Saturday, May 25, 2013

There's Something About Mary (Poppins)

One summer I lived alone in a cottage my grandfather had built on an Indiana lake.  When I would come home from my job in the state park, I would put on the one album in the place, turn it up loud, strip down and jump into the water.  I didn’t know it then – thank God – but I was probably at the height of my virility and health and coolness.  19.  Hair.  Money in my pocket.  A place of my own.  A motorcycle parked in back.  And music blaring out across the lake.  What was it?  The Allman brothers?  The Doors?  Zeppelin?  The Police?
Mary Poppins.
I don’t know where the record came from, or why it was there.  I also never thought much about my constant playing of it.  It was just what you did.  You played music.  As loud as you could.  Whatever you had.  During high school, we would drive to places -- parks, parking lots, fields --, and when we arrived, we opened the doors and trunks, so the car speakers could blast onto the landscape.  We seemed to think life needed a soundtrack.  Any soundtrack.
I know now I should have been more concerned about putting all those chemicals in the water – the shampoo and soap  -- they would linger for a long time.  And I probably should have been more concerned about what I was putting into my head.  Thirty years later, I can still sing the songs.  Not just the hits like “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” but the others like “A British Bank” and “Sister Suffragette.”  While my peers were listening to punk and new wave and Springsteen, I was singing, “Tuppence.  Ten Cents a Bag.”
I didn’t pay much attention to the story itself.  It was years before I learned what tuppence or a suffragette actually was.  The overall narrative, as so many children’s stories are, is about bad parenting.  In Mary Poppins the parents are distant.  The mother engages in political activity to the neglect of the household, and the father is consumed with work.  As the song says, Mr. Banks comes home at 6:00 and at 6:03 gives his kids a pat on the head and sends them off to bed. Mary Poppins arrives, not to work with the children, but to work with the adults. But none of this meant anything to me as a teenager.  It did, however, after I had kids.  When I watched the film a couple years ago, not only did I impress my family by knowing all the words, but I thought, “Why am I working so much?  I’m going to quit my job and hug my children more!”  We even bought kites and spent one frustrating afternoon trying to get them to stay in the air for longer than thirty seconds.  Eventually we balled them up, shoved them in the trunk, and went for ice cream. It’s not as easy as they make it look at the end of that movie.
In part, what happened to Mr. Banks is he forgot what it meant to be young (or perhaps never knew), and, as it turns out, sometimes I do too. Having been unable to even swim without music, I now find myself telling my son and daughter, “No you can’t climb the tree listening to your ipod.” and “No, you can’t wear your headphones as we take a walk.”  Actually, it’s not accurate to say that I’ve forgotten.  I understand the compulsion, but I recognize now it’s not always safe.
But living with the album did teach me a few things.  I respect compound interest, the right to vote, Chimney sweepers, and the power of umbrellas.  And, perhaps it made me a more tolerant parent.  When my children want to play the same songs over and over, as loud as possible,  – “Gangem Style” or Taylor Swift – I understand.  In fact, I think it’s funny, and I do love to laugh.  Loud and long and clear.


  1. I have taken to making my kids listen to the soundtrack from The Sound of Music in the car. In another existence, I sing like Julie Andrews.

    Mrs. Banks always reminds me of a character in Bleak House. I don't remember her name, but her kids "tumble" up instead of grow up and she's consumed with a letter-writing campaign for the children in Africa. Which in turn reminds me of something I heard about Kate Chopin, typing away, her six children milling about, ignored, around her.

    Oh no. This is starting to strike a little too close to home...

    Which I suppose is the point of your post. Thank you for this.

  2. First film I ever saw in the theatre. Still the most delightful way.