This post is very personal to me and more like an homage to my family of origin. Writing helps me release the past. I love you Traci and Kevin. I'm so glad we grew up together and remain in each other's lives. And, I love you mom and dad. Thanks for giving us the childhood we had.
There's a feeling that comes over me every time I listen to country music. The most accurate word I can assign to this feeling is that of longing. When I turn on a country music station, a deep feeling of longing for my childhood and adolescence washes over me, the days of yore gone by. I'm very quickly delivered back to a time when my parents were happily married, or at least they seemed so to me.
When I hear a certain Dolly Parton song waft out of my car's sound system, I'm reminded of my Uncle Bobby, my father's brother. He was single, had no children and would spoil me and my siblings whenever he popped by for a visit. We looked forward to the ritualistic trips to our local donut shop, as well as covert secret outings to stores that sold fancy dolls in fancy dresses that he would delight in buying for me and my sister. We always heard him approaching well before we saw him, his shirt pockets rattling with unopened boxes of Good-N-Plenty candies. His visits were spontaneous and always a cause for celebration.
In 1974, I liked to give big, loud singing performances for special guests visiting our home. Not the hottest ticket in town, but definitely worth the cost of admission. Our mustard and green brocade-covered couch was the best seat in the house. My uncle would laugh and smile that handsome smile of his and let me entertain him. I'd quickly run to put on some sort of concert-worthy get-up (usually a nightgown and sunglasses) and take center stage on wall-to-wall living room shag carpet. I'd belt out the lyrics to Jolene like my 4 year old life depended on it. I had stage presence and an exaggerated theatrical flare. Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jo-leeeeeene, I'm begging of you...please...don't...take...my...man... (mic drop). I channeled that buxom blond songstress in those moments and took my bow like I owned the goddamned place. He always clapped the loudest.
In 1980, Saturday evenings were reserved for NBC's family variety show Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters. When I hear the first few notes to the classic country song I Was Country (when country wasn't cool), I'm immediately transported back to the house on Highland Avenue. I was 10 years old, scrawny and had a burgeoning imagination that hadn't been stamped out yet. I'd carefully plan my week around this television event (yes, event). Louise, the brunette sister, was my favorite of the three. I coveted her beauty and musicality. After the show was over, I would spend the remainder of the evening locked in my bedroom daydreaming about taking fiddle and banjo lessons and wearing Bob Mackey dresses and layers and layers of lip gloss. I loved how much talent and style those Mandrell sisters had and held a small glimmer of hope that maybe one day I could be a guest on the show. I fantasized about tagging in as one of the sisters, even though my only musical claim-to-fame was seven short-lived weeks of accordion lessons that ended in my abrupt retirement from the instrument. I felt like I would figure it out and do just as well as the youngest (and far less talented, in my opinion) sister, Irlene, if only I was just given a chance. Sadly, that opportunity never presented itself.
In the early eighties, our humble summer vacations consisted of road trips to Phoenix to visit my mother's side of the family. The six-hour-long car ride had my mother behind the wheel, me riding shotgun and playing DJ and my brother and sister wrestling around in the royal blue velvet-upholstered backseat of our Ford LTD Crown Victoria. My father stayed behind and held down the fort while we were gone. Taking my role as DJ very seriously, I easily defaulted to the King of Country Music, Mr. George Strait, to serenade us during those long drives through the hypnotic desert landscapes. Some might argue that the other George (Jones, that is) was the King, but let it be known that the Salas household worshipped at the altar of the younger George from the great State of Texas. Period.
Indoctrinated at a young age, we children knew every single George Straight song ever recorded. Still do. And as soon as my mom backed the car out of our Southern California suburban driveway, we started singing at the top of our lungs to songs like Amarillo by Morning, Right or Wrong and 80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper. We knew every lyric to every song. We knew where the steel guitar and fiddle solos were going to pop up and give our vocal chords a break and how to fast forward past the tracks that were our least favorites. We crooned loudly and proudly to pass the time as we crossed the State Line towards our grandparent's home. I can still remember the car windows being rolled down, my right arm hanging out the passenger-side window getting sun-kissed in a matter of minutes, the smell of water rising up from the irrigation ditches and my long brown hair swirling all around me. I remember thinking we were in harmony, our sound so awesome.
As the years went by, listening to country music gave me a kind of permission to drink. I allowed myself to get lost in my emotions, host a pity party for the way things used to be and then drink. A lot. The fact that my current husband can't stand country music only heightened my alone time with my iPod country playlist and a stiff drink. I loved the time machine element of listening to an old tune by Crystal Gayle or Marty Robbins and pouring myself a glass of wine, sinking into the mood of the song and letting it transport me back to the past.
I've been listening to country music quite a bit lately and walking down memory lane to the likes of Willie and Waylon, Meryl and Tammy. For better or worse, I get lost in the lyrics and I feel a melancholy slowly rise up in me. I welcome it, like an old friend.
