Music has an undeniable influence on memory.
For one, significant moments in our lives are connected to the music we listened to at the time. The reverse is also true; if you want to remember something, set it to music. When my high school classmates complained about having to memorize the Declaration of Independence, I didn’t commiserate. My mom introduced me to her vinyl copy of The Fifth Dimension’s musical rendition. I memorized the song, then replayed it in my head during the test.
My earliest memories tied to music are understandably guided by my parents’ and grandparents’ tastes. On the way to school, my mom treated us to a mix tape with “Eye in the Sky” by The Alan Parsons Project, “Waiting for a Girl Like You” by Foreigner, and songs by The Four Seasons. My younger brother adorably requested the “my life tape” daily on his way to preschool.
I remember my Grandpa carrying a big radio around the house and outside. Usually the radio played slow 1940s tunes, as if it was stuck in some begotten era or a conduit of time. I like to visit that portal now when I hear those tunes.
Because of my dad’s love of movie soundtracks, I grew up listening to Mark Isham (Never Cry Wolf), Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek), and James Horner (Field of Dreams). In 2015, he and I lamented James Horner’s tragic death in a plane crash. One of Horner’s best soundtracks places me in a small office building inside a creepy former orphanage. It was the summer I worked for my dad, and he of course had a stack of soundtracks to help pass the days. The melancholy melodies of the Legends of the Fall soundtrack bring me back to that place during that summer.
At age 12 when my own music interests started to develop, they were yet prompted by another member of my family–my great uncle. One day visiting his house, I related to him country music’s level of “uncool.” He insisted that I sit down with him and his enormous headphones and listen to Mary Chapin Carpenter on his “jambox.” At first I was intrigued. Then he played “Quittin Time” and I was hooked. It is still one of my favorite songs.
After that, despite its continual un-coolness in middle school, I converted to country. Kathy Mattea became one of my favorites. When I met her twenty years after I started listening to her music, I told her that one of her songs accompanied every significant moment in my life. When my turn came, first I pleaded for a hug, then asked her to sign my first cassette tape and most recent CD booklet of her music.
One particular day in high school has two vivid musical memories. I had been waiting to hear Collin Raye’s “Love Remains” every time I turned on the radio. The morning of my 17th birthday, my radio alarm woke me to the song, which seemed to be an omen of a great day ahead.
I begged my parents to let me drive the car to school (they said yes!), and I sang happily along to The Mavericks‘ cassette album What a Crying Shame as I drove. I still remember the song that was playing (“Neon Blue“) when I entered the intersection as a Chevy Suburban turned left in front of me. Not only did I hit the truck, my little sedan slid under it. I was as emotionally wrecked as my totaled car.
Boys and relationships define my high school and college musical memories. My worst high school breakup was punctuated by lots of loud headbanging to The Cranberries. “Salvation” is the world’s most perfect angry breakup song.
I can’t listen to Garth Brooks without my summer of first love coming to mind. Sophomore year of college I met the man I’d later marry. We listened to Jars of Clay and attended a few concerts, but their album Much Afraid held the most feeling.
Growing Into My Own
My adult life is a timeline of album releases. When I was engaged, Nickel Creek had released their first album and I listened to it in my room at my parent’s house as I counted down the days to the wedding. Their second album–This Side–came out the year I was setting up my first classroom, and I listened to it on repeat for days as I unpacked boxes of teaching materials in the stifling heat.
Each song brings me back not only to the moments, but the feelings and smells as well. When we bought our second house I had moved on to Punch Brothers (featuring Chris Thile from Nickel Creek) and listened to Who’s Feeling Young Now for almost the entire month I worked on the house before we moved in. When I hear the album now, I imagine myself in the garage, scraper in hand, removing lead paint from doors.
After we moved into the house, Babel was released by Mumford and Sons. A few house projects were spent with Babel on repeat, and even though I still listen to it often, the album brings me back to crisp fall days painting the garage door and replacing rotted wood at the front entrance.
Then Came Babies
The summer before my first baby’s birth, I was enamored with Michael Bublé. He had released his album It’s Time and I delighted in singing the songs while dancing with my new baby daughter E. Years later she continued to remind me about waking up to “Feeling Good.”
E’s brother came less than two years after her, around another of Michael Bublé’s album releases. My memories surrounding Call Me Irresponsible are positive later on, including singing “It Had Better Be Tonight” in the kitchen with sound effects my daughter added. However in the beginning of Bud’s life, I remember this album with bittersweet sadness.
I had decided to go home from the hospital a day early, and the baby blues came on strong. Bud was hooked up to a bili blanket for jaundice, E was vying for my attention, and I desperately wanted to be back at the hospital. When “Lost” came on I truly lost it. The song takes me to his sky blue room, tears streaming down my face as I rocked and nursed him in the glider, the farthest he could be from his crib for three days thanks to the phototherapy equipment.
When Kyle was born along with his extra 21st chromosome, it seemed as if the hospital staff was avoiding me a bit. Maybe it was just the placement of my hospital room, or because he was baby #3, or because they didn’t know what to say. However, when they walked into the room I don’t think they expected what they saw or heard. Almost every person who entered remarked on the calm music flowing from my CD player.
I had created two mix CDs of the most peaceful songs written by Secret Garden. I planned for the CDs to be my labor music, however the birth was so quick I hadn’t had time for music. So I played the discs as I recovered in peace, holding Kyle and gazing at his beautiful features.
I still remember the trouble I had nursing Kyle because he was so sleepy. However, when a song with words played and I sang, he nursed vigorously. At one day old he was responding to music.
New Baby, New Music
By the time of my youngest baby’s birth, a new artist with a hauntingly beautiful voice–Sarah Jarosz–had emerged. Within my son’s first few months of life, Sarah came out with a new album. When I listen to the album these few years later, I am transported into my sunlit family room, grabbing moments of rest after nursing Mr. S while Kyle napped and the older two were at school.
Those first months were tumultuous for Mr. S due to reflux, an awful lung infection, and many uncomfortable, sleepless nights. Sarah Jarosz’ smooth, comforting voice got me through them.
When it came time to choose a title for this blog (not an easy feat), I finally settled on music for my inspiration. Since moving into this broken-down dream house of mine, “Elysium” by Mary Chapin Carpenter has been my theme song. The word itself comes from Greek literature and means something close to heaven or perfect paradise.
And who isn’t striving for heavenly paradise? I feel like I have found a bit of that in my years raising Kyle. He has brought a new level of beauty to my life, the kind of beauty that can be found in perfect paradise.