2 – FILLING THE GAPS WITH MUSIC
Waterloo, Wisconsin, the 1970s
By Midwest farm country standards, our two-story red brick house on one of the main drags, Madison Street, was in the hustle and bustle of little Waterloo.
Waterloo had two thousand people. There was one stoplight in the whole town, and it marked the four corners, town center, where the two main thoroughfares of Madison and Monroe Street met. I could see the light blink from my front yard.
Our town center consisted of a pharmacy, bowling alley, shoe and clothing store, bank, movie theater, fire station, diner, and six taverns. Yes, six. And all walking distance from our house.
As well, our town had four churches, also all walking distance from our house and town center. Occasionally, the clergy from those churches patronized those six taverns. Mom would say, “The best sermons are on a Saturday night to a bunch of drunks then on Sunday to the hungover.”
Waterloo was not much different from other small towns in Wisconsin. Still, I thought Waterloo was beautiful, with soft hills making up Fireman’s Park that was filled with tall Oak, Ash, and Pine trees forming canopies over summer’s deep green lush grass. The tree branches turned to icicles twinkling like diamonds in the sun when we used the hills for sledding in the winter.
The chocolate brown slow-flowing Maunesha River ebbed through the park, lined with Pussy Willows and marsh shrubs. A dam at the Mill House forced some of the Maunesha up into a large-sized pond, which in summer was home to ducks, geese, and the occasional fisherman frustratingly hoping for a catch. When December would come, the pond became a frozen sheet for childhood shenanigans of snowball fights, hockey, and ice skating.
If it wasn’t for the strong smell of manure that would waft through the town from the many nearby dairy farms, as a little child, I thought Waterloo was damn perfect, until it wasn’t.
Everyone in Waterloo knew each other, and they didn’t just say hello in passing on the street or at the local diner. Long conversations would ensue about family, friends, and the latest happenings about town or, God forbid, national politics or worldly events. In the 70s, those conversations were curated from the Sunday newspaper, evening news, the radio and spiced up with small-town opinions.
My mom would always direct the conversations to local gossip, which she found more attractive, even though she sometimes was part of the story. And my dad, having grown up in Chicago, served 20 years in the military through World War II and a year in Korea during the Korean War, would never engage in the gossip that he called “small town nonsense.” Still, he’d willingly debate politics with the right person.
A typical grocery store run was the excitement of the day for Mom and she conversed with everyone from the entrance to the exit. Amongst the vegetable aisle to the meat counter, she never missed a chance to “bullshit.” When I was a pre-teen, I’d usually bide my time waiting for her by looking at People and other entertainment magazines hanging near the checkout, fantasizing about a more exciting life.
But by the time I was in high school, Waterloo was isolating and boring to me. Although I was not the popular type, I had good friends and enjoyed school. But with only 70 kids in my class, popularity was not my priority. Variety was.
Every day around Waterloo, I saw the same people repeatedly, and while my mom found this comforting and enjoyable, I was restless. The folks of Waterloo were genuine, caring and the sense of community was strong, but I yearned for diversity and excitement.
The closest city where I believed the real action and activity happened was Madison, twenty-six miles to the west. Madison had nearly two hundred thousand people, and I could feel the energy every time we visited for shopping or birthday celebrations. If we approached the city at night, the thousands of streetlights lit up the dark sky, and it was a beacon to something more thrilling. The city had various ethnic restaurants, the state capital, indoor malls, an airport, people of different colors and religions, a university, and giant lakes, Mendota and Monona, that looked like oceans to my adolescent eyes when I first saw them. But Waterloo did have a quaintness that my mother loved. And at times, I embraced it too. Primarily for her sake and especially when I was young and yearning for her attention.
As a young child, every Sunday morning, I pleasantly woke in my upstairs bedroom of our house to the sound of needle scraping vinyl on the downstairs record player. Classical music boomed from Pioneer floor speakers in our living room. My dad—that ex-military early-bird, predictably rose at 6 a.m. (when the bugle sounds!) and played his favorites after he poured his first cup of coffee. I assumed that this was part of my father’s routine to wake up my brother and me: a friendly pronouncement, the head of the house was up. Or so I thought at the time.
As the years progressed and my parents’ relationship grew more strained, I wondered if he might have done it to piss off his typically hungover, depressed wife.
But I loved the music. As I rested on my white eyelet canopy bed, surrounded by stuffed animals, I listened to every note with anticipation and memorized every lyric, even in French or German. I’d fade in and out of sleep, content, amused by swells of the music, the sudden lulls, the dramatic operatic vocals. My father had said, “In every opera, someone always falls in love, and someone always dies, but in between, there is a whole lot of beautiful music.”
My dad had a small-framed body and carried his shoulders back with poise and confidence, especially when discussing opera. Even though his weekend attire of a grey sweatshirt and white Converse high-tops wouldn’t suggest, he was an opera enthusiast. Nor would his machine shop green coveralls from his day job. No matter the attire, grease lingered under his fingernails and his hands smelled of machine oil, as did what was left of his hair. But I liked the smell. It smelled like him.
