One of the greatest compliments I received about my memoir, was that even though a lot of the book recounts the darkest days of my family as we navigated emotional and sexual abuse and betrayal, music transcended the chaos and gave a troubled girl an outlet—and hope. The Beatles and John Lennon were my constant companions as I grieved the loss of my innocence and my family as I knew it.
So thank you John, wherever you are. Your music is a beacon of hope for us all.
The following is an excerpt from Losing the Dollhouse. I was a senior in high school living with my mother, my stepfather Rick and my sister Sophie. As always, music helped me navigate the chaos.
Sometime during my senior year, Rick came up with the idea for his own business. Already an excellent financial manager and amateur carpenter, he fused the two skills into a small house flipping industry. My impulses for cleanliness and order were thrown into overdrive as he spread stacks of paper all over the house with his new ideas, contacts, drafts, and contracts. I was reprimanded often for cleaning up after him, neatly stacking stray papers that disrupted whatever order he had presumably had them in all over the den floor where everyone, even the dog, needed to walk to get to the stairs. He had periodic cleaning rampages of his own. But his bouts of cleanliness were hurricanes of insults, the sweeping clean of tables, the emptying of drawers, followed by demands that you clean it up. He saw his storms as instructive, cleansing forces of nature; they gave you the opportunity to, “weed out the crap you had allowed to accumulate.”
My mother hated Rick’s storms, as they were often more destructive than didactic and smacked of the same melodrama she couldn’t stand to tolerate in anyone other than herself. She also hated to see such storms directed at Sophie and me, especially since we did so many chores to keep the house neat and orderly in the first place. But she never interrupted the cyclones; she probably knew from her own weather systems that intervention was futile. So when she sat at the dining room table on a school night, helping my sister type a paper for American History while I played Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels” at the piano wedged behind them, she barely flinched as the winds stirred fiercely in the kitchen a few yards away from us.
Rick ushered in the barometric pressure, his arms flailing like Quixote. I’ll always wonder what he was fighting. The monsters could only have been terrible, as he was so quick to pull his fellow travelers into the maelstrom along with him.
“There are papers all over the place in here! It looks like a bomb went off!”
“The girls are doing homework honey. There’s bound to be some paper,” my mom tried.
In truth, there were only a couple of my sister’s notebooks, a textbook, and a typewriter on the table.
“She’s not doing homework! Her music is always all over the place!” Rick gestured to me with his index finger, shaking it accusingly while he indicated the single book of Lennon’s songs that graced the music stand. “She’s always playing that hippie crap! He’s dead Stephanie! He’s dead!” Then he swept an angry paw across the piano and shook the bench I was sitting on with his other hand. “Get up! Get up! You’re going to learn to clean up your stuff! Right Now!”
He rocked the piano bench as I stood up and backed away to avoid falling into the dining room chairs that were flush up against the piano. Prying open the piano bench as if rummaging for contraband, he grumbled and snorted like a provoked bull. My mother stood behind me, one hand resting on my back, her thumb softly tracing circles in my shirt. He threw sheet music into the air with triumph.
“So much crap! You have to organize your stuff!”
Pages upon pages, sifting through the air like giant flakes of snow. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Lennon, and McCartney. Strewn storm victims waiting for rescue. He left suddenly, stomping up the stairs before heaving their bedroom door closed with a child’s huff.
“I’m so sorry.” My mother didn’t attempt to hide her tears. “I hate it when he’s like this. At least if you lost all your sheet music you’ll always have the songs you’ve written yourself. Remember, if God puts a melody in your heart, you owe the world a song.” My mother was always telling me that, about music, about writing. Even in these horrible moments, she could sometimes salvage the intangible alongside the tangible. Sometimes. She handed me some pages of music, “Here, Stephanie. These pages are still intact.”
Shoulder to shoulder we collected music from the floor, scooping it lovingly back into the bench. But the Lennon songbook, one of my favorites that I had saved for months to buy, was in four pieces. There always seemed to be too many pieces and not enough tape. But my mother did offer tape. We bound up the Lennon book and tucked it away beneath the classical works. My love for The Beatles was something I shared with my mother and my father, but mostly my father. It was deep. Rick couldn’t stand their music. It was something that always made me wary. How could anyone hate The Beatles?
Later that evening my mother scratched playfully at my door, crawled onto my bed and asked me to play Rubber Soul on my stereo. It was her favorite Beatles’ album. My father’s favorite, too. Our eyes were red and heavy. I did my homework in silence, letting the familiar lyrics wash over the rough edges hanging in the air between us, until the music closed the space between us. “In My Life” lulled my mother to sleep on my bed until she was snoring like an exhausted toddler. I put my English textbook down and stared at her until the record went silent. The needle bumped against the label, unable to accept its own ending. I wished in vain for more music.