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“A song rises up from the belly of my past and rocks me in the bosom of buried memories.” ~ Brenda Sutton Rose
I have a lousy memory.
I don’t have many memories from my childhood and struggle to remember things that have happened throughout most of my life.
Many times, I’ve apologized to people when they’re baffled that I’ve forgotten an experience we shared—a memory that stuck in their brains yet somehow escaped mine. I always feel a little shame when it happens, as if I didn’t care enough to record its significance.
I’ll try to excuse my absentmindedness, shrugging it off as an inherited trait that’s become an inside joke in my family. I now know that I’ve always disassociated; checking out by letting myself get lost in thoughts or daydreams is a trauma response I learned to use as a coping mechanism to deal with stress from a very young age.
One thing that has allowed some memories to forever imprint in my mind, though, is music.
There is some science to this. Jodi Picoult says, “In brain scans, music lights up the medial prefrontal cortex and triggers a memory that starts playing in your mind. All of a sudden you can see a place, a person, an incident. The strongest responses to music—the ones that elicit vivid memories—cause the greatest activity on brain scans.”
Sometimes I will hear a song and no matter how long it’s been, I’ll instantly remember the experience or people associated with it. I will feel emotions, sometimes strongly, and it helps me to remember that my life isn’t completely blank.
These song memories remind me that I have lived when too often I worry that my life has been wasted.
“The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with–nothing brings it all to life like an old mixtape. It does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mixtape tells a story. Put them together, and they can add up to the story of a life.” ~ Rob Sheffield
Whenever I hear John Anderson’s classic country song “Swingin’,” it takes me back to the old jukebox in the little neighborhood bar I grew up in, dancing and singing with my grandparents.
I remember the fizzy popping sound of the tabs being pulled off their cans of Miller Lite and Budweiser. I smell the thick, earthy smoke of their cigarettes and hear the raucous laughter as they socialized with their friends after work.
They’d give me quarters to play on the pool table and I would make up different games to play by myself. They’d let me eat my fill of giant dill pickles and mini bags of Ruffles and Lays Sour Cream and Onion Potato chips, and I drank Cokes and Dr. Peppers to my heart’s content.
This song brings on some serious nostalgia for the love and affection I felt from my grandparents when I was a little girl.
Whenever I hear “Maggie May” or any of Rod Stewart’s songs, I think of my momma.
He was her favorite. I have mixed emotions when I hear his music. Losing her much too soon, I feel love in my heart whenever I think of her now, and I know that she’s my angel, often feeling her spirit around me when I’m paying attention.
But life with her when she was alive wasn’t always easy.
Some songs bring on instant grief and make me cry over my losses, sometimes bringing on unsafe behaviors if I get lost in the emotion, particularly when I’m driving.
One time I was running late for a group bike ride and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone” began playing. It reminded me of my mom and stepdad who had also passed. It was a song that was always playing in our home during my high school years.
When I heard it, I was hit with a tidal wave of unexpected grief for them.
They didn’t have the healthiest relationship, but of all the men she was with after my dad, I loved him the most. I always wished their love could have been strong enough to rise above their addictions to keep them together.
Sadness for time and love lost, I began crying uncontrollably and didn’t notice the stealthy Mustang police car behind me. He promptly pulled me over and wrote me a speeding ticket as I sat in my car trying to pull myself together. I decided to turn around, canceling my ride, and when I got home, I realized that it was the sixth anniversary of my mom’s death.
No wonder my spirit was hit with such emotion. I began to wonder if they were my guardian angels in that moment, forcing me to go back home that morning, protecting me from something worse that might have happened on my bike ride.
When “Wrecked” by Imagine Dragons comes up on my playlist, I can’t listen to it. I try, but the tears come every time and I must turn it off.
This song was playing a lot when I lost my elderly fur children, euthanizing them both in our home on the same sunny June day last year. She was a 21-year-old tortoiseshell kitty that had been with me since my mid-20s and he was a 16-year-old black Labrador that we adopted later in his life, only getting eight wonderful years to spend with him.
Because of their ages and health decline, I knew their deaths might come close, but I never ever expected it to happen at the same time. Someday I’ll be ready to tell that story, but I’m not there yet. I struggle to look at their pictures still. I can’t even type this without crying. The grief is still raw, still too fresh.
Knowing the lyrics and X-rated meanings of some songs now make me think of the inappropriate experiences I’ve partaken in my younger years.
Like when I was a teenager and seductively sang Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” to show off for a boy at my goody-goody friend’s karaoke birthday party.
Or when I was 16 and wanted to shock my little brother, playing “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails. I thought we were safe inside my car with the windows rolled up and the volume blasting. My dad was pretty pissed when he opened the door and heard the lyrics to that one.
I remember when I was 25 years old, newly engaged, and still learning how to be a mom to two tweenagers; I liked the beat of the song “Get Low” by Lil Jon.
Once while sitting at a red light, I played it loudly as my teenaged sister and soon-to-be step kids rapped and danced so hard in the backseat, it felt like my little red Honda was bouncing off the road like a hydraulic lowrider car. I always remember the pure joy felt in that moment, inappropriate as it was to play such a song for kids.
I didn’t always bond over profane music with my step kids; in fact, I tried to expose them to the classic rock bands that I loved as often as I could. When we took them to a Styx concert, I’ll never forget lifting my son as high as I could up to the stage and Tommy Shaw letting him strum his guitar during their encore performance of “Renegade.” He even gave him a few guitar picks as a souvenir.
I remember feeling so happy my boy got to have such a cool experience, and that I was a part of it.
There are songs that bring me back to the fun time leading up to my wedding, particularly the co-ed bachelor/bachelorette karaoke party we decided to share instead of having the standard separate bride and groom sendoffs.
I remember our friends and relatives loving my theatrical performance of Grand Funk Railroad’s “Some Kind of Wonderful.” When I got to the bridge of the song, shaking my hand in the air like a preacher as I sang, “Can I get a witness!” my audience joined in, raising their hands up and laughing and singing as if they were in the pews at Sunday church.
Or when at the end of that night, my fiancé serenaded me with “Babe” by Styx—after a lot of liquid courage and contemplation. I remember staring up at him with dreamy eyes, feeling such love and tenderness for this brave man who rose above his fear to get up on the stage and sing to me. I had no doubts that this guy was the one for me.
“Music is the soundtrack of your life.” ~ Dick Clark
There are many more songs from my life that bring back vivid memories—the good, the bad, and everything in between. I could list at least a few dozen more. A few dozen more memories that I actually remember, the moments and experiences that I’ll never forget.
I have given and received love from the people in these memories. I have laughed, been silly, and had a damn good time. I have cried and grieved. I have been angry and pushed people’s buttons. I have felt fear. I have made mistakes and broken the rules. I have endured through trying moments. I have felt pure and unadulterated joy.
My soundtrack proves that I have truly lived, even if the music is all I can ever remember.