I feel warm.
I feel comforted.
I feel loved.
The feelings are familiar. But then I also feel an incredible sense of sorrow.
I feel connection to my mom.
I feel disconnection to the family we once were.
I feel grateful for the foundation of my youth.
I feel cheated that it ended the way it did.
I feel sorry for myself. I feel lost. I feel shaken up and soothed, all at the same time.
I feel so much at once that eventually I have to turn the music off.
We grew up in a household that never had alcohol in it. I didn't see my parents drink until I was in my early 20's. I taught myself how to slip into another version of myself by drinking wine coolers and ordering slushy renditions of island-inspired drinks on my 21st birthday. I experimented with kamikazes and finally graduated to the pink-hued gateway wine of white zinfandel by the ripe old age of 22. My early 20's were spent married to a wannabe cowboy and we played house on 100 acres in a renovated barn on the outskirts of Durango, Colorado. I loved two-stepping, going to church and channeling my inner Martha Stewart. We looked like the perfect couple, until we didn't. When I left that marriage and hit the road towards my new life as a single lady, that's when my drinking really kicked into high gear. I was 27 years old.
I know I used to drink to stave off all of the feelings I mention above, plus those of regret, unhappiness, loneliness, desperation, and the need for attention. Those feelings could be softened or kept at bay as long as I was drinking enough. When the feelings would come up, I would shake up an ice-cold vodka martini and settle into them like a warm, comfy sweater.
My sister called while I was in the middle of writing this essay and I read it to her. As soon as I read the opening sentence, a torrent of tears streamed down my face. I choked them back and she quietly listened on the other end of the line. When I was done, she confirmed every sense memory that was coming up for me. She reminded me of how every Saturday during our formative years were spent cleaning the house and listening to The Judds, Reba McIntyre and Garth Brooks. We quickly confirmed our shared feelings of sadness and gloom, paired with the overwhelming feeling of profound heartbreak. Yes, heartbreak for the people we used to know who acted as our mom and dad. The parents we have now are not the same people who raised us and, really, how could they be? Time changes people. I know this and yet it's still hard for me to accept. My siblings have never quite gotten over the divorce of my parents and, sadly, neither have I.
On the brighter side of things, I realize that by reintroducing country music into my days that I can now work on abandoning these old feelings of longing and create the family life I've been missing all of these years. By honoring that part in me that appreciates classic country music, I can show my son that it's okay to like something that not everyone likes (ahem, my husband...) and that giving a soundtrack to his childhood is a small gift I can give him that will remind him of me.
I no longer drink as a knee-jerk reaction when I listen to country music, but I have only recently dared to listen while I'm in the car driving to and from town. The thought of sitting at home and listening to it makes me more than a little nervous. I'm only 20 months into this sobriety gig and I don't want to tempt fate or trigger myself into sneaking into the liquor cabinet when I'm alone with the music and my longings.
Vern Gosdin has a song called This Ain't My First Rodeo and I think that song sums it up for me as I put my thoughts to rest on this essay. I realize my parents did the best they could. They made mistakes, just like I have. They held it together as best they could for as long as they could and gave us such wonderful memories to take with us into adulthood. I don't blame them for anything bad that has happened to me as a result of my alcoholic drinking. That's on me.
As I ramp up my amends work as it relates to AA's Step 9, I can so clearly see my part in things. I'm releasing resentments and taking ownership of my previous bad behaviors. I'm revisiting the past so that I can stop repeating it. I'm facing hard emotions and contacting people I've long held resentments towards. I'm living an examined life today and feel deep relief every time I make the attempt to right a wrong or, at least, own up to it and genuinely apologize.
Because of my spiritual awakening over the last year and a half, I now have the beautiful opportunity to show up in my life and the lives of people I care about. I'm trying things on for size, making mistakes and learning from them, moving on, loving my people and being rigorously honest in all my affairs. This is where I'm finding meaning right now. And while I know I've suffered a few losses and made a shit ton of mistakes over the past few decades, the safety and security that I'm creating with my own little family are becoming my newest lessons, my greatest learnings. I will never stray from my husband and son again.
So, yeah, this ain't my first rodeo and I have a sneaking suspicion it won't be my last. I'm going to keep on listening to the soundtrack of my life and find comfort in it, instead of the heartache and sadness I've been cultivating over the years.
Country music is in my bones and giving myself this permission to finally be myself is really the answer to all of my troubles. I wear my heart-on-my-sleeve, but was half-heartedly hiding it my entire life. I know my family of origin is never getting back together and finally accepting that has released me from that tired old story. I'm no longer ashamed of who I am and finally embracing my becoming. I overshare and recover out loud. That's just who I am. I'm proud to live my life without the veil of a mood-altering substance and feel like I'm finally returning home to my true self after all of these years.
When I want to remind myself of who I am, I turn up the volume to this Buck Owens song, roll down my car windows and sing at the top of my lungs.