If I was the sort of person who went around naming everything, which I am, I would say these last two weeks could be called ‘Past Life Melodies’. I admit I stole the name outright from an a cappella choral piece, but it fits perfectly, because I’ve spent most of February unexpectedly bunking with my parents, first down in San Diego, and now here in Seattle.
To suddenly spend two full weeks with your parents after living away from home for twenty-four years is like plunging head-first into a deep, shockingly cold memory pool. You forget that your dad likes to lock all the doors and windows at 5pm each night. Or that your mom only eats frozen corn, never canned, and will bolt from the table to the bathroom and begin loudly retching if you unwittingly serve her the latter. You turn clammy upon seeing the multitude of pill bottles lining every flat surface in your parents’ homes, and when you at last curl up in a fetal position on the family sofa, you uncover a mildewed TV guide beneath the cushions, dated 1985.
You and your siblings are suddenly spoken to in that tone of voice, as if someone’s turned on a familiar, but long-forgotten theme song from those tv shows you used to watch back in the 80’s. “Girls!” your mother calls. “Can one of you grab my mentholatum? I’m all dried out. My nostrils feel practically petrified…Do you know to put a bit of mentholatum in each nostril just before you go to bed at night? It’s a wonder from God, it is… Yes, I know you don’t believe in God, Kristy, but one day you will, trust me….Right there on the nightstand… the little green jar….Next to that Carol Burnett book…Oh, this sciatica! What time is it?… Grab those pills from the kitchen cupboard, Lori…. Look at Jack lying there half dead…I tell you, that dog and I are both just miserable with this fibromyalgia..My saving grace is chocolate. Stock up now, girls, you will need it… Kristy, reach down and plug in that heating pad, would you. My feet are just frozen. I’m petrified up top and frozen down below. Someone should just throw me out on the tundra and the show could finally be over. Hallelujah!…Have you read that Carol Burnett book? Kristy, you probably have, but Lori, you should read it. I know you don’t like to read but sit yourself down and just do it. It’s awesome…Surely you know who Carol Burnett is? …Well, I don’t know what cockamamie things you girls know and don’t know these days…Carol Burnett hasn’t been on Dancing with the Stars Yet, has she? I would Tivo that for sure…Where are you two running off to now? Your dad needs you to bring him dinner? Why aren’t you bringing me dinner? I’d take anything from that Coco’s right there next to Dr. Kamino’s office. You girls remember Dr. Kamino, don’t you?…Well, bring him soup. That’s all your father likes.. And licorice. But don’t bring him that, with his diabetes flaring, Uff da!… Those Kroger cans are on sale now for 99 cents. Get him a few of those….Kroger soup! Don’t you buy the store brands now?…Oh, for pity sake, you girls are hopeless causes…Hold on, now…let me stand up a minute….grab that cord…..you two surely will put on some lipstick before you leave the house, won’t you?…I’ve told you and told you….it just lifts up your whole face and goodness knows, you two need lifting! And Lori, put that hair in a bun. You are trying to be a professional woman, for heaven’s sake!”
After you escape that montage, you enter your dad’s home carrying soup picked up from ‘The Outback’ restaurant and he accepts it with an embarrassed groan, “Whoa! You girls always were big spenders! There’s Kroger soup right there in the cupboard, you know.”
These past life melodies float through your head even as you rummage through your father’s collection of ski jackets from the 1960’s looking for a blanket, or water down your mother’s coffee and carry it to her while she fills you in on every last contestant that’s ever been on ‘American Idol’. And as much as you love your parents, you feel edgy and rashy and caught in a never-ending Twilight Zone between grown and groan.
At last you return to your own home, and no sooner are you in the door then Annalise begins rolling her eyes at you when you speak. Eli complains that he doesn’t like the kind of juice you buy, there’s nothing in the house to eat, he’s starving. Meanwhile the twins ignore you in tandem when you beg them to find ‘The Twiddler’, and won’t respond until you recall the correct term ‘iPad’. Then Jacob nonchalantly walks by and says he’s going out for the night. You freeze and cry aloud, “But it’s 6 o’clock! I was just going to fix dinner. Where on earth are you going at this time of night?” And just like that you realize you are already ancient, as irrelevant and faded and comically unstylish as a rerun of The Facts of Life.
The next day you tuck your mother in the backseat of the car, carefully, like you used to do with your babies, only this time you are carting knit gloves and cough drops instead of diapers and formula. You travel over snowy mountain roads while your elderly mother reminds you she can’t tolerate cold or bumpiness or unfamiliar foods. You listen as she reminisces about her first pet, ‘Patty Cat’, whom you’ve never heard of to date, then learn of Great Grandpa Earl’s mid-life obsession with red curly cedar wood, which defies explanation. Suddenly you wonder how much more there are to these people who you’ve always purposely turned down the volume on.
Later that day you watch as your high school senior takes to the stage in a convention hall in Yakima with 300 other teens to sing. You look at your particular child – the red-haired boy who used to cry himself blue in the face whenever you tried to sing him a lullaby as a baby – standing amidst all these other teens, and it strikes you how vastly different everyone’s past lives are. Yet here they stand, the youth of America, shoulder to shoulder. A jaunty few have blue hair or pink, others look wholesome as prairie folk, while some sport tattoos on their necks or studs in their nostrils, which they may or may not have coated with mentholatum.
This motley group of spotty teens open their mouths and sing an a cappella piece called ‘Past Life Melodies’ in eleven part harmony, and it makes your mind soar. You hear didgeridoos whistling from the Australian outback; insects chirping in the Rain Forest; Mongolian chants from far away lands…all twined together. The choir director informs the audience that the piece employs harmonic-overtone singing, wherein individual members of the choir sing two notes simultaneously. You realize you’ve never heard this before, or even known it was possible. You listen, breathless and full of pride, and think about the composer, an Australian woman named Sarah Hopkins, who wrote the piece after being haunted by a melody she dreamt of repeatedly after her father died.