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For These Stars, Mom Rules

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

Nils Lofgren drove out to a retirement village in Silver Spring. A longtime guitarist with Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, Lofgren had played in Charlottesville the night before, and he had another sold-out show in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the next day. But between concerts, he added a stop: dinner with his mom in the Washington suburbs.

Josephine Lofgren, 81, was thrilled to see him -- the eldest of her four sons, the one who set out to make a life in rock-and-roll and succeeded.

The Lofgrens dined in the cafeteria at the retirement complex, inviting along three of Josephine's friends. They chatted about family life and politics. For Josephine, it was easy to forget that her son had anything to do with bright lights, big stages and cheering crowds.

"All of that has not gone to his head," said Josephine, a retired bookkeeper whose husband died 10 years ago. "He's still a very down-to-earth, caring person. That's what I'm most proud of. All of my sons are caring men, and they're all successful in their own way."

As Mother's Day approached, Josephine Lofgren and other local mothers talked in interviews about lives that started out along ordinary paths -- and often in humble circumstances -- and were changed by the unanticipated celebrity of their children.

For some, the differences have been small. For others, fame has recast a mother's role.

Like mothers everywhere, they appreciate that success comes in many forms, much of it far outside the spotlight.

"People will say to me, 'How do I handle my daughter being up there on stage?' " said Bowie Carpenter, mother of Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter. "I just think of her as being an amazing talent."

Still, the Charlottesville area resident said, she is equally proud of all four of her daughters. "My children are my life's achievement."

Similarly, Josephine Lofgren thinks of the best shows she has seen not as those that draw the biggest crowds but rather whenever Nils plays the Birchmere in Alexandria. For at least a few songs, all four brothers are onstage with guitars -- Tom, who played in the band Grin With Nils and is a graphics consultant specializing in litigation support; Mike, a residential contractor; and Mark, a lawyer.

They always play "Shine Silently," her favorite.

"It's very thrilling to sit there," she said, "and think of these men as babies and boys, never thinking this would happen."

As a group, the mothers interviewed were modest about themselves. But that's where their children filled in the picture.

Nils Lofgren noted that when he left home in 1968 to find his way in music, even friends told him he was making a mistake by dropping out of high school. His parents had concerns and asked questions but stood by him.

"It just wasn't something you did in middle America," he said, "so for them to have the faith and the vision -- I mean, we were all nervous, me most of all -- but to have their support really helped. I wouldn't be having my 40th year on the road now."

'She Sounded Like an Angel'

Dorothy Graves-Kenner, 67, looks at the transformation of her life as a mother, from raising three children in a two-bedroom apartment on Galveston Street in Southwest Washington to finding herself in the finest concert halls in the United States and Europe, as the guest of acclaimed mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.

Her daughter.

"Little did I know," Graves-Kenner said with a smile, remembering when Graves was one of the "Little Sunbeams" at the family church. At the time, Graves-Kenner was a single mother working at what is now the University of the District of Columbia. She was set on keeping her family close.

"I come from a large family myself," she said, "and I wanted that same closeness with my family." Graves-Kenner recalls gathering her children for a prayer before school and making their friends welcome in her home after school. As Graves grew a little older, the family of four formed a gospel group, the Inspirational Children of God.

"Denyce had a really beautiful, beautiful voice," Graves-Kenner said. "I always thought she sounded like an angel."

For Graves, her mother said, the first sounds of opera changed everything. She said Graves knew it was her calling. "How does anyone know [that] in seventh grade?" Graves-Kenner asked. "It's a gift."

With the guidance of a dedicated music teacher, Graves went on to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and New England Conservatory.

In 1995, Graves debuted with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She has since starred in operas all over the world and performed at an array of high-profile national events -- a presidential inauguration, a memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral for victims of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the recent D.C. visit by Pope Benedict XVI.

More times than she can count, Graves-Kenner has traveled from her home in Glenarden to see Graves onstage in countries such as Austria, Iceland and Italy. She has become a familiar face to other performers, she said, including Placido Domingo, who now embraces her with: "Hi, Mama. How are you?"

