Whitney Houston, My Mother, and Me

When I heard that Whitney Houston died, the first person I thought of was my mother. In fact, the reason why the news hit me so hard, why my eyes got instantly wet and my throat instantly closed up, is because, in my mind, Whitney Houston and my mother are inextricably linked.  I cannot begin to imagine what Houston’s own daughter, Bobbi Kristina, is going through right now (reports are coming out that she was hospitalized for an "emotional breakdown" following her mother’s death); my heart goes out to her and the rest of Houston’s family in what must be an incredibly painful time. But Whitney Houston’s death hit close to home for me, closer than I expected it would years ago when I watched Being Bobby Brown with perverse fascination, laughing at Whitney’s exclamations of “I am not dealing with this todaaaaay!” and “Hell to the no!” and cringing when I caught glimpses of her thin frame splashed across tabloids under some damning headline about drugs, abuse, or anorexia. I followed Whitney’s career even after I stopped caring for her music, absorbing the shocks of struggles I could not understand, mostly because she reminded me of my mom.

My mom, for the record, is not a Grammy-award-winning diva with a golden voice. She’s a pretty regular lady who lives in upstate New York and just happens to be the same age as Whitney Houston.  My mom also listened to The Bodyguard soundtrack every day for a long time, at least as far back as I can remember, and that is probably why the two will be forever connected in my subconscious.  My mom definitely wasn’t the only person who loved that soundtrack; after its release in 1992, it went on to sell over 44 million copies worldwide, becoming the best-selling soundtrack of all time (not to mention one of the best-selling albums ever, period).  It produced hit after hit, making Houston the first woman to have three songs in the Billboard Top 20 at the same time; for an incredible two years (The Bodyguard soundtrack was the first album in Nielsen SoundScan history to stay in the Top Three Albums two years in a row), those songs were everywhere. I remember putting together an American Idol-esque talent competition among friends, in which every person was required to sing “I Will Always Love You.” I also remember that every morning, from kindergarten on, Whitney Houston’s voice was the first thing I heard when I woke up.

My mom began her morning routine around 5 am every day, baking or doing paperwork or exercising, and I could always count on the pulsing beat of “I’m Every Woman,” Whitney’s Chaka Khan cover, to stir me out of slumber.  When I heard those songs, I knew that my mom was there, and I could picture her working hard in the basement below my bedroom. Rather than being annoyed that my mom apparently didn't own another CD, I was comforted by the familiarity of a track listing I knew by heart. Those songs were so important to my mother, but it wasn’t until after Whitney’s death that my mom understood their influence on me, too. I asked my mom to talk about the significance that particular album had for her.  She said,

Every morning, I played it as I worked out in the basement. Pedaling 10 miles on my exercise bike or pumping iron, her words of physical, mental and spiritual strength empowered me. As a young mother of three daughters in an ever-changing male-dominated world, I heard…her powerful lyrics fill me with many life lessons to hopefully instill in my daughters. Lessons to help nurture their creative gifts, strengthen their individual personalities, and [help them] stand strong in a world of endless beauty covered in man-made strife... Between work, school actives, my volunteering at the fire house and church and the PTA, she keep me strong all day.

For me, those songs were an introduction to emotions that I wasn’t quite mature enough to understand yet. As a kid, I often cast myself in music videos in my head, and ballads like “I Have Nothing” became the gold standard for imagining my future life.  I saw myself in a beaded headdresss not unlike the one Whitney wore, singing with the experience of a woman who had known love and loss, my voice moving a captive audience to tears.  Many singers of my generation cite Whitney Houston as a huge inspiration, perhaps even the reason they started singing; as it turned out, I didn’t have a ton of vocal talent, but hearing those songs now still evokes a childlike sense of wonder in me. How could someone be so beautiful? How could a voice do that? From an early age, I knew that beauty often came out of pain (I spent hours every night between the ages of four and six trying to squish my face into a different shape to no avail, but that’s an entirely different take on that dichotomy), and I understood that Whitney, the beautiful lady with the beautiful voice, must also know a lot about pain.  But for me, it was the joy of love that came through the strongest, and I couldn't help but associate the songs on The Bodyguard soundtrack with the person I loved the most: my mom.

I didn’t text my mom immediately after hearing Whitney died. I figured she would find out eventually, and I didn’t want to be the one to break the news to her. My mom admitted today that she also cried when she found out, but that she had no idea of the impact Whitney Houston had on me, too. I appreciate Whitney Houston's music, of course, but I really cherish Whitney’s memory as it related to my mom; they were the strongest, most beautiful women I knew growing up, and their influence on me was—and is—so important. Whitney, Mom—I will always love you.

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