When I started first grade at the elementary school near my house, my mom started teaching second grade at a school across town. Since I didn’t have to be at school as early as my mom did, she arranged for me to stay with a family down the street before and after school.
Every morning my mom would drop me off, and I’d make my way back to the warmth of Ethel’s kitchen. A kitchen that was laid out exactly like my grandmother’s, complete with one of those chrome dinette sets from the 1950s.
Oatmeal was always cooking on the stove. And it always had raisins in it. Raisins that had cooked right along with the oatmeal, so they puffed up into overly plump raisins. Raisins that were disgustingly ready to burst out of their skins.
I hated those raisins. I took great pains to eat around them. And I left them in my bowl every morning for two whole years.
Ethel was a quiet, softspoken woman who suited me just fine in the mornings because she didn’t talk much. Her husband, Elvis, worked the early shift at the Post Office most of the time, and her 14 year old son, Danny, was still upstairs sleeping, so I hardly ever saw them. Usually it was just Ethel and me.
And the radio.
The radio was playing constantly.
This was very different from my house because my parents never listened to the radio at home. They rarely listened to it in the car. That’s not to say we didn’t have music in the house. We had plenty, but it was from a different era and different genres. My mom played the piano by ear and she loved ragtime music, so I learned tunes from the 1920s like “12th Street Rag,” “Roll Out the Barrel,” and “Shine On Harvest Moon.” And her record collection introduced me to everything from big band leaders from the 1930s and ‘40s like Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, to the crooners of the ‘50s, like Perry Como, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. And hearing my mom belting out “Mack the Knife” with Bobby Darin always made housecleaning a lot more fun.
But in Ethel’s kitchen, every morning while I was spooning around those bloated raisins in my bowl of oatmeal, I was listening to the hits of the 1960s on KTRN, the radio station I would listen to for the next two decades of my life.
In that kitchen I heard the Beatles for the first time.
The Beach Boys. Petula Clark singing “Downtown.” Bobbie Gentry and “the day that Billie Joe McAlister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” And I’m not quite sure that at six I got the hypocrisy in the lyrics of Jeannie C. Riley’s hit, but I sure thought it was funny when she let go with “the day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA!”
That’s where I heard Glen Campbell for the first time, too.
When I heard he’d passed away yesterday I began thinking of all those old songs I’d heard in Ethel’s kitchen from 1967 to 1969, and I realized that something really important happened in that kitchen. That was the first place besides school that I spent a significant amount of time interacting with adults away from my parents, on my own. Where I began to establish how to converse and co-exist with people who weren’t my family, by myself. Where I began to learn how to be me without my mom and dad, this little person who already at the age of six and seven had very definite likes and dislikes, a personality, an identity that was still being shaped and formed by a multitude of influences. But who was already very much her own little person.
With all those songs from the radio running in the background.
My own personal soundtrack.
From my era.
Music has such power. Power to transport us, through time and space, to lift our spirits and comfort us in ways that the spoken word will never be able to accomplish. It evokes the memory of feelings, even when the names and events and details of our lives have long since faded.
Last night I heard the announcement of Campbell’s death on the CBS Evening News and that’s all it took. I hadn’t heard or thought of a Glen Campbell song in ages. But with just a few bars of “Gentle On My Mind,” I was right back in Ethel’s kitchen.
Eating around those awful raisins. Still trying to wake up.