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Here Are the Songs That Mark the Milestones of My Life

After 70-plus years, I'm revealing my soundtrack.

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photo collage of different bands, musical groups and artists, music, marking milestones
Barbara Gibson
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I grew up in a home with Broadway show tunes playing on the stereo. Oklahoma. Music Man. South Pacific. I’d stomp around the house — my arms flung wide — singing There’s No Business Like Show Business," which may sound adorable now but was no doubt annoying to all within earshot.

The year I turned 8, my parents took my sisters and me to see our first ever genuine Broadway show, My Fair Lady at the Schubert Theater in Chicago. Oh, the excitement! That is, there was excitement until I opened the program to the cast photos page and stopped in horror: “Where’s Julie Andrews?! Who’s this Florence Henderson lady?!”

I was about to learn about touring companies. This was before Florence starred on The Brady Bunch and in Wesson Oil commercials singing about “Wessonality," so she was just some stranger!

My musical loyalties moved on to rock and roll and a collection of 45-disc records. Who needed Ethel Merman when I had Herman’s Hermits? I was most intrigued by the girl singers but confused as to why they all sounded so miserable. Songs in the early 1960s weren't exactly big on female self-esteem, with Dusty Springfield declaring "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" and The Shirelles questioning: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”

I wish I could quote whole stanzas of these self-sabotaging lyrics, but if I did, copywriting lawyers would be jumping all over me and I’d be singing, “I Fought the Law and the Law Won (a top hit in 1966). Not only did those early songs influence me, they became intrinsic to major milestones, becoming the soundtrack of my life.

Here are the other songs on my soundtrack.

1963: Pete Seeger was on the radio crooning about "Little Boxes" when my family moved to the suburbs. It was a bouncy song and fun to sing. I was too young to realize the song was meant to be ironic and that Pete was not a fan of neighborhoods with houses that all looked alike.

1965: That nice suburban house, where I finally had my own bedroom, ended up with a For Sale sign in front. The year James Brown was singing "Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag," my dad got a brand new wife. He fell in love with his secretary. I know: trite. My mom and sisters and I moved to a small two-bedroom place and I was back to sharing a bedroom.

1967: The Turtles' "So Happy Together" was the song of my first romance. Last I heard my beloved was a magician who sells drugs on the side. Like any teenager, I didn’t listen when my parents said: "We don't like him." It took five years — three of them attending college together — before I finally admitted he had flaws.

Having witnessed the chaos of parents who divorced, I wanted to prove to myself that I could make a relationship work. Great idea if I hadn’t chosen a druggie magician. The Bee Gees understood. And a year later, so did Al Green. They both recorded, "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart."

1969-1973: During my college concert years, I saw Laura Nyro, which was cool. And I saw Glen Campbell, who was not. But the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana was not on the Beatles tour route.

1973: My song was "If" by Bread. In my junior year in college, I met Rick, a former Marine newly back from Vietnam who was getting his Master’s degree through the GI Bill. He was 26 and movie-star handsome. I was 21. "If," with its wildly romantic lyrics, was supposed to be our wedding waltz — but our band hadn't practiced it. Instead, they played Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," which might be the most inappropriate wedding waltz ever.

1978: My song was "You Deserve A Break Today," not the Kool & the Gang version but the McDonald’s version. I worked in advertising as a copywriter and learned more than one ever needs to know about hamburgers.

1983: It was "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by the Eurythmics. Except all my sweet dreams were crashing apart. I wasn’t the right wife for Rick. I was in over my head and couldn’t understand how he experienced the world after his tour in Vietnam. Our divorce wasn’t angry. We still loved each other. Our divorce was just sad.

1988: Popular during the Vietnam years, "And When I Die" by Blood, Sweat & Tears was the song Rick listened to over and over before dying at age 42 from brain cancer. We were together his last nine months and his death is still the greatest anguish of my life. There’s a lyric in the song about how after each death, a child is born to replace us. I’d later marry again, to a man whose son was born one day after Rick died. To me, my stepson is that child.

1993: My song was Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough." That fella with the son? Randy. He lived in New York. I lived in Chicago. We were fixed up by friends in California. For almost three years — until he finally realized it would be much more convenient to marry me — we flew back and forth between cities without letting any low valleys or wide rivers stop us. (These are not the specific lyrics, lawyers.) The song became our wedding waltz in 1996. This time the band got it right.

September 11, 2001: "Ray of Light" by Madonna is a song about sadness, fleeting time and rebirth. This is the day New York and the world were stunned and a tenderness was shared throughout the city. Neighbors who rarely said hello were now hugging one another.

2012: This is the year I was diagnosed with cancer. After four dances with lymphoma these past 11 years, I’m now in full remission and the proud owner of a brand-new immune system. We’re back to Broadway now and this time my song is Stephen Sondheim's "I’m Still Here."

"Goodbye’s (The Saddest Word)" by Celine Dion is about being scared to lose your mother and the ache of that unfathomable farewell. My mom died on September 13, 2017. One day later, on September 14, my first grandson was born. Once again, a child came into this world to soothe a heartbreak. Remembering myself holding that little bundle for the first time, I still want to sing Louis Armstrong’s “You Are So Beautiful.”

Right this minute my song is "I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing" by Aerosmith, an ode to staying awake at night. It’s not a tribute to insomnia but about not wanting to miss a moment with those you love. Thanks, Randy. You’re why I don’t get much sleep at night.

And that’s why the soundtrack of my life is so beautifully sweet.

Photo Credits: Getty Images (11); Alamy Stock Photo (5)

This special issue of The Ethel is devoted to music and how it shapes — and strengthens — our memories. For more on this topic from AARP, including videos, events and memory games, visit aarp.org/musicandmemory

What one song would definitely be on the soundtrack of YOUR life? Let us know in the comments below.

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