If you lived in Virginia Beach during the final quarter of the 20th Century, it would have been nearly impossible not to know about a restaurant called The Jewish Mother. Located a block away from the ocean front, The Jewish Mother was a New York style deli that also served as a venue for live music. It was established in 1974, the year I was born. One of the owners was Jewish, and named the restaurant in honor of his mom. It was a great place. Everything about it was hipster before being hipster was hip. My earliest memory of The Jewish Mother dates back to the summer of 1985. My family and I went there for a Sunday afternoon brunch. The chalkboard out front listed some of the items they were known for serving, such as lox, bagels, omelets, and pastrami. Upon entering the restaurant, each patron was given a box of Crayola crayons and encouraged to write or draw on the walls. After more than a decade of this ritual, the result was a one-inch-thick wax mural of several different colors and themes covering every square inch of the vertical interior of the building. It was strangely beautiful. While we ate, a local classical guitarist named Robin Welch played a variety of tunes while seated on the stage. I was captivated by his style, and hoped to one day play my own guitar on that stage.
Six years later I finished my junior year of high school. Shortly after my seventeenth birthday at the end of June, Mike, who was one of my closest friends, mentioned to me that The Jewish Mother had a weekly “Open Mic Night” for musicians. He said he recently played there with his band, Ambidextrous Rex, and had a blast. So, I immediately called Marc, who I had been playing music with since October. After practicing for a week or so, we showed up one night and put our names on the list. My mom and her fiance, my sister, and Cathy met us there. We were about 45 minutes early, so we ordered dinner and ate while a local band called “Blind Venetians” played. When they finished their set, the MC for the evening announced that Open Mic Night would be starting in 10 minutes. Marc and I were first on the list. The MC introduced us and the crowd gave a smattering of applause. We walked onto the stage, sat on wooden bar stools, adjusted the two boom microphone stands, plugged our guitars into the sound system, and began to play.
We were allowed to perform 4 songs. So, our setlist consisted of three covers and one original:
- “Melissa,” by The Allman Brothers (though we did the Indigo Girls version)
- “All Along the Watchtower,” by Jimi Hendrix (again, we did the Indigo Girls version)
- “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” by Poison
- “But Even This Heart,” by Marc Pittman and Dale Buettner. We had written it a month earlier but had never performed it publicly. Marc wrote the music and asked me to write the lyrics. All he asked was that I entitle it “But Even This Heart.” It was code, actually. An acronym. But Even This Heart.
Beth was a girl from First Colonial High who was special to Marc at the time. I only met her once. She was petite, with long blonde hair, a nice smile, and a really tall boyfriend. She came to the show that night. With her tall boyfriend. And we sang that song. She applauded, but I don’t think she ever knew it was about her. Nonetheless, we enjoyed playing that song. I remember the tune, and I remember how to play it. Unfortunately all that remains in my memory of the lyrics are the second verse and the chorus:
Everyday I wake up and pray that someday I’ll be with you.
Oh, my darling, I wonder if you even know there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for you.
So, my darling let me tell you this:
If you ever need a friend I’ll be there,
Forever and ever.
But even this heart can bear
To wait for you.
My mom, a mere 43 years old at the time, was our biggest cheering section that night. She clapped with vigor and told the waitress several times that her son was the one with the black acoustic guitar. I soaked it up and will never forget it.
We played again the following week. This time Kevin and Cathy came, as did Marc’s dad and Cathy’s mom. The MC that evening was Robin Welch, the classical guitarist I had seen six years earlier. It turned out Cathy’s mom knew him, which I thought was cool. He was funny, and did a great job creatively introducing each act. He introduced us and we took the stage. We opened with a song I wrote, called “Rumors.” It was fun to play– upbeat, in the key of G, with an aggressive strumming pattern. And Marc, an amazing lead guitarist, rocked that song with impressive riffs from start to finish. He put his whole body into those lead parts. I stuck to chords and lyrics. I remember very few of the words to that song. I do remember that it had a hint of an angry edge to it, and was a plea for all people to love each other rather than gossip about each other.
Next, we played “Melissa.” True, we had performed it the previous week, but we loved doing that song. It had interesting chords, a nice melody, and it just felt like a good summertime song. It was hard not to sing it with feeling:
Knowing many, loving none,
Bearing sorrow, having fun,
But back home he’ll always run,
To sweet Melissa.
For our third song we sang “Lay Me Down,” by The Connells, an eerily enchanting ballad about dying:
Sing to me sweetly as I turn sour.
Lay me down remembering.
Let the wind and the rain play their part in that dreadful hour.
And so as I pass, I too feel the power,
Laying here under the trees.
Three days before, I danced in a summer shower.
We closed with another original I had recently finished writing. It was called “Song for Cathy,” a ballad in the key of C, thanking her being my friend. I only remember the chorus:
So, I’ll sing a song of love
And I’ll give my life to God above,
and thank you for being my friend.
