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The Soundtrack of My Life

30 Jan

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My father is singing Cat Stevens’ Moonshadow to me. I am 3 or 4 or 5 years old. I wonder about the limbless body singing until all the parts of him are gone and he is seemingly nonchalant, perhaps even grateful to be without eyes and a tongue. My father continues to sing the same song to me like a lullaby.

I am in a full body cast in a hospital. I am 6 years old. My mother is sitting, surrounded by sick children, with her ukelele, playing and singing Puff the Magic Dragon. I am proud and yet jealous. I do not want to share her with the rest of these patients. I want her to sing and wrap her oversized heart around only me.

I am in my Mustang convertible while Carole King’s Tapestry cassette plays on a loop. I am 17 years old. I am weeping. My boyfriend is going to college and every single song was written for me. I Feel the Earth Move, So Far Away, Home Again, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, Where You Lead, Beautiful. My boyfriend makes several stops to say goodbye to friends while I wait for him in the passenger seat, disconsolate. He gets back in the car and gives me an inscribed locket I will wear until the picture inside is all rubbed out and he breaks my heart years later.

I am lost. I am 18 years old and without a sense of direction. I am listening to Van Morrison’s Moondance album. I am driving my car from Connecticut to New York and it is midnight. I finally find a commercial area where it feels safe enough to get out of the car and make a phone call. I call my father from a  pay phone. I beg him to rescue me. He tells me to find my way home and that it will be good for me. I get back in my car and blast “Caravan.” I circle who knows how much of the tri-state area before I pull into my parents’ driveway sometime after 2 am. I have found my way home.

I am standing amongst piles of boxes in my apartment in Brooklyn waiting for movers. I am 23 years old. The only thing not yet packed is my stereo. I am listening to Nanci Griffith CDs for hours as the movers have forgotten me. By the time they pick me up, I am distraught, fearing NYC condo regulations will forbid me from the late move and I will be temporarily homeless. Two men load up the packaged belongings comprising my life and offer me a ride uptown. I sit in the front seat of the movers’ truck as we drive up the FDR to my new home on East 81st. I lean my head against the window, listening to Nanci Griffith on my walkman, equally terrified and excited about this move. I dislike change even though this is a good one. My parents are waiting for me and it is all ok.

I am getting married. I am dancing with my husband to Ben Taylor’s version of The Beatles’ I Will. We are alone on the dance floor, moving in choreographed rhythm thanks to Ernesto of Arthur Murray’s East 86th Street studio. I can see him counting beats in his head as he leads me. We later break loose to The Emotions’ Best of My Love. We don’t yet know that both songs will feature prominently at the bar mitzvah of our first son.

I am in my apartment on East 75th Street. I am nearing the end of my 20s. I am pregnant with my first child. I am working from home for the day, listening to Counting Crows’ This Desert Life. My belly tightens and my son kicks and flutters every time this album plays. He has good taste. I know I will love him.

I am rocking in a glider in the bedroom of my baby boy. He is sleeping on my chest and I think I might never move. I sing him every song I know and love. It goes like this every night. Sweet Baby James, The Way You Look Tonight, Annie’s Song, An American Tune. I sing him Moonshadow and deposit him back into his crib. He tucks his legs beneath him, looks briefly at me, and goes back to sleep.

I am at the obstetrician’s office. I am alone. I am 7 weeks pregnant. My husband is traveling for business. For days I have had a premonition that my doctor will tell me he cannot find a heartbeat. The doctor squeezes jelly over my belly and after several minutes of searching, says “Lisa, I’m sorry. There’s no heartbeat.” I am even sorrier. Sorry to be right. Sorry to lose a baby I already loved. Sorry. I listen to Eva Cassidy’s cover of Fields of Gold over and over, weeping until I tell myself I have punished myself enough and I turn it off.

I am again rocking in a glider but I am in a new room in a new house beside two new babies to love. I sing them the same songs I sang to my first baby. I sing them Moonshadow. I put them into the same crib so they know each other’s presence.

It is my son’s 10th birthday. I am listening to the Circle Game. I cannot believe I am at the second verse. I do not know where the time has gone. I know I will be at the third verse in six short years. I am dragging my feet to slow the circles down, Joni Mitchell.

