"When there's no getting over that rainbow, when my smallest of dreams won't come true, I can take all the madness the world has to give, but I won't last a day without you." In 1972, Karen Carpenter's silky voice sang to me from my mother's record player as the hum of the vacuum cleaner tried to drown out the ill-fated singer. At six years old, I believed my mother to be happiest while cleaning house on a quiet Saturday and listening to her favorite 33, the Carpenters.
(If you're asking yourself what a 33 is, you were born too late to appreciate the magic of Karen and Richard Carpenter, the duo who shaped my childhood and so many of the pleasant memories I have of my mother. I should also mention Carole King's Tapestry album, in case you're feeling motivated to research mellow rock of the early 1970s.)
By the time I was old enough to collect 45s (again, if you're too young, look it up on Wikipedia), I had moved on to Elton John, Olivia Newton John, and Grand Funk Railroad. But the Carpenters were my cornerstone of childhood happiness.
Fast forward a number of years to last Saturday night as I'm cleaning up the kitchen after a wonderful meal cooked by my amateur chef of a husband. He's out doing exercise, and the kids are playing quietly. (Only a parent can truly appreciate the sanctity of such a moment.) I turn on the stereo and select the Carpenters' A Song for You from the CD player. This 1972 album includes the song I Won't Last a Day Without You, whose lyrics I cited above. Nostalgia is a dastardly demon, and as I raise my voice to belt out the chorus of this song - surprising myself by knowing every last lyric even though it has been a lifetime since I've heard the song - my throat locks itself in a knot of tears that sneak up from Lord knows where so that I can't even finish the chorus without crying.
Why? you ask.
I do not know.
All I know is that my tears smack me across the face and say, "That's what you get for letting sleeping dogs lie."
"What sleeping dogs?" I ask.
Nostalgia gently lays its hand on my shoulder. "You've just had a nice family dinner (even though your daughter refused to eat the delectable saffron fish and garlic broccoli), and now you're enjoying the meditative peace of cleaning up...just like your mother used to do. How can you not get it, Wendy?"
I stop wiping down the dining room table and sit for a moment. I listen to Karen Carpenter and I think of my mother. There really were so many things that were unpleasant about my childhood, but when I listen to the Carpenters, all I can think about is how beautiful those years were, how safe and happy I felt at times.
In these days of parenting, I often find it to be the hardest job I've ever had. I think back to my own childhood and imagine my mother having it so much easier than I do. But the truth is that she had her own stuff to deal with, which didn't come to light until I was older. I've always associated the music of the Carpenters with a feeling of peace and security. But this particular evening, as I wash dishes and clean as my mother once did while the children played in the secure confines of their home, Karen Carpenter's voice speaks to me. She reminds me that very little is actually as it seems, and sometimes that is AOK. We all have some childhood memories best viewed through rose-colored glasses. We do this for self-preservation. But if we dare to wake the sleeping dogs and stir up trouble, we're reminded that chaos is a natural part of life and that it's all right to live in a world that's less than rosy, more of a muddled color that isn't always pretty.
Listening to the Carpenters sing that night made me see that my childhood wasn't perfect, nor was it terrible. It was a mixed drink of peace and comfort stirred with insecurity and longing. But once swallowed, it went down smoothly and settled in my heart with an aftertaste more sweet than bitter, which is why the soothing voice of Karen Carpenter could bring me to tears of sweet nostalgia.
Earlier that day, I had realized that my children had long reached the age of remembering childhood events, and I asked myself what they would remember about this time when they were older. How would they view me? Despite the arguing and age-appropriate power struggles, will they grow into adults who hear a certain song and get choked up because it reminds them of me?
I wondered. And I hoped. (Later on, I asked my daughter if there was any music that reminded her of me. She said, "Spanish music and Beautiful Girls [by Sean Kingston] because you like that song." She's right.)
As I tried to resume singing along with the Carpenters, I remembered my mother. Despite the bad times, she was my rock, the solid stone of security in my life. The love that kept me strong. Even though we don't speak every day, she is still a crucial part of my life. So to her, I dedicate the Carpenter's lyrics, with a slight change. (We'll call it poetic license.)
"When there's no getting over that rainbow, when my smallest of dreams won't come true, I can take all the madness the world has to give, but I won't last a day without your love."