One odd fact about the Beatles and their life stories is that both Paul McCartney and John Lennon lost their mothers during their teen years. Paul’s mother Mary died of an embolism as a complication from surgery for breast cancer. She died in 1956, when Paul was fourteen. John’s mother Julia was struck by a car and killed in 1958, when John was seventeen. Neither George Harrison nor Ringo Starr lost their mothers in their early years. Still, there would have been no Beatles for George and Ringo to join if not for John and Paul.
Julia Lennon was a free-spirited young woman and was not John’s primary caretaker. John was raised by his Aunt Mimi, Julia’s sister. Still, Julia and John were close, spending time together almost more as friends than as mother and son. John was, of course, crushed by his mother’s death. Among his solo recordings in the 1970s is a song called “Mother,” in which John sings, “Mother, you had me, but I never had you.” Before that, John wrote and performed the dreamy ballad “Julia,” which is included on the Beatles’ White Album of 1968.
Mary McCartney, a midwife, was the primary wage-earner of the family when Paul was young. Paul’s father Jim held several different jobs during his adult life (in part, due to economic dislocation during the War). He was an accomplished musician, playing both piano and trumpet. He gave Paul a trumpet for Paul’s fourteenth birthday. Paul traded the trumpet for a guitar because he could not sing and play trumpet at the same time. Paul’s famous tribute to his mother is heard in the song, “Let It Be,” in which Paul says that in times of trouble his mother, Mary, comes to him. Over the years, many listeners have assumed that the reference is to Mary the mother of Jesus, but Paul most definitely was singing about his own mother in that song, not about the mother of our Lord.
Biographers and music historians try to assess the importance of the deaths of their mothers to the careers of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Did they dedicate themselves to their musical craft to compensate for their losses and to handle their grief? Would either or both of them have given up on music and entered other careers with the encouragement of their mothers? It is hard to imagine the world without the musical contributions of the Beatles, as well as the other cultural contributions their group made to the 1960s. History is a fragile thing, and many of the bits we treasure could easily have failed to exist for us to enjoy. J.