In recent years, Graves-Kenner has taken pleasure in caring for granddaughter Ella-Thais, almost 4, while Graves performs, bringing the loving attention of "Nana" to faraway stages and sets.

Graves is grateful. "What is impressive to me about this is her flexibility and openness to assimilate into my world, which is so foreign to her, different languages, cultures, people, currency, time zones, lifestyles etc.," Graves wrote in an e-mail. "And she does so with great heart and enthusiasm."

She added: "You don't have enough space for this article for me to sing of her wonderful attributes. She is a mighty woman."

Talking about her experience of motherhood, Graves-Kenner is quick to say she is equally proud of her other children: Willie Andre Graves, a manager in a grocery store; and Debora Martin-Platt, a mortgage consultant. Both have settled in West Virginia, and Graves-Kenner sees them frequently. She has seven grandchildren.

Celebrity, Graves-Kenner said, has allowed Graves to be generous with her family, but it has not changed the family's their closeness. At one point, Graves-Kenner said, she worried about calling Graves, thinking she would be too busy.

When Graves heard of that, she set her mother straight. "What are you talking about?" Graves-Kenner recalled her asking. "You pick up the phone and you call me."

At the opening of Nationals Park, Graves-Kenner stood just a few feet from her daughter, beaming as she sang.

"It just gave me chills," Graves-Kenner said, recalling the thrill of hearing Graves reach for, and find, seemingly impossible notes. Every once in a while, she said, she still asks herself: "Is that my daughter?"

NFL Mom Is Her Son's Biggest Fan

In the well-appointed home of Washington Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs, one wall near the stairs is adorned with a striking black-and-white photograph of a woman and a boy sitting on a park bench. The boy, wearing knee socks, is so small his feet do not reach the ground.

This is Springs at 2 and his mother, Teresa Thomas. About 30 years later, the photograph hangs in both of their homes -- Springs's in McLean and his mother's in Ashburn -- a portrait of ordinary life, before there was any flash of the celebrity of professional sports.

"It's a reminder of where we started," Thomas said.

In recent years, life has been very different. After a standout career at Ohio State University, Springs was the third overall pick in the first round of the 1997 NFL draft. He played for the Seattle Seahawks until 2003, then signed with the Redskins.

His sports life has been documented by his mother, with photos and news clippings pasted into scrapbooks. Last week, she flipped through the pages: Springs with his first football team in Oxon Hill at about 7 years old; with the Blue Devils at Springbrook High School; at the Rose Bowl playing for Ohio State.

"I'm the type, I like to reflect back on things," she said. "I like to remind Shawn, if you feel the need to complain about anything, look how far you have come. Look what you have been blessed with thus far."

Now a retired Army master sergeant, Thomas, 51, said she signed her son up for football with modest expectations. "I put him in for discipline," she said, "but he ended up just loving the game."

A major influence was Springs's father, Ron Springs, who also played in the National Football League, mostly with the Dallas Cowboys. In October, the elder Springs fell into a coma amid complications from a routine surgery; he had undergone a kidney transplant seven months earlier.

Thomas said she has tried to support her son through this difficult time. His father remains in the hospital. "It has been sad," she said. "Last season was difficult. First his father and then [the death of Redskins safety] Sean Taylor."

As Mother's Day approached, Springs talked about Thomas, how she took him to games as a kid, how she probably did not miss even one game while he was in college.

One of Springs's most vivid memories, he said, is from an Oxon Hill game in which Thomas got so excited by his scoring that she fell off the bleachers while cheering.

These days, Thomas is at every Redskins game. "I see what the fans don't see: the pain. The physical standpoint of football." She added: "You know your child is grown, but . . . you just want to still hold them. You feel their pain."

The worst, she said, was a Philadelphia game in which Springs was knocked unconscious. "To this day, I could not tell you how I got from the suite down to the field," she said.

Lately, Thomas finds friendship and understanding in an NFL mothers group called the Professional Football Players Mothers' Association.

