Thursday, August 5, 2010

On Looking Back (Or, A Tribute to Karen Carpenter...and my mother)

"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."


  1. This is lovely. You capture that feeling so well, and what a great dedication to your mother (with poetic license!). My dad used to play country music on a Sunday morning when he was making my mum breakfast in bed, and listening to that music now so many years later always makes me feel bitter-sweet.

  2. Amazing post, thank you Wendy.
    Music is certainly a strong reminder for me as well, of childhood and my mum.
    It sounds like you have a great relationship with your mother and that you are building a fantastic one with your children.
    Quite moments, how wonderful they are to savour.

  3. Lovely post.
    Yes, your children will become choked up when they hear a certain song that reminds them of you.

    And I think that I know what a 33 and a 45 are: Prawn Fried Rice and Chicken Chop Suey at the Fort Myers Chinese take-away. Am I right?

    Have a good day, Boonsong

  4. Gee Wendy thanks. I love crying at 8 in the morning. LOL. Oh yes, the Carpenters were in my childhood too. And Grand Funk and The Partridge Family.

    Nostalgia smacks me upside the head when I least expect it as well. I love this post when you ask, "Will my children remember?" Makes me realize I have to fix my stereo.

    Thank you for this. Oh, yeah, my favorite -- "Why do birds suddenly appear, every time, you are near, just like me, they long to be, close to you." This is actually the song I dedicate to my daughter, because "On the day that you were born the angels got together and decided to create a dream come true" Love Karen's voice.

  5. Oh, great. Now I'm going to have to call my mother to see how she is. :)

    She ALWAYS calls me mere minutes before I call her. It's like she's psychic. This time, thanks to you, I am calling her first.

    PS It's 7 in the morning here. If she calls me first (again) I am writing you back and cueing the Twilight Zone music.

    Thanks, Wendy.

  6. You've summed up what it's like to remember your childhood throught the eyes of a parent. Thanks for a good read at the start of the day.

  7. This was wonderful reading, warm and so real. Only a talented writer could get folks to respond so emotionally at 7 or 8 in the morning (which means they're reading your blog at that hour!). I admit it, I choked up a bit too . . .

  8. What a wonderful post! I have a lump in my throat. I always wonder what my kids will remember about this time in our lives. Hubby and I laugh a lot together, and the kids are the most bubbly when we're cracking up at each other. Kids -- you know, they laugh easily and often. It's when they're with adults that do too that they really glow.

    The soundtrack to this moment in our family's life will always be Kenny Chesney's CD "When the Sun Goes Down." For sure. We have listened to it hundreds of times, every time we grill out or go for drives, and all four of us can sing every word.

  9. That was very beautiful, and so true: chaos is such a natural part of life. This morning I was telling my husband a story from my past and the tears just came out of nowhere. It's amazing because there is so much that is going on under the surface that we are unaware of.