(The Root) — When someone you love dies, the first question to escape before the grief hits you in the throat is often, "Why?" Why her, why now, why me, why not someone else? Nothing could be truer of the sudden death of musical icon Whitney Houston, who, after appearing on the upswing following years of battling drugs, left fans and family asking that familiar question last February.
But the answers to tragedy are never truly, satisfyingly found, and Houston's mother, Cissy, doesn't try to find them in her new memoir, Remembering Whitney: My Story of Love, Loss and the Night the Music Stopped, released recently. Instead of trading in salacious details, Mama Houston — known as "Big Cuda," as in barracuda to Whitney's roadies — tells the intimate story of a mother's love for her baby girl, nicknamed Nippy. It's a story of family, frustration and ultimately moving forward.
Cissy Houston's voice throughout the memoir, co-written with Lisa Dickey, is as sharp and no-nonsense as one would expect it to be. It's as if you've settled down at your grandmother's kitchen table as she recounts all the fruit and thorns of a family tree. She describes unseemly drama (like Bobby Brown's outburst at Whitney's funeral) as "all that mess," and when recalling her frame of mind as a young girl on her own at 18, she writes, "I was still so naive. I didn't know my rear end from my elbow."
For me the most telling part of the memoir, which is written in three parts, is Cissy's own story as a little girl growing up in a wooden tenement house in Depression-era New Jersey. For Cissy and her eight siblings, music — specifically gospel music — was a foundation. Her father, Nitcholas Drinkard, was a stern taskmaster who kept the family's singing group, the Drinkard Singers, on a strict schedule — school, chores, singing and church.
"I also came to understand that our family's singing together is what ultimately helped us survive. It helped keep us together, even through the hardest times," explains Cissy, who lost her mother when she was 8 and her father 10 years later.
The elder Houston is most reflective when describing how she dealt with loss and independence so early on. She talks about pushing away the sadness over her mother's death and doing the same after losing her father. Cissy found an inner strength and simply carried on, consistently pointing to her childhood as having "toughened her up." She established core principles that couldn't be shaken by the music industry. Very early on, when she decided against her family's wishes to switch from gospel to secular music as leader of the famed session singers The Sweets, Cissy decided she would be "in the world of secular music but not of it."
With that kind of foundation one would assume that Whitney Houston's path from the pretty little baby whom even the nurses in the hospital couldn't put down to pop icon should have been paved smoothly. Whitney came from a musical dynasty of sorts, and her mother took her talent seriously from the time she was 12 and declared, "Mama, I just want to sing."
In the book's introduction Cissy's niece Dionne Warwick writes, "But while Cissy was strong and loving, Nippy was always a little girl, even during her womanhood." It becomes clear throughout parts two and three of the book that Cissy tried to give her daughter all the building blocks she never had. They lived in a nice home in East Orange, and Whitney attended a private Catholic school. But Cissy admits, "What I never anticipated was that, in trying to give my children a better life and shield them from hardships, they might end up less prepared to face the kind of trauma that life inevitably throws your way."
Cissy never points the finger when it comes to the topic of her daughter's increasing abuse of drugs. She does, however, in her consistent no-nonsense fashion, make it clear that she never liked Robyn Crawford, Whitney's longtime friend and business manager. But Cissy also admits that Robyn was the first person to give her a heads-up about Whitney's addiction. When Cissy asked her daughter about her drug use, Whitney brushed her off, claiming that Robyn was overreacting.
"I didn't have much choice but to accept what she was saying — at that point she was doing everything she was supposed to be doing: touring, recording, making appearances and everything else … I had checked on her and made my concerns known — what else could I do?"
That feeling of helplessness carries on until the end of the book. As I read, Cissy began to remind me of my own grandmother, also a Depression-era baby, someone who made sure her children were fed, housed and clothed but who rarely delved into their personal lives unsolicited. "We just weren't inclined to get in each other's business that way — for better or worse," writes Cissy, who also admits that her daughter began keeping her "at arm's length."
It wasn't until Cissy actually witnessed Whitney high on drugs that she seemed to give herself the permission to press the issue. She showed up at the Atlanta home Whitney shared with Bobby Brown with two sheriffs and a court injunction forcing the singer into rehabilitation. Not too long afterward Whitney filed for divorce from Brown and moved to California. Cissy makes it clear, though, that Whitney "never, ever complained" to her about Brown.
"When she wanted my advice, she asked for it," writes Cissy. "Other times she kept her mouth shut." Such a blunt statement doesn't help to soften the blow of the fact that the mother and daughter, once so close according to Cissy, who trained Whitney herself, would eventually drift so far apart. Remembering Whitney is obviously a book for fans who are undoubtedly hungry for any details of the singer's early years. But it shines mostly as a cautionary tale for those of us who might allow the appearance of a loved one "having it together" to shade the reality of true pain.