A couple of years ago, one mother from each NFL team told her son's story for a recipe book called "Moms Know Best," put out by the Campbell Soup Co.

On Page 36, Teresa Thomas was the featured mother for the Redskins.

"I tried to instill in him what works for me," she said. "First thing, be spiritual. Have the Lord in your life to guide you; good morals and values are the basis for everything. Without them, I don't know how you can have a happy and successful life."

Every once in a while, she said, someone who has a copy of the cookbook asks Thomas for an autograph.

"Are you sure?" she recalled asking in reply, surprised that a player's mother could be considered a celebrity, too.

Passing on the Love of Music

On a sunny afternoon in the Springfield home where she raised her musician son, Virginia Grohl recalls the day when the Foo Fighters frontman stopped a show in England to call her onstage. Watching from the wings, she maneuvered toward him in clunky rain boots, touched by the gesture but so stunned she hardly recalls what was said.

David Grohl told the crowd he owed his success to his mom. "I just wanted people to pay tribute to the person responsible for my being there," he said yesterday.

He added: "She's my idol. She's my greatest hero. She's strong, smart, independent, talented, funny. She's the . . . coolest person I ever met in my life."

Virginia Grohl, 70, said she and her son have been close since he was a boy playing soccer in the fields of North Springfield Elementary School, tearing up the back yard with his mini-bike, slamming hockey pucks at the Fairfax Ice Arena, joining lacrosse teams, latching onto a guitar at about age 10.

For much of his childhood, she said, she worked as a high school English teacher and raised him and his older sister, Lisa, in a tiny "box of a house." The close quarters and being "kind of poor" brought them all together, she said. Virginia and their father had divorced.

David Grohl said that although his mother had rules, they were always good friends. Even as a teenager and "a punk rock kid," he said, he and his mother would listen to jazz at One Step Down in the District or see a movie together. "I got the cool mom," he said.

Virginia Grohl said she understood her son's love for music because she appreciated it, too. As a teenager, she had been part of a girl trio -- "sort of like the McGuire Sisters" -- but "it never occurred to us to continue with it," she said.

Her son seized the chance.

Most surprising to other people, Virginia Grohl said, was that she let him drop out of Annandale High School at 17 to tour in Europe with the Washington band Scream. She recalled: "I said, 'Hallelujah. Go.' Because, of all the things he's done brilliantly in his life, school was never one of them."

He would learn more on tour in Europe, she decided, "than he's going to get making excuses for why he didn't read Chapter 7."

David Grohl said, in retrospect, "even then, she knew me well enough to know I was better off following my heart."

Grohl played drums for Scream for several years and, when it disbanded, went on to Nirvana, the Seattle grunge band led by Kurt Cobain.

It was 1995 when Grohl formed the Foo Fighters, not long after Cobain committed suicide. In the past 13 years, the Foo Fighters have released a half-dozen albums and garnered as many Grammys.

Virginia Grohl enjoys the music so much she shuns earplugs at concerts. "They change the sound," she said.

"You know, people sometimes look at me like, 'You're 70 and you like his music?' And I do," she said.

While in Los Angeles, Grohl stays about 15 minutes from her son and five blocks from her daughter, an accomplished visual artist.

Retired from teaching, she travels often to her son's concerts in the United States and abroad. She is close to other members of the band and crew. Last summer, she rode the tour bus for two weeks in Europe.

"I am really lucky," she said. "People say, 'I want your life,' and I don't blame them. I love it."

When the cameras flash near her son, however, she often heads the other way. "Part of it was that it just didn't seem very rock-and-roll to have your mom around backstage," she said. "I haven't met too many mothers who are backstage or on tour. Really, it's pretty rare."

Since the birth of her granddaughter two years ago, her sense of parenthood has expanded, she said, reaching across to the next generation.

"I'm proud of so many things about him, only a few of which are music-related," she said. "Now what I thrill to is the kind of father he is. It's just the most amazing thing. And his wife, too. . . . We all start with nothing, with no book or advice, just fear. . . . And they have just done it so well."

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