Fifty years ago the Beatles came to America and told gaggles of screaming teenage girls, “I wanna hold your hand.” But I first heard the song at my uncle’s wedding in 1967. I was the six year-old flower girl with the plastic daisy crown that wanted to dance all night because the Beatles told me that, “Yeah, you got that something.” When my uncle and I twisted and shouted all the way to the ground, I was the little girl who was certain that she twisted “so fine.”
The gray suitcase record player that my uncle and my new aunt gave me for my birthday came with a 45 RPM record with Yellow Submarine on Side A and Eleanor Rigby on Side B. I played Yellow Submarine over and over, dancing and spinning and dizzying myself into black star-flecked space. “We all live in a yellow submarine.” But I also lived at 1735 Asylum Avenue in West Hartford, Connecticut, where my much older father had altogether different and old-fashioned taste in music.
Dad cued up Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, Straus waltzes and John Philip Sousa marches on the gleaming hi-fi console in the living room. On random Sundays, particularly in the summer, he marched my brother and sister and me around the house to the rhythm of Sousa’s brassy, piccolo-inflected music. Over the blare of tubas and trumpets, my father conducted us as we waved small American flags. Dad, the standard bearer of our patriotism, carried a large flag with only forty-eight stars.
Dad kept the car radio in the ’65 aquamarine Chevy Malibu tuned to WRCH, the station that claimed to play “rich music.” Neither classical nor popular, WRCH broadcast the cascading string music of Ray Coniff and Henry Mancini. Pop music occasionally poked through my father’s repertoire. He bought me 45 RPMs of “The Ballad of the Green Beret” and “Winchester Cathedral.” I listened to the former with the reverence of taking in a prayer that I didn’t quite understand. The latter was a goofy vaudevillian tune with sliding whistles and muted trumpets.
My young Cuban mother sang Guantanamera, the de facto anthem of Cuban ex-pats the world over, morning, noon and night. Before I discovered the Beatles, the Cuban crooner Beny Moré was the closest I came to dancing to rock ‘n’ roll. On cold Connecticut afternoons, my mother played Beny’s music. “Soy Guajiro,” Beny sang. I was a peasant too. I mixed uneasily with my father’s refined second generation Jewish-American family.
In those days my homesick mother danced in place as if she were afraid to move even further away from Havana. The pleated gold Ed Sullivan Show-style curtains gave our beige and brown living room theatricality. I pretended to be the lead singer of Beny’s orchestra. I also imagined the Beatles one and only Hartford performance, taking place at 1735 Asylum. The Fab Four would sing a rendition of “Love Me Do” that would harmonize with the audience’s teenage screeching.
My mother also loved Nancy Sinatra singing, “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” Mom had a sleek shiny pair of black and brown boots that fit her like a second skin. She’d hum the song as I helped her pull off the boots. And I believed that, “One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.”
The Beatles, though, were mine alone.
Before I packed up the gray suitcase record player forever, I played the one 45 single that the Beatles wrote just for me. “Hey Jude, don’t carry the world upon your shoulders.” But I did. Images of the Vietnam War mingled with my parents’ domestic feuding. The women’s movement helped my mother go back to graduate school to wage her own War of Independence. And I was on the verge of growing into a sulking, moody teenager. But that was okay according to the Beatles. “For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little colder.”