Many times, on Sunday mornings, my brother David slammed his door shut in response to Dad’s orchestral onslaught. However, the door to my parents’ room—with my mom presumably sleeping–was always closed, although a closed door wasn’t enough to silence the music. My door was left open. The cacophony told me I was not alone. Dad was there. I was safe. My father was the stable force in our unpredictable home.
I could assume my dad’s mood, and my mom’s likely condition, by his musical choices. He was in a pleased, carefree mood if he was listening to piano concertos, like Tchaikovsky’s, or operas like Tosca or Carmen. He’d be enjoying the Sunday paper. Sometimes he’d be humming as he made his way around the house, and the sound would bring me great pleasure. It also meant my mother was sober, happy, and up making breakfast. On these days, I would not linger in bed; I’d rush downstairs to join them.
Beethoven, especially Moonlight Sonata, meant he was stressed. I would find him amiable but unhappy. He was busy doing my mother’s chores: making breakfast, cleaning the kitchen, disposing of liquor bottles from the night before. He was an old-school man who’d say, “These are the duties of the wife, not mine.”
Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor meant a dark mood. I would find him unapproachable, further evidenced by deep furrows on his brow and puffy eyelids. I could only assume he and my mother had fought the night before. He had every reason to use Mozart to insulate himself from her. Thankfully, I was confident that he loved me. Even if he was not incredibly welcoming, as he sat with legs crossed tightly against the base of the living room armchair, his hand wrapped tightly around a cup of coffee, offering a reduced smile for me. I would head to the kitchen, hoping my mom was preparing breakfast before church. However, when Requiem was playing, she was never there. She was still in bed.
I was angry at my mom for putting my dad in such a state. Also, I was lonely, the only one to sit at the breakfast table with no one to make food for me, provide comfort, and ask if I slept okay.
As a ten-year-old, I could put Lucky Charms in a bowl and pour milk on it. Then again, compared to my mother’s good Sundays, when she would prepare pancakes, waffles, bacon, toast, and fresh juice, cold cereal was disheartening. Until my brother would join me, these quiet moments of eating alone were sad and crushing, especially with Requiem in the background.
On Mom’s good Sundays, when she was not depressed or hungover, she was engaging, loving, caring, and had an outrageous sense of humor. She dished out hugs, back rubs, and kisses to our foreheads and cheeks and never missed a second to say, “You mean the world to me.” She had pet names for us: sweetheart, darling, honey bunch, pumpkin, kiddo. Her attention was devotional. But also confusing. How could she be so unavailable on some days and emotionally stifling on others?
My mother was a pretty woman with pleasant straight light brown hair that would curl into her neck as it reached her shoulders. Her clear blue eyes and high arched eyebrows were probably her most delicate features. She was of average height and weight but slightly taller than my dad. She’d put on weight when depressed and then lose some when she was in a good state. She would dress in contemporary clothes and shoes if she felt mentally well, but nothing fancy or flashy. She loved clip-on earrings and long-chain necklaces, and she incorporated purple, her favorite color, into her wardrobe every chance she could. But the most constant part of her attire was a cigarette. A Salem was her fashion statement. And her comfort.
When Mom was in a good state, she ran the stereo on Saturday mornings; it was rousing fun. She’d play upbeat music, popular on the radio: Candy Man by Sammy Davis Jr. or Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head. Those Saturdays would not be complete without Johnny Mathis.
Mom spun Johnny Mathis vinyl like his voice was an oxygen tank for her lungs. She owned every album he recorded. She documented her collection on ruled school paper, with columns drawn with a ruler in pencil to section out release dates, album and song titles, duets, and she placed it all in a 3-ring binder. The spine simply labeled Johnny.
Much to my dad’s displeasure at the cost of Mom’s obsession, every time a new Johnny album arrived in the mail, Dad would say, “Johnny put out another album?” Mom also belonged to Johnny’s international fan club and swooned like a teenager when she received an annual birthday card with his photo and replica autograph. She’d tack it to the bulletin board in the kitchen for all of us to see. Johnny’s tender chocolate eyes and apparent genuine cheerfulness made me adore him too. Along with his smooth, charismatic velvet voice, I understood Mom’s attraction and wished I could sing like him. Mom told me she heard he gave up a successful shot as an Olympic high-jumper to be a singer. I often wondered why he had to choose between the two.
Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Stevie Wonder, Glenn Campbell, Joan Baez, and Carole King were also Mom’s favorites. She’d tout, “Laurie, did you know Carole King writes her music? That’s a big deal, kiddo.” Those words stuck with me. Even as a very young child, I would stare at the cover of Carole King’s album Tapestry and wonder if I could write a song.
When Mom played musicals, like South Pacific or Oklahoma!, I was inspired to sing along, happy because I wasn’t alone. Sometimes Mom and I’d dance around the living room; afternoon sun rays shining on us through the window like a spotlight. We’d twirl and spin like novice ballroom dancers; rug burns on our feet. Holding hands, we’d lip-sync until the end of the song, and on cue, Mom and I’d fall dramatically onto the couch in an embrace of sweat and laughter.
“Laurie, someday I’ll take you to New York City, and we’ll see Broadway!” she would exclaim, throwing her hands in the air for a loud clap, her eyes dancing. She would quickly fall into the fantasy world show tunes offered. I had no problem joining her. Nevertheless, the song always ended.
© 2022 Laurie Markvart