Like most parents in the 1950s and ‘60s, my mom and dad didn’t spend a lot of time having thoughtful conversations with us kids. Back then, before childrearing techniques got kid-friendly, grownups communicated with a few strongly-worded phrases. (Go to your room! Because I said so!) Sometimes, in fact, there were no words at all; the right facial expression could get the job done.
In my family, this was especially true when it concerned heartfelt emotions. You know, touchy-feely stuff, like when I had a bad case of the lovesick blues. Or figuring out the scary world of sex. I’m sure their parents never talked with them when life got messy, so ours had no idea how to have a conversation about what we were feeling inside.
Back when I was maneuvering my way from teenager to young man, my insides were out of control. I was trying to deny my undeniable attraction to guys and was losing the battle. I held in my unexpressed anxiety, attempting to lead the kind of life I believed the world and my parents thought I should. But, no matter how bad it got, I could never have imagined talking with my parents about those feelings.
When Helen Reddy released “You and Me Against the World,” in 1974, my 19-year-old self wasn’t listening. Helen’s songs—sickly-sweet ballads, I called them—didn’t do anything for me. Even her big hit, the anthem “I Am Woman,” which made women’s liberation hip to talk about, did nothing for my sense of powerlessness. I wasn’t paying attention to Helen Reddy’s hits, corny or socially-important. But my mom was.
As a cashier at a drug store, Mom sold medical supplies, magazines, snacks and the latest hit records. The radio at the store played popular songs and I imagine that’s where she heard Helen Reddy’s music. One day, while on summer break from college, Mom knocked on my bedroom door, reached in and handed me a shopping bag. Here, she offered, I bought you something. Closing the door, she left me alone to pull out the bag’s contents, a 45 record. It was “You And Me Against the World.”
You and me against the world,
sometimes it seems like
you and me against the world
When all the others turn their backs and walk away,
you can count on me to stay...
Mom didn’t stay and listen to that song with me. Much like how they avoided deep conversations with us, my parents didn’t hang out in our bedrooms listening to music, especially when they’d just given their teenager a song about a mother protecting her child from the scary challenges of life.
…Remember when the circus came to town
and you were frightened by the clown,
wasn't it nice to be around
someone that you knew,
someone who was big and strong
and looking out for you
and me against the world…
Even alone in the privacy of my bedroom, listening to “You and Me” was embarrassing. Nobody trying to navigate their way into adulthood wants to think about their mom smothering them with overprotective love. Why was my mother giving me this record, I wondered. Then I panicked. Had she figured out I was gay? Was this record her way of acknowledging my struggles? The thought was too scary. I stashed “You and Me” in the back of my 45 collection and went on fighting my life alone.
Decades later, I found the strength to tell my parents I was gay. It wasn’t particularly groundbreaking for us. They had a hard time accepting my truth, as many of their generation did, and though they didn’t turn their back on me, who I was never became something we talked about. Even when the bigger world showed them healthy and likable gay role models (Mom was a big fan of Ellen), the idea never made sense to my parents. So, in our little world, we carried on with life, finding ways to love each other as best we could.
After Dad died in 2011, then Mom in 2015, I spent a lot of time thinking and writing about them. How we feel about our parents can shift after they pass, after we’ve had time to reflect and reevaluate those relationships. One day, while at a store looking for some new piano sheet music, I ran across “You and Me Against the World.” I’d never considered learning to play a Helen Reddy song, but something made me pause. Something I’d buried in the back of all those 45s said, Give this song a second chance.
For me, learning a song on the piano takes time. Though I can hear its familiar melody in my head, I need to figure out where my fingers go, the song’s pacing, and where to put my emphasis. I often linger on one line or maybe the chorus, playing it over and over, wanting it to sound like what my memory hears.
And when one of us is gone,
and one of us is left to carry on,
then remembering will have to do,
our memories alone will get us through,
think about the days of me and you,
of you and me against the world…
Paul Williams, who wrote the lyrics to “You and Me,” captured the range of emotions when it comes to a mother protecting her child. I didn’t always feel that safety when I was growing up, but I do know that as my fingers figured out where they needed to go on the keyboard, I offered a little prayer to my mother. It was a thank you of sorts, for noticing that something wasn’t right for her child. Without the words to ask me what was wrong, Mom found a way to let me know she understood.
Is there a song that reminds you of your mom or dad?