Amy Penwell

On May 11th 1985, my father died suddenly of a massive heart attack. It was Mother’s Day weekend. My parents were in the middle of a separation, preparing for divorce. My sister and I were going back and forth between them. The times in between visits were growing longer and I was weakening under the seething strain of his growing absence.

Between Mom’s guru, fostering an alcoholic teen, bankruptcy, selfishness, and mental illness, my family exploded into fragments that scattered like shrapnel all over the fine state of Massachusetts. My childhood house was empty and on the market, every one living in different places, and my father decided to mention an hour before he handed me back off to my mother that he had to kill the cat. Benji had been assassinated.


Benji landed in an early grave with no warning, no crime commited, and no funeral. All that was precious and secure to me was going, going….almost  gone……….but not quite.

Five months prior to that eerie, and exceptionally vibrant spring day in May, I was prompted by a sense of urgency I can only liken to the feeling of needing to take a breath after too much time spent at an under water tea party, to move back with my father full time. It was a preview to what sort of determination I had to make something happen when I felt passionate about it. I think that children are more in tune with the big picture than most adults allow themselves to be. Call it intuition, call it psychic ability, call it Boo Radley, I don’t care, that feeling of urgency was my little gut telling me something, a gut that gave me that last five months with my father.

I began clawing my way back to him before the actual separation. It began at the inception of the ashram my Mom made me go to most weekends for the majority of my child hood.  Any time away from my father in the name of “spiritual development” was not time well spent in my eyes. After one last “incident” consisting of another Guru loving roommate trying to discipline me by ripping me a new one for climbing up to the third shelf in the kitchen, where I spotted some kind of chocolate protein drink.  I assumed it was chocolate milk powder, and at that time anything resembling a treat was forbidden. (way to fuel an alcoholic in the making!)

I was only going to take a little. No one would even notice. I had gone through my stash of candy that I kept stored in the lining of my Snoopy stuffed animal, and I was jonesing for some fucking sugar. I was even going to be all right adding it to soy milk, (dairy forbidden as well) snort it if I had to, but NOOOOOO. I got caught in the act and was treated like I was caught smoking crack.


I sat at the kitchen table with this woman all up in my mug, yelling some shit that I betrayed their trust, MEOW MEOW MEOW was all I heard. My refusal to respond with anything other than evil silence lasted through the night. I sat at the table like a dunce in the dark. My message was as loud as a bomb.  I AM DONE WITH YOU PEOPLE, LET ME GO HOME TO MY FATHER.

Nearing the darkest day of the year, I experienced a true Christmas miracle, better than any amount of elven loot. My prayers got answered.  After telling my father about the “protein powder incident”  he said yes to me living with him, and his girlfriend in a little house, in the land from once I came.

I arrived to my new life, and fell in love within moments. I don’t think I have ever felt a sense of relief like it. I still haven’t, (maybe after I got home from a horrifying acid trip with my sister. -violence, cops, awful!!!) but that is another story. I became, if for only a brief moment, an only child in a normal home, with pictures of unicorns hanging over my bed, chocolate cake for dessert, and a dog named Becca. She had a beard and mustache like Yosemite Sam, chased the vacuum around like it was the devil, and hung with me after school while I, with my allowance went to the convenient store next door and gorged on Hostess Crumb Cakes, and frosted cinnamon buns till my father came home from work. Becca was a great distraction from the fallout, the loss of all that was sacred to me, and from the reminder that only a few weeks prior… they killed my cat.

Still assholes.

While I was sleeping on mattresses, on the floors of communal guru- worshipping households, and sharing rooms with my mother, abstinent of all regularity, security, television, or treats, in the hell of home schooling, I can see now, I was being prepared for a separation so painful, that there is no getting ready. I was being prepared for the death of my father. I was learning about radical change, and steeping myself head first in my first faithful relationship. It was with music.

After the news hit on that Saturday night the 11th of May in 1985, we got in the car and drove from Cape Cod to Boston to pick up the other sybs, and made it to the mortuary in Springfield by 3am. We listened to “Pachabells Canon” for the entire trip. The next song I sought after seeing my father’s body in the mortuary that morning was “Purple Rain”.

With the first strike of the guitar chord a wave of devastation pain hit my 11 year old body like a flash flood.  That 8 minute song wrapped up everything I was feeling. The progression understood the flow of grief that was just starting to hit. For that morning it gave me a path to follow. The build and chord changes designated a place to fall apart, the time to be contemplative, to lose it, and a time to come down. When it was over and the last cello note played out, I pressed rewind, rewind, rewind. I listened again, again, again. It let me get lost. Escape. It was all I could fucking do.


I learned something from the song that morning that I have  only realized through the writing of my first album:
Quiet spaces in a song can be the best part of the song. Perfect structure can and should be broken sometimes. Giving it up is a vital service to others. Being of service is spiritual.  These things play very important role in the songs I write, and the songs I love, and the life I live.

Prince understood this, and indirectly taught me to draw upon the power of emotion without abandon, or shame and to use it creatively, match it with passion, honesty and experience, and interweave it with a composition so beautiful, and pressing, that I still put on “Purple Rain” when ever I have a hard time remembering what my fathers’ hands looked like, or begin to doubt that he was ever real.


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