I’ve heard that smell is the strongest sense for memory, but for me it’s hearing, specifically music. Songs are like snapshots, and there are certain ones that every time I hear them, it’s like a photo has slipped out of an album onto the floor, and when I pick it up, my mind is flushed with memory.
This is different from hearing a song that was played at your wedding or a favorite album from high school. These songs have meaning only so far as they remind me of an certain era of my life and are otherwise unrelated to what was happening at the time. Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now,” is such a song.
When I was a child, my brothers, especially the older of the two, and I were the most spoiled niece and nephews on the planet. My mom was the oldest of six kids. She was from what I later understood to be a stereotypical big Irish family, all packed in a post-World-War-II tract house in Merrillville, Indiana — a place where the door was open to all manner of friends and future family and people parked their cars on the lawn, because there wasn’t enough room in the driveway. It was a working-class neighborhood where people didn’t care about the impropriety of such a thing. There was lots of noise and teasing and competition and love.
The house was tiny. When we stayed overnight, people were either displaced to the living room couch and floor, or we ended up there, where we were woken at probably something like 1 a.m. by my just-over-legal-drinking-age uncles upon their return from The Chatterbox. They were funny guys with an affinity for the kind of humor that amused school-age kids, and we’d laugh so hard that we’d beg them to stop because our stomach muscles hurt.
Each summer we’d spend a week there, visiting the drive-in theater, McDonald’s, the Venture store for toys and the beaches at Indiana Dunes. One my uncles had an old blue car, the kind with bench seats, and whenever I hear “If You Leave Me Now,” I am back in that car again, on my way to Lake Michigan where my brother and I are going to be tossed into the water dozens of times and given the largest soft-serve ice cream cone we could imagine on the way home. I’m looking down at the floor mats, my hand on the back of the passenger side of the front seat, leaning forward in expectation. I’m barefoot, and there are grains of sand that roll around under my big toe because it’s August, and the car has already made the trip to the lake more than a few times that summer.
“If You Leave Me Now” was popular one particular summer (of many like this), but it wasn’t as if every time we turned on the radio we’d hear it. I knew it was meant to be sad, but it wasn’t to me. There were probably songs we heard more often, but it was that moment of awareness that pulled it all together like a finishing thread.
No one from my family lives in that house anymore. Everyone has moved on to places where parking on the front yard would elicit some very confused looks from neighbors and possibly even a visit from law enforcement (or the community’s security officer). I haven’t seen pictures from that time for a decade, at least. For now, I don’t need to. I have a song from the soundtrack.