get in the way,” she pauses. “I ignored the giant red flags that were bashing me over the head. His instability, the fact that he went to NYU and was driving a school bus, the fact that he had no money. Very high highs and low lows. Looking back, he was crazy. For a few weeks, he’d want to be a doctor. And, sexually, he was a lunatic! Then he’d be in bed for two weeks, crying. I didn’t understand it.”
After a while, his mother told Laura about Sean’s family history of bipolarism.
Laura had had enough. “He’d go to AA and he wasn’t even an alcoholic! I mean, he drank a little bit, but I drank more! He just wanted to go to those AA meetings, lie to everyone, and get sympathy.”
In 1996, at an Allman Brothers concert, Laura couldn't focus on music over the roar of her late period. Laura later tested positive, and, nine months later, she was going into labor on Halloween.
“Trick or treat,” the children called from the door as she hyperventilated on a sofa. She hated them all. Childbirth lasted eight panting, hand-squeezing, nail-digging hours.
Laura named her daughter Ruby, a nickname one boy had given her in college.
“Would you like to hold her?” a nurse asked after cleaning and swaddling the baby.
“Are you kidding!?” Laura panted. “I'll drop her!”
Laura knew it was time for Sean to move out of the house when he ripped a door off of its hinges and threw it near his newborn daughter. They lived apart for a few years before Sean finally left permanently.
“The one thing I didn't want to do,” Laura says, “was leave my daughter without a father. Just like me. But I did that.”
Laura remarried to a man named Dave and gave birth to a brown-haired, hyperactive son. Her family gradually filled the spaces in her heart.
Years pass and songs stay the same. Laura knows she can find sanctuary in the spacey drum solos and nostalgic ballads of the Grateful Dead. She watches Ruby grow, hoping she won't make similar mistakes, but knowing that a life of imperfection yields the greatest lyrics.
I have seen where the wolf has slept by the silver stream.
I can tell by the mark he left you were in his dream.
Ah, child of countless trees.
Ah, child of boundless seas.
What you are, what you're meant to be
Speaks his name, though you were born to me,
Born to me,
Lost now on the country miles in his Cadillac.
I can tell by the way you smile he's rolling back.
Come wash the nighttime clean,
Come grow this scorched ground green,
Blow the horn, tap the tambourine
Close the gap of the dark years in between
You and me,
Quick beats in an icy heart.
catch-colt draws a coffin cart.
There he goes now, here she starts:
Hear her cry.
Flight of the seabirds, scattered like lost words
Wheel to the storm and fly.
Faring thee well now.
Let your life proceed by its own design.
Nothing to tell now.
Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine