Me and Bobby McGee: Happy Mother’s Day

categories: Cocktail Hour


Reba Burkhardt about age 16, with pearls.


A couple of years ago I called my dad to ask if he knew the whereabouts of any family photos or other memorabilia of my time playing in bands. I particularly wanted a photo of equipment set up in the big room over our garage, which we called the Hideaway, and where my friends and I rocked out. He said, Oh, I’ve got photos all right.  The older of my two younger sisters, Carol, had boxed them all when Poppy moved down to Atlanta to live with my younger brother, Doug, and his family. And, well, they were still in the boxes.


Which arrived three days later via Fedex ground–seven large U-Haul cartons taped shut at the end of 2006, beginning of 2007. These I put in the barn, but today cleaning up a little I spied them (very close to blending in to the permanent warp and woof of barn stuff). And for no particular reason dragged one inside and slit the tape and inside a bursting cornucopia of forgotten faces and beloved ones, mostly my mother’s side of the family, and mostly theForsyth clan, her mother’s crowd. Gradually I realized that the collection was from my mother’s aunt Pearl, her favorite aunt and middle-name sake (my daughter’s, too: Elysia Pearl). Aunt Pearl had written names on many photos, but many were unmarked. My grandparents I recognized–this pair of people born in 1887 and 1890 respectively. Grandfather is serious in every photo, Grandmother a touch less so. Their eight children arrive one-by-one, my mother near the end of the line-up.

Robert, her immediate senior, died at age 5, polio. Our beloved angel, his mother writes on the back of one photo. I recognize my other uncles’ faces, but not this one. And there are many shots of my mother. Perhaps Aunt Pearl organized these photos, sent selected shots to the right Burkhardt households before her death. Anyway, photos, photos: Mom at 15 years old, Mom and Dad arm in arm age 16 or so, going steady.  And then, a photo I’ve never seen, the two of them at their wedding, Dad in his navy uniform, her siblings flanking, both sets of parents dour at the two far ends of the tableau.  My future folks are 19 and look it, cheerful and resolute, a bit stunned.

Jack Roorbach, age 18.

It was my job to go through all these boxes and try to divide things a little. I get out a stack of large envelopes and label them sibling by sibling and cousin by cousin (I have 36 first cousins, all on Mom’s side–I pick just one per family). My two uncles, Bill and Carl, my Aunt Connie, and my mother (Reba Elaine Pearl Burkhardt) had all died in the previous four years. Photos of each of them, photos of all of them, photos of their living siblings, women in their 80s and 90s now. Photos of the living, photos of the dead. I tuck images of Uncle Bill into an envelope for cousin Lindy. I tuck Uncle Carl into an envelope for cousin June. Who knew how carefree and how good-looking and how gangly these people used to be!

In a stationery box, Robert’s baby book, all carefully filled out, beloved boy. It’s kept as a journal in the Victorian style, rather stiff until late in the pages, which include a description in my Grandmother’s hand of his last words: a prayer, which she spells out complete, blue fountain pen, on the page titled “Baby’s First Prayer,” an addendum to the old book of hopes she must have pulled out for comfort, a thought continued from somewhere else: “Later he wanted a different prayer from sister Reba Pearl’s so he used ‘Dear God we thank thee for this day, for home, and work and play, for loving care, and everything in Jesus’ name, Amen.’ He repeated this in gasps before his dear little soul left us.”

Me and Bobby McGee, my mother used to sing. Me and Bobby, me and Bobby McGee.

Bill, Randy, Janet, Carol, Doug, c. 1967

One day singing it with her late in her life it occurred to me why this unlikely Janis Joplin hit would become her favorite song, why she sang it out at the top of her lungs, why she awakened us with it all through high school, full blast on the console hi-fi. And why the 45 version was on our little pink record player in my sister’s old room when I went to help clean the Connecticut house out before Dad’s move.

Me and Bobby, Me and Bobby McGee.

After dinner that summer’s night, having embarked on this project by accident, I opened a second box, this one containing Roorbach family photos, lots of laughs, lots of sitting there on the couch trying to figure out who was who, which baby which, which haircut when, lots of tossing photos into labeled envelopes: Randy, Bill, Carol, Doug, Janet.

When the box was empty and sorted I went to the old computer to work on whatever was at hand, the novel, no doubt. And saw at the bottom of my Mac screen the little calendar with the date: July 17, of course.  Which happens to be my mother’s birthday. Or was. Or always will be, however these things work.  [Originally posted July 17, 2010]

Reba, about my age now (late-50s?), still with the pearls

  1. Patry Francis writes:

    Thanks for sharing Robert’s story–and of course, your mother’s. “However these things work” they matter–to all of us.