I’ve tried not to run from the fact
’cause wherever I go the truth comes back
that I’m in love with you,
I’m in love with you, my friend,
to the end.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see what each person at our “fan” table was doing as we performed that night. Cathy kept her gaze on Marc and me the entire show, smiling and lip syncing to every song. Every couple of minutes she sipped her glass of Coke through a clear straw while her reddish-brown curly hair slightly fluttered from the draft of the AC vent above. Kevin’s mullet did the same while he drank coffee from a white ceramic mug and bobbed his head to the rhythm of each song. Marc’s dad and Cathy’s mom periodically leaned in and made comments to each other while they watched us. It meant a lot to me that they came that night. I know, as a seventeen year old boy, my thoughts and emotions were constantly all over the map, as my mother would attest. So I found it cathartic simply to write what I was feeling, and then publicly express it to others through music. It was like therapy, in a way, or even somewhat like confession. Plus, I got to hang out with Marc and bounce the lyrics off of him as I wrote, which was always fun. It was an honor to have performed with him at that quirky deli by the Atlantic Ocean.
A week or so after that second performance, Mike and Elizabeth invited Cathy and me to join them at The Jewish Mother to see Lewis McGehee perform. Lewis was a well-known musician in the area, and had once toured with Bruce Hornsby. Mike had been taking guitar lessons from him and had been telling me how amazing he was. And so, the four of us met at the restaurant one Friday night around 8:00. It would be another 30 minutes before Lewis started his first set, so we ordered appetizers and drinks and talked. I could tell Mike enjoyed being around Elizabeth. She was a kindhearted Episcopalian girl he knew from church camp. She liked listening to Indigo Girls and reading Jospeh Girzone. I never got to know her very well, but I enjoyed hanging out with her and Mike a few times. Last I heard she lives in South Carolina in the same town as my sister.
When it was time for the show to start, Lewis McGehee walked onto the stage along with Michael McCarthy, his percussionist who also sang harmony for most of the songs. Lewis strapped on a sunburst Takamine acoustic, and Michael took his place behind a percussion contraption that looked like some type of Rube Goldberg machine. I spent the entire show in awe. The sound these two guys produced was almost unreal. I was particularly moved by their renditions of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.” I liked Lewis’s music so much that after the show I bought his most recent tape of original songs, “Distant Voices.” I listened to it repeatedly for the rest of that summer. Lewis still plays several times a week all over the Hampton Roads area. I hope to see him perform again someday.
Mike, Cathy, and Kevin were three of my closest friends that summer. But in the coming weeks and months, life brought about some of its periodic changes. Cathy went to northern Virginia for the month of August, and we drifted apart for a time. Mike had already graduated, so once school started I only saw him once every few weeks. Kevin joined the Marines, and I rarely saw him. It just wasn’t the same. I vividly remember pondering all of this one Friday afternoon in the living room of my house in Kempsville. I wanted to write about it but I just couldn’t describe what I was feeling. So I went over to the stereo and popped in Lewis McGehee’s “Distant Voices” tape. It was on the final song of Side B. The song was called “Mostly Me,” and the final verse grabbed hold of me and took my breath away:
Now this blue ink just can’t explain
Why this old boy ain’t been the same lately;
‘Cause there ain’t enough hues in the color wheel
That could rightly paint the way I feel today.
And though I’ve tried to make it rhyme
This pen can’t write what it can’t find.
Words won’t do,
Time can’t renew.
Something is lost,
But I guess it’s mostly me.
Yes, I guess it’s mostly me.
I would not have been able to more accurately describe what I was feeling. I missed my friends. Thankfully, I still had Marc, and we continued to write and perform music together. Randall soon joined as a percussionist, which really transformed our sound. Those two guys brought much happiness to my life for the remainder of that year, which turned out to be a great one.
Years later, in 2008, after leaving a disappointing Warrant concert at the boardwalk, my brother and I, along with my sister and her husband, walked to The Jewish Mother for a drink. As soon as we were seated my sister said, “I still remember coming here 17 years ago to hear you play.” The memory she evoked brought tears of joy to my eyes, and we toasted to good memories, good friends, good music, and good food.
In 2015, I learned Mike and Cathy had both recently lost their mothers. Strangely, that same day I found out The Jewish Mother had closed down for good. When I learned all of this, it weighed heavily on me. While I know my grief was nowhere near what each of these families had suffered, I still felt as if a part of me had died. The mothers of two of my best friends from my youth, and the iconic landmark where I spent time with those friends, were gone. I suddenly identified with the line in that 1980 Dan Fogelberg song:
“Just for a moment I was back at school, and felt that old familiar pain.”
Some of it was sorrow for the suffering my two friends and their mothers experienced. Some of it was guilt that I wasn’t there for them when their mothers passed away. Some of it was just plain nostalgia for the memory of being together at The Jewish Mother during a simpler time. As my wife and I laid in bed that night, I could tell she knew something was bothering me. I opened up to her, and with tears I told her about the strange and confusing sense of loss I was feeling. She stroked my hair and said, “These things happen, honey. We’re all getting older. But you know as well I do that a day is coming when pain and loss will be no more.”
Her words were like a healing balm to my soul. They reminded me that the Faith I profess regularly in the Apostles’ Creed contains a promise that eventually all things will be made new and will last forever. In fact, the Man who stands at the center of this Faith would have grown up hearing his Jewish Mother read to him from the Book of Isaiah, which describes the new heaven as a place filled with good memories, good friends, good music, and good food. A place that never closes down, where friends never drift apart, where mothers never die, and where the food and wine are plentiful, delicious, and free. In the mean time, we rekindle old friendships and forge new ones. Listen to old songs and write new songs. Laugh a lot, live with passion, and let your words be a healing balm to the souls of all who hurt.