By Dr. Fernando A. Ojeda
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, I wish to share a story of my parents as immigrants to Miami, Florida, and the relationship they had with the song: A Whiter Shade of Pale, by Procol Harum.
“We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor, I was feeling kind of seasick, the crowd called out for more, the room was humming harder as the ceiling flew away,”
I had once heard that the Procol Harum song A Whiter Shade of Pale was incomprehensible; on T.V., in the early years of MTV while watching the video, someone remarked that the lyrics didn’t make any sense. I have to disagree with this point, and I say it with aplomb since the song has a profound significance to two individuals who mean the world to me.
I suppose I must have been about thirteen, somewhere in the latter 60’s, when this story began to unfold. We had been living in Miami for about 4 years and acculturation was as carefree for the five boys as it was exacting for our parents: youth is an effective buffer against economic duress while adulthood turns common fiscal trials into catastrophic events in the minds of the providers. We were far from poverty, yet one salary needed to be skillfully stretched to harbor five ravenous teens. This naturally required that my father work too hard and too long, leaving the domestic chores almost entirely up to my mother. Hence, my mother worked even harder and longer; not that it could have been any different, given the fact that we are a traditional Hispanic family. I don’t recall my parents ever having fought while we lived in Costa Rica. But then, a live-in maid added comfort to my mother’s daily existence, and my father worked for the airlines and was gone much of the time. I figured that distance and a measure of comfort, on occasion, could be a marriage’s most loyal allies.
In Miami it was different. Although not very often, they fought. My mother would rely on guerrilla tactics of rapid, but infrequent, sniper fire (nagging), retreat, fire, retreat, fire…. My father’s ire festered deep inside for as long as he could absorb the pelting. Finally, he would explode when he had reached a state of exasperation that had him breathing like a frog. However, many times the fight would erupt unexpectedly, or so it seemed to the five of us, over the most insignificant of occurrences: a cereal box left empty in the cupboard, the needle of the car’s gas gauge sinking below the 1/4 mark and reaching for empty, burnt food, chores left unfinished, the fridge door left ajar, the lights left burning in an empty room… in brief, trivial incidents of a normal daily existence. We five sons were often the perpetrators of these treacherous acts, but my parents would take it out on each other. My mother often scrambled to protect us by placing herself in the way and deflecting any forthcoming paternal retribution. Perhaps my father lacked the energy to grapple against two formidable foes: stirred maternal instincts and five egoistical teenagers. So, they fought in stead.
“when we called out for another drink the waiter brought a tray , and so it was, as the miller told his tale , that her face at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale.”
Reconciliation was not swift in most cases. In the heat of the battle, loud, accusatory voices filled the house and hovered about, compressing the air. Pots echoed shrills from the sink; manly fists pounded tables or the stereo console. We could not escape the fracas, for their voices followed us to every corner of the house. I remember that the fights always sounded much more terrifying than they actually were. They never came to blows; it was not like them. Nevertheless, the air in the house would grow exhausted, and although there might eventually be silence, it was a weighty silence.
We paced about like monks, drooping our heads and our shoulders, raising our skittish eyes and our hopes, waiting for tomorrow, long in coming.
Who had turned on the stereo console in the living room, I don’t precisely know. It was an epochal fixture, this console. I think every home in the neighborhood had one….you remember: cumbersome, wooden, dark, with a flap top that one had to lift open in order to play the vinyl records. Inside, you would find a clutter of 45s, empty record covers, gum wrappers, the tops of ball-point pens, and dust. The console was playing one day when my parents were having a very disagreeable encounter. I noticed the music only during a pause in the skirmish. It might have been playing all along but it had escaped my notice until the heavy silence ushered in, like on a cloud, those sweet sounds of 60s music. Perhaps I became aware of the music when my attention was deflected to the console where my parents were negotiating a truce in silence. At the window my father faced the front yard, our tree, and his thoughts; he leaned against the console, knuckles resting on top. My mother stood next to him, separated only by the 12 or so inches of space imposed upon them by the conventions of domestic squabbles. She also faced forward. Who was there first was of little consequence.
“She said there is no reason and the truth is plain to see, that I wandered through my playing cards, would not let her be one of sixteen vestal virgins who were leaving for the coast,”
Suddenly, as if requested by the agents of peace that flutter about on seraphim wings and prod us into conciliation, the song, A Whiter Shade of Pale, came through the airwaves. The gentle, melancholic sound wove an accord between them, and one of them (which one, I didn’t know and didn’t care) reached a hand over and consummated a pact with a tender clasp. I studied their body language as the lyrics and the melody soothed away their anger. Their bodies relaxed and yielded: sharp, angular lines turned soft and rounded. They started to mold into each other, fitting, the one into the other, as two pieces of an old puzzle would fit. The end of the song found them embracing on the couch, facing the console, shoulder to shoulder, head to head. To my knowledge, it was the first time either one of them had ever heard the song, and yet there was a connection, an instantaneous recognition that bordered on the timeless, the spiritual.
Many years later, now retired and re-residing in Costa Rica, my parents paid us a short visit that my wife and I requested be extended to a stay of just over a year. They happily and generously fulfilled the role of indulgent grandparents to our first child.
Much to their delight, I introduced my parents to a local radio station that replays the glorious music of the 60s. And for a period of about two months, concentrating their efforts, they fastidiously recorded all those songs that guarded within old memories, secrets, and bygone experiences. They planned to return to their Costa Rican home, on an island, armed to the teeth with recorded cassettes. Playing these cassettes in Costa Rica would maintain a strong link with the most eventful and fulfilling period of their lives, a period in which they forged a new identity in a new land, a time when they provided each of their sons with the opportunity to stand on his own. Yes, they had lived in flesh the American Dream. They had seen us grow and leave the hearth and the walls that remained as silent witnesses, impregnated with immigrant tales of adversity and triumph. In turn, they too had left behind their Miami home and an era.
“And although my eyes were open, they might just as well have been closed, and so it was that later, as the miller told his tale, that her face at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale”
They no longer fight the way they did back then. Now they bicker as if the marriage of more than 45 years exacted this small price to keep them from taking each other for granted. Of late, a spat might erupt in this manner:
He: -Do I record this one?
She: -No, I don’t recog…,wait! Yes, I like that one a lot.
He: -It’s too late, half the song…
She: –Now it’s too late because you didn’t react when…
He -You can never make up your mind, and then it’s my fault…
Sometimes I’m called-in to officiate and decide who is at fault, which I dismiss by reminding them of how much they resemble little, quarreling teenagers. On one recent occasion, a disagreement escalated to a precarious level and they resorted to the cold treatment of mutual avoidance and pouty silence; they rationed their dealings with each other to a minimum. It lasted about two days, or maybe a day and a half. And yet, I knew the exact moment when one of them, and I don’t know which one, called the cease-fire, for at a given moment the air stood still, a plastic click was heard, and the melody and lyrics of an old friend issued forth (from the speakers of a high tech music box they keep in their room). For some time they stayed in their room, behind closed doors. When they finally emerged, they were again at peace; they wore the contented smiles of reconciliation. Then, I recalled that distant day, when they had first heard A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harem, and my suspicion was reconfirmed: they had had a precise and profound understanding of that song, and all of its intricacies, despite the fact that at the time, they did not speak English.
“and so it was , that later, as the miller told his tale, that her face at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale”