Beth Orton – No more an orphan girl
When Orton was 19, her mother fell ill just before the holiday season. Doctors told them it was pleurisy, an inflammation of the membrane covering the lungs. As soon as the holidays were over, the true diagnosis was revealed. Cancer.
“I suppose they didn’t want to ruin our Christmas. That is total bullshit. Fuck Christmas! I want to know!
“They told us one day, and she was dead a week later.”
For many weeks, she had been spitting the green fluid into a towel, not the same towel, but a rotation of towels, one of which she would keep on her chest. But the towel on her chest, my sister Beth and I found after a short while, was not such a good place to spit the green fluid, because, as it turned out, the green fluid smelled awful, much more pungent an aroma than one might expect.
— from A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers
“Will you make a note of this, that I am telling you this,” Orton says, of discussing her mother’s death. She has understandably been loath to elaborate on such a painful subject in previous interviews, but has decided to open up on the topic because…well, she’s not sure why. But although she has decided to talk about it here, that doesn’t mean she’s prepared to address the death of her mother in every subsequent interview.
“Other journalists who read this, it is not for them to bring up. I am not turning my life into an anecdote,” she explains. “I don’t want that to now be part of my press release. I just decided, and made a choice to tell you.”
Orton says she tried to read Eggers’ memoir of his own mother’s cancer death, but found it hit too close to home. Not only does she share Eggers’ sister’s name, she likewise cared for her mother during the final week of her life, and watched her mother suffer the same fate.
“It was just too much,” she says. “I nursed her and it was quite similar to [the book]….All that kind of really strange stuff you go through when you nurse your parent. Suddenly, they are your child.”
As trying and sad as the process must have been, Orton also describes the ordeal as “incredibly beautiful.” “I have never been more fulfilled in my life, in a weird way, helping her die. It was the strangest thing.”
If Orton has been hesitant to speak about the loss of her mother to journalists, she concedes she has addressed the topic in song. On Trailer Park, the track “Someone’s Daughter” touched on the issue, but framed it in surprisingly upbeat form (“I’m no one’s daughter/I belong to the sun/Gonna ease your pain until the morning comes”). The song initially was about a teenage romance she had with a boy who had a rough relationship with his own mother. “I remember being especially scathing to him, and feeling bad for it after. Someone loves him; I shouldn’t mistreat him.
“Years later, after all my family were dead — I’m not being maudlin, honest,” she interjects with a soft, self-deprecating laugh — “I was writing a song with another boyfriend. I was going [she adopts forlorn singing voice]: ‘I’m no one’s daughter.’ And he was like: ‘Yeah, you are! You are someone’s daughter!’ I thought, fuck it! I am someone’s daughter. That was beautiful. I will never forget that.”
She shifts from the topic of her mother to thoughts of that long-ago romance. For a moment, she sounds lost in that memory, of running through the early morning, rain-slicked London streets with her boyfriend, shouting out improvised song lyrics, eating dinners he’d prepare and “sitting around together, totally in love.”
“Sometimes, knowing where you are from, knowing someone loves you, is quite a thing,” she says quietly.
The specter of her mother again appeared on Central Reservation, in the song “Pass In Time”:
My mother told me just before she died,
‘Oh darling, darling, don’t you be like me.
You will fall in love with the very first man you meet.’
But mama, mama, some will never know;
The love that you have is still holding my soul
The initial spark was a lyric she happened upon in a book of blues songs. She doesn’t say which song, but possibly Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues”: “My mother told me just before she died/Daughter, don’t you be so wild”; or perhaps “Jesus Paid The Fare”, about a penniless orphan who declines to pay streetcar fare, saying, “My mother told me just before she died/That Jesus paid when he was crucified.”
“I wrote the song about where I was with my grief, and where I wanted to be with it. I wanted it to pass. I wanted to feel the strength of what she taught me, rather than just sit in misery. It is really empowering to sing. The funny thing was, it was like a mantra to myself. I couldn’t believe it, but I wanted to. I wrote it as a reminder to myself. Little Post-It notes in the sky.”
Orphaned at 19, Orton and her brothers set out on their own. “I was just…left,” she says. Was it difficult? “Yeah, a little bit. Quite strange, to be honest.” At one point, Orton became so distressed, she temporarily lost her eyesight, and she was plagued by Crohn’s disease, a periodic, painful inflammation of the colon.