Time It Was and What a Time It Was

It’s early any Saturday morning between the years 1977 and 1987, and I am waking up but fighting it as hard as I can. I am not a morning person, but my mother sure is, and this is dedicated housecleaning time. Even with my head jammed under a pillow, I can hear the vacuum whirring, the sound of clean dishes being unloaded  and dirty ones first rinsed then situated in neat rows on the bottom rack of the dishwasher.

I also hear music, and don’t have to strain to figure out what it is. It’s one of two things: The Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel. These are my mother’s favorites and, along with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Nat King Cole, they make up the soundtrack of my growing up. This morning, it’s Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits and I drag my butt out of bed to “Feeling Groovy,” (which I do not), or “Mrs. Robinson,” and find my mother lost in the lyrics, all but dancing as she sprays Scrubbing Bubbles all over the bathtub.


I am in Millheim today–writers retreat, part deux–and they have been playing S & G for the last two hours. I am awash in memory and feel both unaccountably happy and inescapably sad. These songs are so powerful to me that I abandoned a post I was working on to write this. I don’t want the moment to pass. I am one of maybe four patrons in this place, and I know they can hear me singing quietly as I type. I know every single lyric by heart. I know how the harmony works and try, unsuccessfully, obviously, to sing both parts at once. I don’t think I have a particularly nice singing voice but I don’t care. Every time a song has ended this morning, I’ve steeled myself for something else to come on, for the player (or is this Pandora?) to finally exhaust the prolific catalog. (It might have just happened, actually. Yes, I think it has.) I could listen to these songs over and over, all day long.

And I used to do exactly that. In my bedroom in Connecticut, I’d sit on the floor in front of the record player my parents gave me (for Christmas, I think), and move the needle back to the first groove each time the album ended. I overplayed that thing, honestly, and by the time I got smart and recorded it to cassette, I could hear on top of the music small skips and the pops and crackles that were unique to vinyl records. Even now, when I hear the album, I listen for those irregularities. It always feels a little sad to realize they’ve been digitized away.

This is also serendipitous as just yesterday I was working on the very painful part of the memoir in which I give my father Simon & Garfunkel’s live album, The Concert in Central Park for what would be his last Christmas, hoping it will help heal the rift that had opened between us. My friend Carla might suggest to me that this is a sign that my father is reading the screen over my shoulder and approving. I’d like to believe that.

“The Boxer” just came on. Shit. Now I’m crying. Again. How many coffee houses have I cried in while writing this memoir? Answer: all of them. Of course, this particular track always makes me cry, just as “Cecilia” always reminds me of twirling happily in my floofy white gown on the dance floor of my first wedding reception. “The 59th Street Bridge Song/Feelin’ Groovy” is my 6th grade English teacher with the crazy red hair who brought in song lyrics to teach us about metaphor and “Mrs. Robinson” will forever be the moment when, at my high school graduation party, my father put his arm around me and said, “Plastics, Sheil. Plastics.”

Of course, I had no idea then that this was a nod to The Graduate, one of his favorite movies. (One of mine, now, too.) But recalling it now with the reference fully intact makes the tricky grin on his face and the companionable arm over my shoulder all the more charming.

My parents really only listened to two albums, “Sounds of Silence,” and “Greatest Hits,” but later I gave most of their other work the same overplay treatment. Much as I like the Bangles’ version of “Hazy Shade of Winter,” I love the original so much more. Anyone out there remember the television ads for The Bronx Zoo that used S & G’ s song? “It’s a light and tumble journey from the east side to the park, just a fine and fancy ramble to the zoo. …Orangutans are skeptical of changes in their cages and the zookeeper is very fond of ru-u-um!” Fact: “At the Zoo” is also a children’s book, and in one frame, the zookeeper is shown smiling tenderly at a beaver named “Rum.”

(Really, the only song I never cared much for was “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Even the sappiest part of me always found it more than a little overwrought. You can begin throwing things at me now.)

I actually think I still have the tape I made back in the (dear god) late 80s in a box in the basement. It’ll likely snap the minute I try to play it (yes, I still have a rickety cassette player), but I’d like to find it. In any case, the minute I get home, straight to iTunes for some bittersweet downloading.

Oh, now they’re playing Elvis Costello!  I’m really hoping the Indigo Girls are up next. I know all their lyrics by heart, too.

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