If music be the food of love…

“Apollo, the god of music, had not very lavishly sprinkled musical talents within our family. Mother’s piano lessons were generally not a great success.”

So said my Uncle Nico in his family history book, “Pa vertel eens” ( Dad tell me – in English) which I just recently translated. It chronicles life for the van Rooij family from his birth in the early thirties (Nico was the youngest in the family) up until his marriage in 1958. The book is a personal and social account of the times detailing some family information previously unbeknownst to me. I was not aware, for example, that my grandmother had learned to play the piano and made every effort to get all of her children to play, without any success.

My Mom was not musical, apparently much like the rest of her siblings; but what she lacked in ability, Mom more than made up with enthusiasm for music. She loved to listen to music and her taste was eclectic. Classical. Country. Pop. Mom purchased records and then CDs which spanned her favourite singers, songs and symphonies. The radio was on from when she first got up in the morning, throughout the day and into the night, only to be interrupted when the television came on for some evening entertainment.

And when she really liked a particular piece Mom would sway to the beat with a joyous grin, humming and singing, usually out of tune and out of time. Her signature move was with her shoulders pulled up to ears, elbows in tight, arms bent up with the index finger pointing straight, her whole upper body stiffly bouncing, with that grin and half open eyes absorbing the sound. The image still makes me smile.

Every once in a while a number of her favourite songs play in my head . Singing them out loud you begin to understand how the lyrics were an expression of her beliefs on the experiences of life and marriage. First there was Petula Clark’s, The Other Man’s Grass (Is Always Greener):

Life is never what it seems, we’re always searching in our dreams
To find that little castle in the air
When worry starts to cloud the mind, it’s hard to leave it all behind
And just pretend you haven’t got a care

……………

The other man’s grass is always greener
The sun shines brighter on the other side
The other man’s grass is always greener
Some are lucky, some are not
Just be thankful for what you’ve got

And if Mom was not singing the words she would emphasize the sentiment to her children. Appearances can be deceptive and all you can affect are your own circumstances, so focus on your own well-being.

Petula Clark – The Other Man’s Grass (Is Always Greener). 1967-68

In a very similar vein, Mom sang Lynn Anderson’s, (I never promised You A) Rose Garden as a statement on marriage for any couple, perhaps, but especially for one that broke away from the rest of the family and ventured afar to a new world, on their own. You can imagine how that decision could be questioned when times were difficult:

I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometime
When you take you got to give so live and let live or let go
I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden

So smile for a while and let’s be jolly
Love shouldn’t be so melancholy
Come along and share the good times while we can

I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometime

Lynn Anderson – (I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden. 1970

The flight to Canada meant leaving behind an extended family and the concomitant reality of missing the major life events of your parents and your siblings. There were two marriages, one from each of Mom and Dad’s sides, numerous births of nieces and nephews, and most tragically, the deaths of Mom’s parents in 1961 and 1962 long before my parents returned to the Netherlands for the first time in 1967. Peter, Paul & Mary’s Leaving on a Jet Plane seemed to reflect that narrative:

All my bags are packed
I’m ready to go
I’m standin’ here outside your door
I hate to wake you up to say goodbye
But the dawn is breakin’
It’s early morn
The taxi’s waitin’
He’s blowin’ his horn
Already I’m so lonesome
I could die

So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go
‘Cause I’m leavin’ on a jet plane
Don’t know when I’ll be back again

Leaving on a Jet Plane. Peter, Paul & Mary. 1969.

Mom did not appear to sing the tune with any guilt or regret; her pride would never allow it. Yet you felt there was an element of longing for a family missed.

And if the music was not expressing a specific message then it needed a beat, one that would make you move your body, get you dancing to the rhythm. I will never forget Rasputin by Boney M.

1978.

Mom loved that the Euro sound. Mix it in with a few drinks, family and friends, and you have a party, an opportunity to let loose, to enjoy the good times while you can. My parents hosted parties with the neigbours in our living room and later in a newly built recreation room in our basement when we were young. As we got older and the family grew with spouses and grandchildren the partying focused on those occasions when we could get together and celebrate important milestones.

One of 24 blurry pictures from an impromptu dance party for their 30th anniversary.

Listening to music was not a significant component of Dad’s entertainment. He had a handful of favourite songs and performers: Don McLean’s American Pie and Harry Belafonte. He generally deferred to Mom’s selection. Dad loved to sing, however, never too shy to accompany a song with his loud, baritone voice. A good song was a singable song. Period. I remember him proclaiming The Night Chicago Died was going to be a hit because you could sing along. (He was wrong about Elton John, predicting no one would be playing him in 50 years. Oh well.)

As much as my Dad loved a party, especially one involving singing those very catchy Dutch ditties, he did not dance. In the later years, he could be compelled to shuffle back and forth to a slow song when needed. When the tempo picked up, he headed for the chairs. You would be hard pressed to recall more than a handful of occasions when he could be coaxed to remain on the floor. Olga will always remember one specific time – at our wedding – when Dad exuberantly ran his way through the chicken dance. The proof is captured in this joyous photograph.

Dad dancing the Chicken Dance with Olga at our wedding in 1983.

For those who need to be reminded or for those unaware, the Lawrence Welk Show, a staple program for Mom and Dad, will demonstrate the Chicken Dance for you.

Dad will most be remembered for his love of Johnny Cash. Nicholas is fond of telling the story of watching the movie, Walk the Line, one evening while visiting Dad on a break from his studies at Western. Picture the scene when Johnny Cash is about to play at the infamous Folsom Prison. Prior to going on stage, he is waiting in the back room as the inmates were hollering and banging so loud the yellow water in the glass was shaking. Dad/Opa seemed to want to replicate that scene by cranking the volume on the TV to the max, making the floors and the windows rattle. In honour of that memory, turn the sound up to 11 when you play the clip.

Walk the Line. 2005.

When Mom passed away, the house went quiet. Dad did not turn on the radio. No more CDs were bought. The collection remained largely untouched until the house was sold and it was divided among the four boys.

As a kid growing up in the 70’s, I cringed at the music my parents played. Now, in looking back and remembering I have come to love to listen to many of those songs: Tony Orlando and Dawn, Knock Three Times, Candida; Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass; James Last and his Beach Party records; Neil Diamond; and Mario Lanza to name a few more. All bring back memories.

Both Olga and I have continued that love of music, each of us bringing our own tastes and experiences and culture into a large and varied collection, old and contemporary. We listen to music constantly in our own home, buying records and CDs, installing a hardwired Sonos system in the house, subscribing to Spotify, breaking into a dance in the kitchen when the spirit moves us. Nicholas and Olena have grown up with the same passion, sometimes divergent tastes but always with the joy and love which comes with the sound of music and its expression through dance.

If I have learned anything growing up, it is that music is the food of love….so, play on.

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