Today is my mother’s 70th birthday. When she turned 50, in the mid-nineties, I was 20 and my sister was 22. We didn’t have any money. And our mother is notoriously hard to buy for; she never wants things. So we rather sheepishly made her a mixed tape. We decorated the cover with a big “50” cut out of a magazine and wrote the names of the songs inside. We put songs we knew she’d like – by Leonard Cohen and UB40 – and songs we liked, by The Breeders and the Gypsy Kings.
For her 52nd we made her another tape and called it Full Deck. Conveniently, tapes share the size and shape of a deck of cards (52! Full Deck! – had these been the CD years the title wouldn’t have worked). That tape lived in my mom’s car for thirteen years before she finally upgraded and had a CD player installed.
Full Deck has a few of the artists who show up on nearly every birthday album: Ani Difranco, Grateful Dead, Cowboy Junkies. It also has some favorite opera pieces including the Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute. My mother used to lip sync that aria in the car on long trips. As a kid I’d sit in the back and watch her pretend to hit the high notes. I remember knowing that she wasn’t really singing along but I always had a nagging doubt – maybe that was her voice we heard hitting high F. Maybe her voice only worked like that in the car.
For her 56th birthday album I have a playlist on my computer so by then we must have been burning CDs. The year my mother turned 56 we were listening to a lot of Macy Gray and Billy Bragg. And that’s the year we included an old favourite that we still belt out each summer: The Swimming Song by Kate and Anna McGarrigle.
For the birthday CDs we printed out the song lists and chose a photo for the cover. In the early years we’d use one of my brother-in-law’s fine art photographs. Some of the more recent covers echo the original magazine-pasted tape covers with collages of grandchildren’s heads on them. For her 68th we PhotoShopped my partner into a family photo that he’d missed. Keen observers will note that he looks a bit out-of-place in his short sleeves with the rest of us bundled into winter coats on the toboggan hill.
During my mother’s 50s – my 20s – we made a birthday album every few years. I suppose we still wondered what to get her for each birthday and only resorted to a mixed tape when we couldn’t think of anything else. By her 60s we were resigned to the fact that a music mix was the best we could come up with and the albums were produced regularly.
For me, it’s become a habit. When I hear a song I think she’ll like, I just add it to the playlist for next year’s mix. I start a new playlist shortly after her birthday each year. At dinner parties I often play a mix derived from the nearly twenty years of songs we’ve been selecting for Mom’s albums – after removing the banjo tunes and the opera tunes and the Bulgarian Women’s Chorus from the list.
Every year my sister and I talk in the early spring and figure out which songs to include. Each album is a little snapshot of the songs we liked that year: Her 59th is full of Jack Johnson; there are a few too many Vampire Weekend songs on her 65th. Remember when Natalie Maines said some perfectly reasonable things about shame and war and George Bush Jr. and raised the ire of a bunch of country music fans to the point where she received death threats if she didn’t shut up and sing? That year’s album has a lot of Dixie Chicks songs (well not that year but her 63rd, after the documentary came out, does).
Her 64th starts with the obvious Beatles tune. For her 69th last year Akka argued successfully for some Katy Perry. Although we’ve never intentionally strived for Canadian content, our ratio is quite high; Tegan and Sara, Serena Ryder and Justin Rutledge have all made regular appearances. The albums we made during the years my sister was living in Mali have Amadou & Mariam and Farka Touré.
I still think of them as mixed tapes but the formats changed over the years. First they were indeed tapes with handwritten song lists and pasted-on decorations. The first tape’s liner has white-out on it where I printed a song’s name before waiting to find out whether the whole thing would fit on side A. Later we burned CDs and printed the covers. A few years ago we handed her a USB stick and she simply copied the songs onto her computer with a digital cover image. Last year none of us were in the same city so we uploaded songs to a file-sharing site and emailed back and forth to finalize the list. Her birthday email included the link to where she could download them.
Today my mother turns 70. We’ve got 17 songs on the playlist. One of them is from a book she read to my kids a few months ago. One of them is a Swahili song that Akka’s choir sang. One of them is a KD Lang cover of the Steve Miller Band (so, no explanation necessary). Maybe for old time’s sake we’ll record them on to a tape. If I can remember how!