Illustration by Popularium
It was 1973, and I was 5 years old when Tony Orlando & Dawn released their magnum opus, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.”
I had the 45 and played it non-stop on the second-hand children’s record player priced right for the single working mother who was raising me. The 45 was scratched, the faded blue record player past its prime: ugly, worn, pathetic. The sound quality was insulting, but it didn’t matter. I was obsessed.
I played the song so often that it was no surprise when, after I accidentally stepped on the record, my exasperated mom politely declined to buy me a replacement. My soul was crushed.
The song held so much hope. It was about loyalty and commitment and sticking by one another no matter what. The couple had been apart for three long years, and he was finally coming back to her. Would she be waiting for him? If the answer was yes, he wanted her to tie a single yellow ribbon around the oak tree outside of town. But when he was rounding the corner toward home, he saw that she had tied not just one, but one hundred yellow ribbons around the tree. One hundred!
Maybe someone would be coming back for me, too, someday.
But life as I understood it did not work that way. My earliest memory was of my father leaving my mother and me when I was 4. I remember standing alone, shaking by the stove in our bright and beautiful San Diego house on the top of a hill as they screamed in the bedroom while he packed his bags. We had a view. We had sunshine. We had hummingbirds. We were a family. All that changed as I stood in that kitchen, sobbing, alone and terrified; I somehow knew that all this beauty and security was, right then and there, being taken from me.
My mom told me years later that 4-year-old me wouldn’t speak to her for three months after my father left. In the naiveté of late toddlerdom, I blamed her for his leaving; she was the only one around to blame. I was too young to see her own grief and fear and sense of failure. She was not yet 30 and instantly totally alone with a young child. No husband, no money, no job, no support, no family around. We were such a goddamned cliché.
And suddenly we were not in sunny San Diego anymore, but Trenton, New Jersey; bleak and soul-sucking compared to the sparkly life we had known. We moved into my grandparents’ tiny row home, where Grandpop ruled with an iron fist with everyone cowering around him. There was a dearth of laughter and lightheartedness and sun and fun in his house. There was an excess of waiting on him, hand-and-foot; this was the 1970s and we were Italian. Women made men things and brought men things. Lots of things.
Grandpop had little tolerance for children, having raised too many of his own in poverty and with brutishness. And now, the same Catholic obedience that brought forth his six children had also brought forth an obscene amount of grandchildren. And we were everywhere. He doled out daily threats to beat us with his belt if we disobeyed him in any way. We did not disobey. I tiptoed around with a pit that made its home in my stomach for years.
So I perceived, at that time, that men were scary, demanding, and abusive like my grandfather, or quitters like my father. In the summer of ’76, they could also be serial killers like the Son of Sam.
Or, occasionally, men could be pretty great — like my Uncle Rudy, devoted father of six. His daughter was the closest thing I had to a twin sister, and I used to go over to their house after school and spend afternoons basking in the chaos 5 teenaged brothers and sisters can create. They were so fucking cool. They loved Frank Sinatra and cigarettes and bell-bottoms and platform shoes and sneaking out in the middle of the night and being all kinds of Dazed & Confused. Absolutely brilliant.
I would throw tantrums when my exhausted mother came from work to pick me up and return me to the prison of my grandparents’ house. I wanted to stay with Uncle Rudy and be part of his family. Be part of any intact family, really.
But now it is 2015, and I’m not in Trenton anymore but in Los Angeles, where I live. I am walking around the behemoth Amoeba Records in Hollywood. As in, “occupies an entire city block and has hundreds of thousands of albums” behemoth.
As I wander the aisles in this mecca of nostalgia, feeling as overwhelmed as I always do in such massive spaces with too many things to look at, I somehow end up in the very back corner of the store. As if led there by a Siren, I see it, propped up on the floor in the farthest nook, hiding from any other potential buyers: Tony Orlando & Dawn’s Greatest Hits.
And it only costs $1. That beloved song was meant to be mine again.
Just looking at the cover delivers a rush of emotions. When I first heard “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” I was a little girl who felt utterly alone in the world, starved of sunshine and the carefreeness that others enjoyed. Starved of a real family of my own. A child who cried for days when my favorite record went away as abruptly and violently as my father had.
I take the $1 album to my beautiful home on top of a hill. I play it on my Pro-Ject Carbon turntable, which is gorgeous — glossy, sleek, and shiny — a deep and significant far cry from the second-hand plastic kids’ record player that had been my first love. It allows the words to speak with a sharpness and clarity I had never before heard.
As I listen, I think of my stepfather who, from Day 1, treated me as if I were his own blood, and the moment after my parents were married when I finally first called him “Dad.” He looked proud, and I knew he wasn’t going anywhere.
I think of my mother, whom I now realize was strong as all hell, my steadfast and devoted champion — who did everything she could to help get me back to California because she knew my soul lived here.
I remember the moment they brought my little brother home from the hospital. I stared at him for hours; he was red and shiny and beautiful and complicated. And, it would later be revealed, totally hilarious. My intact family.
And then there’s my husband. I remember the many moments when, before we started dating, he would look at me with a deep and pure sadness and longing, instead of a shallow and fleeting lust. My own personal pursuer who worked so hard to win my trust and my love; the final nail in the coffin of a lifetime of fucked-up perceptions of men.
Now, as I hear the song, I feel different. I feel empathy for that little girl who listened to this song many lives ago. Because she was no longer me, she was just someone I used to know.
Man, how times have changed since I had first put a needle on that record. Where there was once a 45, there is now a Greatest Hits LP. Where there was once an iron fist, now there’s a home. Where there once was loss, now there is gain.
Like Tony, I would have been happy with one yellow ribbon. But I, too, got a hundred.