My earliest memories are framed by my mother’s love of two larger-than-life figures, Elvis and Jesus.
I remember getting off the school bus in front of our house and hearing Elvis’ voice all the way down the driveway, crooning from the record player inside. Loud music usually meant my mom was “general cleaning,” an intense version of her already rigorous routine that included polishing furniture and waxing the floors. As a full-time homemaker and immigrant without many friends in our Midwestern town, Elvis, Nat King Cole, and Johnny Mathis were her companions.
Jesus was too, through her daily prayers (which I’ve written about before). To be clear Jesus’ influence was much more profound. Elvis was by no means worshipped like a god in our house, but he was loved.
It feels significant that during my sabbatical this summer, some 35 years after getting off that bus, my memory of the influence of those two grand figures was awakened.
At first, I was hesitant to take my mother to see Baz Lurhmann’s film, Elvis, because it is not really Elvis in the movie, and her love is based on his authentic person and voice. She also hasn’t been to the movies at the theater since my dad died almost 10 years ago. But our curiosity, spurred on by enthusiastic reviews from family and friends, won out.
That day at the movies, and many times before, she told me that my dad, in his younger years, looked like Elvis. (I actually agree, especially when comparing certain pictures of the two of them with their sideburns.) Her love of Elvis became a kind of endearment between them. He referred to Elvis as her “boyfriend,” and reminded her of his birthday or death anniversary whenever he saw an advertisement or article about the showing of his movies on television to mark the occasions. Elvis died the year after I was born, so January 8 and August 16 became like commemorative holidays in my childhood when we would watch Jail House Rock, Blue Hawaii, or Viva Las Vegas.
We even took a family trip to Memphis when I was a teenager. All of us piled into a van and hit the road. We stayed at The Peabody and watched the parade of ducks. We ate barbecue and visited Mud Island Park. Of course, the true reason for the trip was to see Graceland.
For my mom, the love of Elvis never faded, even as the television specials ceased. On her 80th birthday in 2020, she had wanted to have a big party. The pandemic made that impossible. We considered canceling but she was adamant. “We are a fun family!” she said. So instead, we pared down the guest list, decked out a large space for eating and dancing, ordered a full-size cardboard cutout of Elvis to pose with for pictures, and my brother, a DJ, played her favorite songs. In a way, Elvis made the party.
As we watched Elvis the movie, which includes a lot of historical context about his personal life and America in the 1960s, I started to see more clearly how he and his music came to resonate with so many. He was influenced by his father who went to jail for a time, and his religious mother that struggled with alcoholism. He was influenced by growing up in poverty in and around the Black community and the Black church.
I was surprisingly moved.
My favorite scene is one with Elvis and his mother when Elvis has been threatened to be arrested if he performs and moves his body in a way that some politicians don’t feel is appropriate. His mother, whom he loves very much, says, “The way you sing is God-given, so there can’t be nothing wrong with it.”*
Much of my sabbatical was spent in a kind of discernment, trying to remember what in my life and career are God-given. After 9 years in my current job, almost 20 in the field of fundraising, 12 as a full-time working mother, and 14 as a wife, I felt a little lost to myself.
I tried to do what Jesus did. He often went off by himself to pray. For me, that meant meditation, quiet reading, visits to museums, yoga, and slow walks in nature. He shared lots of meals with those he loved. So I reached out to family and friends to do that as well. We took time, without a special occasion or agenda, to eat and laugh, and talk about life and dreams.
He also journeyed. “Over Jesus’ lifetime, a conservative estimate of the number of miles he may have walked is put at around 21,525 miles, almost the equivalent of walking around the entire world.”*
I journeyed as well, to Argentina, to meet up with my family who had generously given me a few weeks to myself. It was the first time in a long time that I had traveled alone. I was reminded of my 20s when the familiar thrill of adventure rose up as I entered the airport, passport in hand.
Most significantly, Jesus died, and I did too in a way. (I’ll share more about this in a future essay.)
For a long time, I have worked to include what I love and what is God-given into my life. As I have gotten older, that has become harder. It is amazing how quickly we forget or get distracted from who we are and who we want to be.
Over the gift of this summer, I learned in a real way, from Elvis and Jesus and me, that we hear best when we are quiet, and we feel best when we are immersed in what is true. The hard part is making time to listen and be immersed, find what is true, and pay attention. I will keep trying.