My mother never met Prince, never shook his hand or waved hi or saw him in concert. But she adored him in a way that took on a mystical connection, like two people who didn't know each other but were intertwined in the headlights of poetry.
Mom was born in Chanhassen, Minnesota, in 1932, where Prince died on April 21. She didn't live there; her home was next door in Excelsior, a small-town gem on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. The second daughter of divorced parents, her mother, who had sole custody, was fiercely religious and abusive. Her dad, whom she adored, lived on a farm beyond Chanhassen with Mom's older sister, Grace, and had performed in the John Phillips Souza Band. She went to see him play trombone every Saturday night in neighboring Chaska, a memory she relives with childish delight. Music has always been a huge part of my mother's life, and three of her five children grew up extremely talented, be it drums, guitar, or piano.
When my grandmother was dying, in 1987, Mom left her California home for an extended stay in Excelsior. It wasn't a happy time, and her mother, even bedridden, was unbearable. In between doctors and errands and taking care of final business amid quiet afternoons where mosquitoes are the busiest noise you hear, she noticed something unheard of in that part of the world: Purple limousines were driving by her street; lots of them. Prince had moved into town, adding a touch of celebrity to a country of hushed dreams.
People who grew up in that part of the world rarely left. Mom was taken, to be with a husband and support his career and raise his children. After they divorced in 1967 and he died in 1969 she took on the role of mother and father and breadwinner.
Mom already loved Prince; that was the thing. She gravitated toward the music her children listened to, and Prince was King. He was sexy, he was provocative, he was exciting, he was talented, and, in her direct words, "He was so sure of himself. I was enamored of him. Plus, he was from Minnesota!" She was a much bigger fan than I was, and I bought the records.
But the linger, the line of thought that kept a kickstand in her head, was that small-town Minnesota was Mom's world, the place that held her childhood brilliance. Mom was crowned high school homecoming queen in 1950 (later, college queen), she was head cheerleader, her "crowning" adorning local papers, her friends and male admirers at the soda fountain and all the shops along the main street, and her house so close to the amusement park she want to sleep listening to the delighted screams of people descending the wooden roller coaster's first hill.
After high school Mom got a coveted spot as a synchronized swimmer in the renowned Aqua Follies, but ended her career when her new husband demanded his wife stay home. She craved show business, but didn't know how that world worked or how to say no to a husband, the man with the brilliant career in their future.
When she went back home, as she had so many times before with children in tow, still celebrated like the tiara never left her head, in the park or walking aside one of the thousands of lakes, times were sad. She'd been heartbroken by an unrequited love and she had to deal with the final passage of her mother. There was her cruel aunt, a parent who still scolded her from bed, and, one day, a run-in with a relative and local judge who, generations before, had granted her mother custody and simultaneously put her father away in a mental institution. Grace, a teenager, tended the farm alone in the middle of a Minnesota winter. She died of leukemia a few years later. Mom ran into the judge at the same Chaska courthouse where Prince's estate hearings are being held today. Her family name adorns the building.
But the purple limos. They'd drive by, a glimpse of glamour and thrills and a fully realized version of her expectant youth, on narrow roads she'd been walking along since the age of five. Back then, you only saw horses on the farm across the street when you looked out the window.
Mom still loves her hometown, still visits, and is upset that Prince didn't move to the area earlier, because "anyone who was anyone" hung out at Bacon's drugstore, including a rumored Mick Jagger, where he supposedly got the inspiration for "You Can't Always Get What You Want." She knows Prince would have gone inside, she's sure of it, probably to one of the booths in the back, where as a teen she and a boyfriend carved their initials on the wood and where her mother wouldn't dare let her work.
Memory is a tricky little gremlin and some of the details of that time confuse my mom. But ask her where Prince's house is, not Paisley Park, but another, lakeside home, and she gives you directions as quickly and efficiently as if she's telling you the recipe for pot roast.
Shortly after her mother died, my sisters went to help out, and were enthralled that the superstar lived nearby. The three of them wrote a letter inviting him for tea. They drove up to his house and left the note with a guard. They knew it was a long shot, and it might sound ludicrous. But know, also, that inviting neighbors over for tea was the Minnesota way. Still is.
Prince never showed up, but Mom says that, shortly afterward, a convertible drove by with a black man at the wheel. She was in the yard and he looked toward her. In Mom's hometown, black men didn't drive around much, let alone in convertibles. She's pretty sure it wasn't Prince, but she still loves the picture, the possibility that he thought about stopping in for tea, or was just taking a drive and noticed my mother taking care of the yard, an immaculate garden that her mother had kept up to perfection. She soon went home and never saw a purple limousine again.
In my own head, I visualize Prince getting out of his car and saying hello to my mother the homecoming queen, on one of those dead-heat Minnesota days when even the still clouds look like they're about to flee. As a child, she'd search for jack-in-the-pulpits in farm fields, and I see him offering one of the flowers to her and giving condolences and congratulating her on being such an impressive resident.
The morning Prince died, I called Mom to give her the news. She was outside, tending her own immaculate California garden, and couldn't much talk afterward. She was stunned and heartbroken and homesick. It was later on that I found out she started sobbing when she looked down at the fingernails she'd earlier polished, something she hadn't done in months. The color she chose was purple.