MINDLESSLY scrolling on Facebook one day, I came across one of those ‘inspirational quotes’ that often pop up: “The mother-daughter bond is like no other. You fight, you make up, you laugh, you cry. It’s a soul connection that never dies.”
The notion of the soul connection came back to me when talking to Cork-based mother and daughter, Karen and Christiana Underwood. They are, by their own admissions, incredibly close.
The story begins back in the United States when Chicago-born Karen had been married for ten years, but complications like endometriosis meant having a baby would not be an easy journey. One ovary, she says, was defunct, while the other wasn’t in great shape either. She had endured several fertility treatments and surgeries, before her beloved daughter Christiana came along naturally, three weeks earlier than full term.
“I longed her into the world,” says Karen. “We got to the hospital at 6am for an 8am delivery by caesarean section. I remember it was overwhelming. ‘I’ was gone. I was not ‘me’ anymore. She was a part of me. It’s a wonderful thing to go from one person to two,” recalls Karen.
“She was adored from the moment she was born.”
That precious baby is 26 now, turning 27 in May, and like her mother, who is widely regarded for her soulful renditions of songs from the likes of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, Christiana has become a singer in her own right.
Back in 1997, Christiana’s father worked for Motorola and the opportunity to work in Ireland came up. The initial contract was for a year or two but Karen and Christiana made Cork their home and have lived here ever since. Christiana’s father returned to Chicago when the marriage broke up and Karen began a relationship with a woman called Mary, whom she had met in 2008. It’s a union which has lasted to this day.
A boy called Erbie had also been adopted into the family.
“There were only 14 months between them and we got Erbie when he was eight months old,” explains Karen. “Christiana was born from the womb and Erbie was born from the heart.”
Tragically, in 2012, Erbie died by suicide at the age of 18.
Through their heartbreak, Karen saw just how strong and wonderful her daughter was.
“There were times she had to step up to the plate. I had a human breakdown and Christiana was there for me. But she had her own grief. I had to tell her ‘You have permission to holler and cry. I’m the mama, not the other way around’. She was a blessing to me — and to her other mom.”
Christiana says: “I saw how vulnerable she was through the grieving process. She needed to release a lot of emotions. Sometimes I had the opposite approach to her. Being more stoic was my go-to. I tried to be strong for mom and Mary and my other half-siblings. I helped other people to release things.”
Ultimately, Christiana felt the need to get away and have a bit of space, so when she turned 21 she returned to America for the summer, spending four months in New York, Long Island and Chicago. Mother and daughter spoke every day on the phone, but Christiana also sought some independence.
“I needed to unload some emotions and figure out my next step,” she says.
So what traits does Karen think Christiana has inherited from her?
“Confidence, I hope. And she has a genuine caring for other people. She has the ability to care for others without being a selfless person.”
Karen has consistently shown her own caring side, doing voluntary work with autistic children. Christiana attempted to follow in her caring footsteps, signing up to study Social Care in CIT when she was 18. However, she wasn’t happy and eventually switched to Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa’s Music, Management and Sound course, graduating with honours.
She subsequently undertook the Popular Music degree at CIT Cork School of Music and graduated last year.
“When she told me she wanted to study music, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s my footsteps she’s following,’ but she’s a different musician than I was. I’m so proud of her for doing it her way.”
I put the same question to Christiana, what traits does she think she has inherited from her mother?
“Her personality,” she says immediately. “We’re both very animated people and two of the loudest people, whether we’re together or separate. Her confidence has rubbed off on me. It’s enabled me to mature.
“And performing — I used to love watching her as a kid. I was seven or eight when she started performing and I was in complete awe. I’ve definitely inherited that love of performing. I wanted to be a show-woman. I’ve done it because Mom did it, but it’s not the only reason.”
Karen is far from the pushy showbiz mom though, as Christiana will attest.
“She’d say, ‘Be the best you can be’. There was never that pressure to get the highest marks at school, although she’d always encourage me. She’d say, ‘As long as you can support yourself you can do whatever you like and if you work hard, no matter what, you’ll be successful — as long as you stay true to yourself’’.”
Christiana is now teaching at Aileen Coffey’s Academy of Performing Arts (ACA), giving vocal lessons to students from the age of eight up to adults. She also mentors students privately and works as a sub, covering different schools. Plus she finds time to sing with four different bands — reggae band The Light Runners, She Said, The Neo Soul Collective and her own self-titled act.
Although both women were interviewed separately for this article (and one immediately after the other so they couldn’t compare notes!), their close bond means that their responses often mirror each other. Take, for instance, the question of what Karen feels is the greatest advice she has dispensed and what Christiana feels has been the best advice she has received.
“My greatest advice is to love herself before she loves someone else; to know who she is and be okay with that. You’ll know what love looks like if you have self-love. Love yourself more than you love anyone else”, Karen offers. “That changes when you become a mother though”, she adds.
Christiana gives us a snapshot of how that lesson was taught: “Growing up, I’d say I wanted my hair straight like the other girls but Mom would say, ‘You’re beautiful, embrace that’. She taught me to love myself.”
It’s clear that Christiana is overflowing with admiration for her mother.
“I just really admire how she came from a different time. She had to fight for her education and everything she had in life. She had more struggles growing up and finding her independence. For over 30 years she’s worked with people with disabilities, she’s written plays and she’s an advocate for people with mental health. She talks to young people about life. She feels she has to do it; it means a lot to her. And she’s also just been a mom trying to support her kids. I’m amazed she’s done so much in so little time.
“No matter what I had going on, she’d listen first before reacting. I never felt I had to hide anything. If I’m ever in trouble I’ll call her for advice and she’ll talk me through a situation. That hasn’t changed. She keeps it real without overstepping. She’s my mom first but she’s my best friend as well.”
Surely they can’t get on so swimmingly all the time?
“We obviously butt heads,” admits Christiana. “As a teenager I was trying to find out who I was and you’d want to challenge your mom. It’s part of growing up in general. We’re both passionate people — but it’s great to butt heads with people who’ll love you regardless.”
This is the mother and daughter who have holidayed together, go to concerts and shows together and regularly cook together. Now they are also getting the chance to share the stage together too. They kicked off the St Patrick’s weekend with a gig at Cobh’s Sirius Arts Centre and are teaming up again this Saturday night for a show called Generations at the White Horse in Ballincollig.
They will share stories filled with love, laughter and wisdom, in spoken word and song, touching on the life lessons that Karen learned from her own parents and those she has handed down to Christiana.
“It’s a big ‘I love you’ for two hours,” laughs Christiana.
Although they no longer live under the same roof, they catch up several times a week. Today is Karen’s birthday, so they are bound to see each other and they also have Mother’s Day to celebrate this weekend.
“When we were growing up, we’d make a card, make her breakfast, bring her coffee and do the laundry that day. Now we hang out, go for a meal or go for a walk. I always get a card and flowers for her and Mary,” Christiana says.
How would Christiana sum up their relationship at this stage?
“It’s a healthy relationship. We’re able to see our true selves without any judgements. She’s the best, I admire her so much. She’s an inspiration to me and I look up to her. She’s a huge support to me and I’m a huge support to her. We know we’ve got each other’s backs.”
A soul connection that never dies.