  2. George de Gramont writes:

    Wonderful essay. Lets not forget Khris Khristofferson. Wrote “Me & Molly McGee” & other great songs like “Sunday Morning” made famous by J.Cash.Also songs for himself & wife Rita Coolidge (a really good singer). Also wrote a poignant song “Here comes that rainbow again” based on an incident in “The Grapes Of Wrath”.

    • Bill writes:

      Kris Kristofferson, that’s right. And let’s not forget that Janice Joplin was the Pearl.

  3. Tommy Taylor writes:

    Bill. Too cool to read about your mom. I think she and my mom were pals in the New Canaan Garden Club. Am I daft here?

    In my days in Seattle in the 1970s and 80s, my mom would call me with news about you from your mother. Something about your being in Seattle with a band, and I should look you up.

    Ohno. Ohnohno…is this gonna be another chapter of “I Used to Play in bands…???”

  4. Susan Royal writes:

    I’ve finally had a chance to sit and browse through your adventurous, charming and entertaining website, Bill. And this piece about your dear mom is so beautiful. I remember her well – her love of nature (remember those terrariums), her clear, uncompromising honesty, her kindness and her absolute devotion to her family. You write so eloquently and full of heart, Bill. She would have loved this… Best wishes to you and all your family.

  5. Bill – Such a lovely piece. Thank you for sharing it.

    I recently helped my 77-year-old mother get her adoption records unsealed and now that we know a name I have been searching, and perhaps have found, a picture of my mother’s mother…my grandmother. So I certainly know the power of pictures as I stare at the photograph wondering if those are the same eyes as my mother’s? What about the smile? The hair? How much can I truly tell from this picture? Is there any of me in this woman in me?

    Kind regards,


  6. Anne Roorbach writes:

    What a beautiful piece. So poignant on Mom’s birthday. It’s too easy to keep those boxes closed and shut out memories that we don’t want to sort through. There is a reason why you are the one to get that job… because you have the patience to sift through them and the words that bring meaning to them again. Bobby McGee and the pearls. Beautiful tribute. Thanks, Bill

  7. Julianna Acheson writes:

    Bill, Happy Birthday to your mother!! This was beautiful! Thanks for writing!! and Thanks for Bobbie McGee!

  8. Julianna Acheson writes:

    This was great Bill! Thanks so much for posting it! AND Elysia looks almost exactly like the first photograph of the group, Reba at sixteen….her coloring is a little different but otherwise it is uncanny!

  9. Dave writes:

    P.S. But what does it have to do with the Gulf?

  10. Dave writes:

    This is really beautiful, Bill.

  11. Steven Stafford writes:

    Very touching. R.I.P.

  12. Roseann Fitzgerald writes:

    This was a beautiful post and glad to know that you’re still rummaging through pictures, organizing and sharing memories. One of my first cousins (I had 27 on my mother’s side of the family) is a friend on Facebook. For Father’s Day, my cousin’s wife converted all his late father’s Super 8 Movies (my Uncle Johnny) onto DVDS so that he could see them again and share them with his kids. He’s been sharing selected videos with friends and family on Facebook. One was a video of a family party in the backyard of our home on Shippan Point with great photos of my Dad and Uncle Johnny supervising all the kids running around like crazy, eating popsicles, playing football, wrestling, climbing the monkey bars, dancing the twist (this is 1962) and generally hamming it up. I love that family photos can now be easily shared through digital technology. Whenever I find that one of a kind photo, I do my best to make copies and share them with my immediate family. Thanks for sharing the photos stored so long ago by your Great Aunt Pearl.

  13. Joan writes:

    Hi Bill,

    What a treasure trove! Your sister deserves so much thanks! And thank you for sharing some of the photos with us. You look much like your mom in the youthful photo (and perhaps will look like her when you’re older, too!)

  14. My 10-year-old daughter, Leslie, brought me some photos yesterday that she found of her older half-sister, Lauren, now 28, riding her first bicycle when she was about five. I don’t take nearly as many photos today, now that everything has gone digital. Kind of goes against the logic. You’d think I’d have photos everywhere. This is why I think actual, physical books will be with us for a long time.

  15. Valerie Lane writes:

    Wonderful. Pictures are a great way to get into memories. I like to think of the image of you sitting there sorting through all the photos that someone lovingly saved, laughing and thinking of all the generations both before and after. Pearl.