The Shadow of a Song
When the reporter started calling, I was scrubbing potatoes and gazing out at the long slats of indigo the maples had cast onto the snow. Her first call to the home phone had shown up as “unknown number,” so I let it go. Less than a minute later, my cell phone buzzed on the countertop behind me.
“Hi, this is Kirsten from Inside Edition. I’m hoping you can help me—I’ve called your dad several times, but I haven’t been able to get through.” I knew that “several” was an understatement. According to my mother, it was more like twenty. “We just want to do a quick segment on him,” she purred. “Maybe you could persuade him …”
I let out a derisive breath and explained that my father is an eighty-year-old man who does what he wants. “He’s tired of giving interviews by now. Frankly, I don’t think he wants to talk to you.”
Immediately I regretted my tone; Kirsten was a pest, but I’d been a reporter long enough to know how defeating these calls could be. I softened my delivery. “Besides, I don’t even live near him. You’re calling me in Michigan.”
“Yes,” said Kirsten. “I know.”
Almost fifty years ago, my father, Sonny Curtis, wrote and performed “Love is All Around,” the iconic theme song to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He still makes music, and he and my mother still live in the rural Tennessee town where they raised me, in a modest white clapboard house on a winding road that snakes past ramshackle trailers and verdant pastureland to rest at a century-old gristmill. Theirs is a quiet life forty minutes from the hustle of Nashville’s Music Row, their home’s tranquility broken only by the hourly toll of a grandfather clock, or the occasional barking fit from a neighbor’s dog.
But all that changed in the January days following Mary Tyler Moore’s death in 2017. Reporters like Kirsten circled, ringing my parents’ phone every few minutes. My father seemed to be everywhere that week: 20/20, Page Six, The L.A. Times, and CBS’s hour-long prime time tribute to Moore, titled Mary Tyler Moore: Love is All Around. He gave so many interviews, he grew wary people might think he was using Moore’s death as an opportunity, as he told the reporter from the L.A. Times. On the phone to me, he was more direct: “This has gotten totally out of hand.”
No kidding, I thought, winding my minivan around my icy driveway shortly after talking to Kirsten. At a long red light on the way to pick up my kids from school, I lingered on her voice. She sounded to be in her mid-twenties, the same age I’d been when I worked as a newspaper reporter in Boston. A TV reporter who knows Mary Tyler Moore through YouTube clips. How ironic, I thought bitterly. I wondered what the future had in store for Kirsten, if she wanted children, and if so, what she would forsake for them. Would she eventually follow in my well-trodden path, feel like a squatter in her own closet each morning as she flipped through pencil skirts and button-down blouses she had no use for, the vestments of her old identity? No, Kirsten seemed driven, resourceful—how had she gotten my cell phone number anyway? I bet she would balance her ambitions better than I had.
I turned into the parking lot of my daughters’ school, my father’s lyrics echoing in my head. You can have the town, why don’t you take it? I once carried those words around with me like a charm, but now they felt like a sharp rock in my pocket, one that would nick my palm if I worried it too much. I was used to living with the song, sometimes under its shadow, but at that moment I felt I hadn’t lived up to it—fitting, I supposed, for neither had my father.
While the world was remembering Mary that week, I was conjuring a different woman, the one I associate with my first lucid memory of “Love is All Around.” It was the late seventies, and my parents and I had driven down to Texas to visit my grandparents at their five-room stucco breadbox of a house, located in a rural cotton farming community outside Lubbock. My father had a concert to play during the visit, and he and my mother left me with my grandparents for an evening. There would be post-show cocktails with his childhood musician friends over old rock ‘n’ roll stories; it would be a long night for my parents. But I was only three, so my night was drawing to a close.
My grandma Violet wore a faded yellow muumuu adorned with blue cornflowers—my handful of memories of her all involve a muumuu—as she scrubbed the dinner plates in the narrow galley kitchen where she spent the better part of her days. She laid down her dishrag and walked into the living room just as my grandfather turned on the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, flooding the room with my father’s dulcet voice, as rich and smooth as warm molasses.
“Who can turn the world on with her smile?”
I toddled around in my pajamas while my grandma pointed at the screen with delight. “Who’s that?” she asked.
“Daddy!” I squealed.
“Who can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?”
“Where’s his voice coming from? Is he in the bedroom?” she asked. I peeked my head into the adjacent room where she and my grandfather slept, glimpsed the threadbare block quilt and the Margaret Keane knockoff of two hollow-eyed waifs that hung above their bed. No Daddy.
“Well, it’s you girl, and you should know it …”
I came back into the living room and shook my head, then pointed to the TV.
“With each glance and every little movement, you show it …”
“Is he stuck in the TV?” Grandma asked in mock horror.
I threw my head back and laughed, and so did my grandparents. I knew she was pulling my leg, that my daddy recorded music for work. He’d taken me inside a recording studio before, its endless rows of candy-colored buttons irresistible to my curious fingers. Even at three, hearing his voice on TV no longer held the power of surprise for me.
But what about my grandmother? What ran through this simple farm wife’s mind as she listened to her son usher in a show about a single career woman? She’d quit school at seventeen to marry my grandfather on a Thursday morning and, as my father tells it, was back in the cotton field pulling bolls before mid-afternoon. It was October of 1926, the year the dirt really started to kick up, a year as dry as the heart of a haystack. A month later as they celebrated their first Thanksgiving as a married couple, a black duster blotted out the sky so opaquely, the chickens went to roost in the middle of the afternoon, mistaking day for night. My grandparents feared it was a bad omen, and they were right. It was the beginning of the Dust Bowl.