Karen Bonner holds a huge place in my heart. We met through church, or through piano lessons – I’m not sure which came first. She brought to me her precious daughters, already established musicians thanks to the skill of a previous teacher, and I had the immense privilege of helping guide them in their musical journeys. For quite some time, Karen spent a weekly hour in my living room, settled into the peach leather couch to wait as their girls navigated the Faber Piano Lesson assignments in the next room.
I was navigating a new assignment of my own, and Karen became a touchstone for me. She was a real person, someone authentic in my life; she told me true stories about her history and her struggles, even as we celebrated the accomplishments of her kids. One day I blurted out a stream of words intended to challenge and encourage, not knowing the tender place they would pierce. I apologized later, and she didn’t bail on the friendship.
I am forever grateful.
We share a love of James Taylor, long talks in her mini-van, and an intense passion for our kids – even while we worry that our parenting is screwing them up. We have some history, and I hope that we have a long future as friends as well.
Here is Karen’s story.
The Carpenters, specifically the album entitled “The Singles” had a profound influence on me and still does. My earliest recollection of listening to this album was a time when I was young enough to be pushing a baby doll in her carriage all around my house. I was probably around 5 years old. I vividly remember that the carriage had a blue and white gingham print and the baby doll was a Madame Alexander doll. My mom played this album often and we all sang along. To think of it now, I can clearly hear the music, lyrics and the static-y sound of a record as the needle rhythmically bobbed up and down along the grooves of the vinyl.
At this time in my life, my mom had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 37. I really had no idea of the struggle she was about to endure to try and stay alive and raise her five daughters. They sheltered me from the stress and pain as much as possible. Back in those days, feelings weren’t talked about much. It seemed to make things worse if the subject were brought up in conversation. But as for me, I was just a clueless 5 year old, playing ‘mommy’ with my dolls and happily singing the lyrics to “We’ve Only Just Begun”, “Top of the World”, “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “Close to You”. Obviously, the lyrics were written from an adult perspective and addressed topics such as lost loves and relationships I knew nothing about. No matter, I sang the words to the top of my lungs as if I had penned those words myself. I probably even held a plastic microphone to make it more realistic!
Four years later, my mom would lose her battle to a cancer that had metastasized to her bones. She had tried everything to live. Multiple rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, radical double mastectomy, oophorectomy, and other surgeries and hospitalizations in efforts to grab at whatever new treatment was the latest hot topic in the medical world. My dad was left to raise five daughters who ranged in ages from 9-16. He was lost and so were we. Her funeral procession was, according to the Bliley (funeral home owners) family, one of the longest they had ever witnessed. My mom was well loved by many and had a profound influence in her community by her involvement and leadership in the schools, church, civic events, and neighborhood.
The day after her funeral, we returned to life as normal…well, our new normal. There is nothing normal about being motherless when you are not even 10 years old. My dad mistakenly believed that it would lesson our pain to mention our mother. We never talked about her. Ever. If someone called on the phone asking for Robbie Carreras, we’d simply say “She’s not here right now”…as if she’d be returning in a few hours. If I was sick at school and sent to the clinic, the clinic aide would say “Let me call your mother”. I’d respond indicating that I was miraculously better and would stay at school sick for the remainder of the day. I couldn’t say I didn’t have a mom because we just didn’t bring it up. Ever. Her death was so taboo that I couldn’t/wouldn’t do anything that reminded me of my mom. I pretended that she never existed.
I went for many, many years refusing to listen to that Carpenter’s album that brought me such joy as a child. Somehow, to enjoy listening to it felt like a betrayal. Something that brought a child such familiarity and happiness didn’t belong in my life anymore.
Fast forward 20 years and a few therapists…I was finally able to listen to this album without stopping it after the first refrain of the first song. I not only listened but was transported back to my 5 year old self…baby doll and all. I could actually trace my steps from the living room, to the family room, through the dining room and hallway pushing the carriage and singing to the tops of my lungs all the while hearing my mom’s voice in the background.
I don’t feel sadness and grief anymore listening to these songs. In fact, they provide great comfort. It may be hard to believe, but I honestly don’t have many direct memories of my mom. Most “memories” I have are retellings of events from others’ memories. But this, this picture of me singing these songs, with my mom…well, they are mine and they can never be lost or taken away.