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For the novelist Marcel Proust, all it took was a little cookie called a madeleine to unlock “the vast structure of recollection” that became his seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past. (Full disclosure: I tried reading Remembrance of Things Past when I was in high school, but I failed. Most of what I know about Proust actually comes from Monty Python.) For me, certain instrumentals from the 1960s take me back as far back in memory as I am capable of going.
It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, too wet to play outside, so my brother and I have fetched some of our things out of the bedroom we share into what we know as the front room, maybe farm toys, a board game, Lincoln Logs, or some books. We pretend to be farmers or builders, or we play a game, and after a while we might retreat to separate corners to read. All the while, my mother is bustling around in the kitchen a few steps away. On this day, she’s doing laundry and baking, or tending to whatever she’s making for supper, and periodically stopping to referee squabbles between my brother and me. And while she’s doing all this, the radio is on. In years to come, it will be on a country station, but not yet. On this particular day, it’s probably tuned to our hometown station.
Over the course of that long afternoon, the radio plays several songs that, years from now, I will remember as the sound of being a very young child. There’s Arthur Lyman’s “Yellow Bird” and what sounds to me now like its companion piece, “Maria Elena” by Los Indios Tabarajas. There’s Walter Wanderley’s “Summer Samba” and “A Walk in the Black Forest” by Horst Jankowski—when I acquire my fondness for keyboard sounds later in life, it must be due in part to them. Somewhere back there is “Our Winter Love” by Bill Pursell, a song less familiar to me today than any of these others, but one that conjures up the same feelings, and “Tracy’s Theme” by Spencer Ross. I’d like to think that inspires not merely a memory, but my first memory.
My father has been in and out of the house all afternoon, working on the sort of tasks a farmer, or any young man with a young family, might save for a rainy day, so he’s a part of these memories too. The hours pass, the rain continues, the light fades. Perhaps the TV comes on at some point, but the radio stays on. In more ways than one, for longer than we can know.
Coming tomorrow: The people who performed these songs . . . who were they?