‘Headphones’ by Mo Duffy Cobb

Non-Fiction, Short Stories


Illustration by Andres Garzon

When she puts them in, I become an advisor, an educator. I become an author, an editor of a literary magazine with comments and readers. I am a seasoned traveller, a writer scribbling madly in the dark. I am a freelancer, an English teacher propelled into the chaotic throes of entrepreneurship. A presenter, an authority, a reference—an adult.

When she takes them out, I am her mom.

When she puts them in, she is my little girl again, the one I nurtured and disciplined and watched grow through the ages. She is one month old, two years old, five and seven—all at the same time.

When she takes them out, she is almost twelve and she wants a grilled cheese.

When she puts them in, she hears her dance tunes and her hands square her face like she’s in a musicl.ly video. She bends her knee in and out in a plié, unaware that she’s doing it. My baby girl has grown into a dancer, with a body that leaps into rooms ahead of her.

When she takes them out, I am a maid in the middle of my fifth load of laundry. I sort and pile and hang, folding my education degree into my Master’s degree, my world a blur of baby socks and dishtowels and an endless cycle of grass stains. I wonder if I should start working on my PhD, then become plagued with the irony of whether or not I would ever use it.

When she puts them in, I become the questioner. Have I outlined the boundaries, the daytime hours of tech talk and screen time, the dangers of the online unknown? With transitions on the horizon, she is growing up faster and faster. What is she watching, is it appropriate? She hasn’t yet tried deception, and for now she adequately self-polices. I’ll never tell her that when I was young, I tried to get away with everything. I look at her and squint. I want her to know the fear that somewhere, I am lurking.

When she takes them out, she asks me what I’m looking at. Intuitive, this one. Maybe she senses a shift in me too. We are growing up together, I always tell her. The days of consent are coming, the days of nerves and new relationships and mom fears. But I try to pace my answers to her questions, and never to project the panic I sometimes begin to feel. “Nothing,” I say, and go back to planning the Home and School auction.

When she puts them in, she feels grown up. She joins her friends in the Cloud, texts, laughs, and uses hashtags rhetorically. She is smart and funny. She sends her girlfriends videos, pictures, and writes messages, making jokes about the boys in her class. She has style and reputation and status, seethes a confidence that I never quite achieved. I wait for the phone to ring, wonder when the baby might wake, and wash the same dishes over and over again. I have my own life, sometimes it feels like I used to. With the oldest bridging tweenhood, the youngest a decade her junior, and a son who will start kindergarten in the fall. The age gaps are real. I catch myself thinking, “this is temporary,” to the mayhem, the midnight interruptions, and the constant ground breaking of new frontiers, but then swallow the lump in my throat when I consider for a moment leaving all of this behind. The velocity of motherhood and the heartbreaking speed at which it passes is both its blessing and its curse.

When she takes the headphones out, she is planning. A sleepover this day, the mall that day. What we will do this summer, how many friends she can have? The movies, adventures, ice creams, and swimming. Where will she have wifi? I tell her to slow down. She says she can’t. She reminds me so much of my younger self: bright, sparkling, vibrant—before age blanketed me with the comfort of routine. It is so easy to become paralyzed with the mundane and, every day, this small, wild spirit reminds me to shake it up.

When she plugs her headphones in, I badger her—re-focusing her attention on her responsibilities. Has she done her homework, is her room picked up, has she practiced her lines or studied for her math quiz or sold those tickets for the draw on Saturday? It is hard to tell where her chores finish and mine begin, between fundraisers and event planning and remembering the nuances of an overscheduled life. The lines are blurring.

The internal conflict continues. Why do I only need her when she puts those small white buds in her ears? “It’s not a competition, Mom,” she would say. “I love you more than headphones.”

But something in me feels that she is travelling when she wears them—leaving for places unknown. When the headphones go in, her world doesn’t collapse, it expands. It becomes Hollywood and wrecking balls and princess rap battles. It becomes cake channels and tour dates and cat videos. I struggle to believe that people watch YouTube channels on DIY fashion hacks, but she says it’s true, and they have millions of followers.

When she takes them out, she can’t wait to tell me about them. She regales me with how she plans to cut up her t-shirts to make purses. She’ll get an old zipper, and could I get some thread? Where is that craft box, the one with the old patches? Her ideas overflow, from tickle trunks to Halloween boxes and deep into the back of craft shelves. “Before you make new clothes,” I start, “Could you put away the ones on your floor?” When did I become no fun?

When she takes them out, she is the one who badgers me—in the middle of this one article an editor is waiting for, or a proposal for an idea I must get down before it spins away. She crashes into my world with questions like, “Who is Trump anyway and why did he get elected?” Her whole class is upset with him. And when she walked home with Claudie, she said he made the people go home, to their home countries. As if they had a choice, Mom! Grampie’s TV has weather all the time, Mom, all the time. And she needs a new white shirt for choir, bigger ballet shoes and to go see her friends. And her science fair project is just around the corner. And could I pleeeeease just let her dye her hair pink. French tips, Mom. Everyone is doing it. And she’d really like to have the class party this year and get Dad to DJ it. He would be so great at that. And could I serve ice cream cake, it is graduation from grade six after all. I ask, “Honey, did you LOSE those headphones? Please, please would you put them in again?” Yes, yes, she promises, but could I please butter some toast first? Yes, anything for peace and quiet!

When she puts them in, I think of my first Walkman and the long list of songs that flowed from battery operation to the human cochlear. Smashing Pumpkins, Runaway Train, Lenny Kravitz, the Grateful Dead shows, Zeppelin bootlegs from the shops in Dublin when I first left the country by myself. Phish. The music I searched for in dingy old basement record stores, in the days of authenticity. You had to become an inquirer, to follow leads looking for certain albums, to borrow and tape from your friends. Active participation.

Peeling off the plastic of a new CD and reading the poems of the music inside was considered a major thrill, even if it was only a selection of the month from Columbia House. What’s it like to have all the music in the world flow straight into your consciousness? Google Play, Sonos, Spotify, all competing for your attention, marketing and advertising and commercials along for the ride. I will always remember the slowing of the music as my Walkman batteries on a long bus ride died. Siri, will she miss this?

“Siri, do you love me?” she asks. The headphones pop out and she giggles. For the moment, the wrinkles have come out. We have built a bridge, in the dark, over time, over history. “Come on, Mom, you’re okay,” she says, comforting me and finally, reversing our roles.

I am learning new skills, a new design, and gaining understanding. The information superhighway has us both journeying on new waves, as mothers and daughters. Connections haven’t changed, although AV ports may have. We have become an old tune played on a new mode, fiddlers in a grand dance.

MO DUFFY COBB is a freelance writer, editor and the author of Unpacked: from PEI to Palawan(Pottersfield Press, 2017). Her essays have been published in The Rumpus, Literary Mama, Damselfly Pressand more. Duffy Cobb holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she is the Founder and Editor ofCargo Literary, a digital imprint that publishes transformational travel experiences. She lives in beautiful Prince Edward Island, and is the President of the PEI Writers’ Guild.

Copyright © 2019 by Mo Duffy Cobb. All rights reserved.

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