It is my birthday. 10,000 Maniacs’ These are the Days is playing on my desktop. We have just returned from dinner with my family and I am making my husband and sons dance with me in the kitchen. I will do this every year as long as they will. I turn up the music as high as it will go and watch my family in the reflection of the windows in my kitchen. They indulge me because it’s my birthday but I hope there is enough time in the song for them to feel how much music can lift you, how it can intoxicate you, how its joy is utterly contagious, how necessary it is to be in love with music: to let it infuse your heart, your mind, your soul. To let it literally play the soundtrack to your life.

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Farewells and Rites of Passage

11 Oct

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It is the eve of the bar mitzvah of the son of one of my oldest, dearest friends. We still talk about our first day of kindergarten together even though we knew each other years before we started elementary school. It is therefore that much more poignant that I learned tonight that our kindergarten teacher just passed away.

Life strikes chords and balances at the most poetic moments sometimes.

On our very first day of school, we were met by a grandmotherly lady who ushered us past wooden trees bearing our names, and new vocabulary we were to learn. She would go on to teach us about the bicentennial, most likely from first-hand experience. It was going to be a great year.

In the strange way that our memory decides to archive information, mine categorized the most pieces of my elementary education from my first year: the three balance beams that formed a small set of risers around the piano our teacher played every morning; the soundtrack of our classroom created by the steady hum of scissors working their way down construction paper; the line we were required to form in height order so we could proceed down the halls in an orderly fashion (I was first); the smell and taste of Stone Soup, a book we studied and brought to life with a recipe; and the kindness and love our teacher managed to show each child day in and day out.

I still recall, with anxiety and relief, my birthday party that almost wasn’t. My mother was so late that the teacher made us all put our heads down on the desk and remain silent.

“If your mother doesn’t come in the next ten minutes, we are canceling the party.”

In my tiny neurotic mind, I envisioned car accidents, crime scenes, literal nightmares. I have not changed much. It never occurred to me that late might mean a traffic jam, a delayed schedule, a mere slip of the mind. It was always a catastrophe. At long last, I spotted my mother through the narrow, rectangular window in the door — keys in her mouth, knocking with some body part because her hands were occupied. She entered bearing boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts and her ukulele (she was a real pro at “Puff the Magic Dragon”). I probably could have used a stiff drink, but I didn’t know about that either.

Kindergarten was also the year that everyone was getting their snacks stolen. It didn’t mean much to me until someone swiped my Funyuns. Enough was enough. Through early deductive logic and sleuthing skills I would continue to hone, I figured out who the thief was with a pretty crafty sting I engineered. That girl fell right into my trap. I confided in our teacher, not knowing whether this kind octogenarian would believe me but she must have had similar suspicions because my Funyuns mysteriously reappeared in my lunch box in time for snack.

Kindergarten was everything it should be, with great thanks to this teacher and her beautiful approach to teaching, to children, and to life.

On that first day of school, my friend and I sat next to each other on one of those balance beams, coincidentally wearing the exact same green polyester Snoopy pantsuit. I mean, what are the odds? Even in the 1970s. That fashion faux pas, however, was just another cornerstone on which a lifelong friendship was formed. This friend went on to light a candle on my own bat mitzvah cake, backpack through Greece with me, stand on the bimah as a bridesmaid at my wedding, attend the brit milahs of my sons, and celebrate with us only a year and a half ago at my own son’s bar mitzvah. She has loved me through some of my bitchiest days as a teenager to the woman I am today. Old friends are gifts that never lose their splendor.

It is six years after my youngest children entered kindergarten. I look at them and their friends sometimes and wonder if they will be as lucky as I have been. I hope so. There is nothing like someone who has traveled down life’s path alongside you– it is the comfort food of friendship, the roomy old sweater you wear on a rainy day, the favorite film you’ve watched over and over and over.

Tomorrow, with my husband and sons, I will celebrate my friend and her family. I will watch as the circles turn, as generations evolve, as tradition endures. I hope she’s not going to be wearing that green polyester Snoopy pantsuit. That would not look good at all.

Thank you, Mrs. Arkus, for the beginning. I hope your ending was just as lovely.