The weeks leading up to my parents’ 35th wedding anniversary in 1994 were tense.
After so many years of bowing to the desires and demands of his wife and three daughters…my dad had ceased shaving.
My tan, athletic little fireball dad who had gone salt & pepper before my birth in 1969, who by this anniversary was definitely heavy on the salt, had decided for the first time in his life he would let his facial hair grow.
To be fair, this was the closest thing to a mid-life crisis Hap ever had. This and a very inexpensive, very yellow old Porsche convertible which would come a few years later.
But Dolores, our mother, was NOT having it.
“Because you look like Kenny Rogers!” she’d say, with a grimace.
And while Kenny was a very nice looking man, that was not the look she wanted to see on the face of her husband. And she was not playin’…she was not pleased, she was not kind about it. She was punishing him in ways small and large, I’m sure. We were scared–if Hap didn’t shave, if the cold war continued, what would happen when they showed up to the fake event that would actually be their surprise anniversary party and were barely speaking?
Luckily, through whatever marital manipulations will remain unknown to we three sisters, as the date neared Boots somehow prevailed and Hap shaved. They showed up to the party and were greeted by the two grandchildren they had by that time, along with the best friends, coworkers, and extended family they had cultivated during that long marriage. They cried tears of joy, and as the saying goes, a great time was had by all.
They were treated to a slide show of memories, and part of the soundtrack to that slide show was “Through the Years” by Kenny Rogers. It was their song, their family song–not their song as a young dating couple, but their adult, grown-up life song:
“Through the years, through all the good and bad…I know how much we’ve had, I’ve always been so glad to be with you…through the years, I’ve never been afraid, I’ve loved the life we’ve made, and I”m so glad I stayed right here with you…through the years.”
It was just a song, but an emotional one. My dad was a huge fan of country music, the country music before it would have a surge in popularity with younger people after that time. Before artists from Kenny forward would sway it towards pop. His country music was Ronnie Milsap and Lynne Anderson. I remember watching the Barbara Mandrell show with him as a kid and arguing that I preferred her sister, Louise Mandrell. He shook his head, “no way.” He liked Barbara. He liked that she could play so many instruments, a petite scrappy blonde who took on that steel guitar like other women took on baking. As her own song says, Hap was “country when country wasn’t cool.” Oh, sorry, he listened to country when it wasn’t cool. He may have owned a plaid shirt and a straw cowboy hat to wear to a convention of other financial planners and insurance salesmen, but he was not “country” the way Mandrell meant it. Not in the real ways, but I’m fairly certain he lived vicariously through Little Joe Cartwright and the Big Valley Barkleys.
Back at the anniversary party in 1994, Kenny Rogers’ voice took us all on an emotional photographic journey of our longtime neighbors and friends “through the years,” which included a third generation of children playing in the same two backyards. And while no more Kenny Rogers songs were included in that day, as I awakened this day in 2020 to the news of Kenny’s death, my mind’s eye shows me quite a few other snapshots that Kenny Rogers’ songs frame:
A cassette tape of his greatest hits played over and over…and over…on a driving trip to Nashville, when my parents allowed me to bring my best friend and next-door neighbor Kristine. It is only as an adult that I realize they wanted me to bring her to keep me occupied so that I didn’t annoy all the joy out of the vacation for my older sisters. There were several of those trips, so I cannot recall if that was the same one that also included the family/neighbors on the other side, which would have included Sandy and Karen, my elders as well.
My days in Tennessee were eclipsed by thoughts of a boy named Mike who worked at the stables of Loretta Lynn’s Dude Ranch, who gave me a peacock feather. It was obvious he was in love with me. I was a pre-teen. I assume he was old enough to have a work permit.
I wrote a few postcards on that trip, one to yet another neighbor and friend, Lisa, to whom I had written something like “the trip is fun, MOST of the time,” which was a dig at Kristine getting on my nerves, and me on hers, and a lesson learned when my mother (who was about to mail said postcard) handed it back to me with a “shame on you, that’s unnecessary.”
I wasn’t yet at the age where I bought much music for myself. I had listened to (and ruined) many 45’s and albums of my sisters in the early 70’s, fought through a few of Hap’s 8-tracks, and then when cassettes came out, I just listened to whatever was in my parents car. So, some Kenny Rogers. I loved the song Ruben James, “you still walk the fertile fields of my mind…faded shirt, withered brow, calloused hands upon the plow…loved ya then, and I love you now, Ruben James.”
Over the years Kristine and I shared many choruses of “Coward of the County” and “The Gambler,” and I privately swooned over “She Believes in Me.” “Lucille” took on a new shine when in my adulthood, my coworker/friend Maureen told me a story about an automotive breakdown using the lyrics, “ya picked a fine time to leave me, loose wheel…”
But after childhood, I didn’t really follow Kenny Rogers, and his signature low growl in songs like “Lady” annoyed me. Years later I joined in the mocking when he had plastic surgery and those eyes were wound up a little too tightly. I never really sought his music again. I felt like he was making an aging attempt at being a sex-symbol.
But his song, my parents’ song, “Through the Years,” was the closest thing to an anthem our family had, and it was revisited on many anniversaries after that. My parents would go on to celebrate their 50th anniversary. By their 52nd, my dad was in a nursing home. By their 54th, he was gone. Sirius satellite radio continues to bring songs like that into my car, and when that happens I laugh, or cry, take a snap with my cell phone and text it to my sisters and my mom. Same thing happens with John Denver’s “Sunshine on my shoulders,” Sunshine being the name of our childhood dog. Thank God for music.
Now, it’s March 21, 2020. One of my sisters texted me this morning about Kenny Rogers’ death and how it made her cry, for all the reasons illustrated above. Kenny’s death might be getting more airplay today if we were not in the midst of a global pandemic of Covid-19, Corona virus. My husband keeps telling me to write about the worldwide crisis, to document the days we are all quarantined so we can read it and remember the details years from now. I haven’t done that yet, because what can I have to say about it–what we ate that day? What time we Face-timed the grandkids? Who of us still have jobs?
Instead, here’s my offering today. Kenny Rogers has died, and his music is part of the soundtrack of our lives. Hearing the clips of his songs again makes me smile. Nostalgia is strong, and I still know every word to those songs. Thank God for music, have I said that already? During this terrible health crisis when countless will be sick, many will be lost, and more will be devastated financially, I will go online and hopefully find one of those Kenny songs I sang after playing it over (and over, and over) on that trip to Tennessee, and I hope the sentiment rings true to us all:
“Love lifted me, love lifted me. When nothing else would do, you know love lifted me.”