My life began in 1967 in Long Island, New York. My dad was always in my peripheral vision, but as a busy musician, he never really stayed long enough for me or my older sister to get to know him well until I was a teenager. I spent the majority of my childhood with my mother, who when I was 10, married my stepdad.
I have two images of my stepdad.
One is of a gorgeous, snowy day. It is of me spotting a glistening pine cone in a nearby tree, just out of reach right before my stepdad graciously lifted me so that I could grab it. I hear his laugh, and I hear my own. This memory still gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling.
The other image is of watching him drunkenly burst through the front door after staying out all night. I see his fists collide with my mother’s cheek, leaving deep cuts and bruises that were sealed even beyond her skin. If my sister or I tried to stop him, he’d beat us too.
Having these contrasting images gave me a confusing idea of what love was and what it felt like. My innocence started to erode and innate happiness began to disintegrate, lost in her screams and the chaos. From it all, I became swallowed by depression. Knowing what was happening at home made me draw into myself and stay in my head. I had a hard time seeing how things could change and get better. My only solace to stop the constant buzzing in my head was music.
My biological dad and mom were gifted musicians, so I’m convinced that music has always run through my veins. At home, my mom would sit down to strum on her guitar. I have fond memories of visiting my dad in my uncle’s recording studio. I couldn’t place what it was, but being among the speakers and consoles full of hundreds of buttons, I thought to myself, there’s something really cool about this and I want to be a part of it. By the time I was 13, I was plucking on my own strings and writing songs.
There were at least a dozen bands who inspired me, but no other band could hold a candle to the Beatles. My mom had always been a super fan of them and followed them across New York when she was young. I instantly understood why when I first heard their voices blended together under the smooth tunes of their instruments. It gave me hope that there was more to life and that things could be okay.
A girl’s 13th birthday is supposed to be a happy time, a monumental milestone. Well, what did I get for my birthday, might you ask? Our house burned down! We were pretty sure that my younger half-brother lit the fire because, even as young as age four, he had an attraction to burning flames. Everyone made it out alive, but our home was charred beyond repair, and I was devastated. We couldn’t afford to find a new home right away, so we were forced to temporarily split up. My mom, stepdad, and brother stayed with another family, while my sister and I were sent to my mom’s best friend’s house, whom we affectionately called “Aunt Tiny.”
And, to no one’s surprise, Aunt Tiny was tiny — but so was the spare room she bunked us in. We had lost most of our belongings in the fire (yes — even my beloved Yellow Submarine album was now a pile of ash), so space didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. It could be worse. At least we were safe. Anyway, Aunt Tiny may have been small, but she had a booming voice that could echo through the house. Each morning she’d yell from her bed, “GET UP!” to get us up for school. This was a routine my sister and I got used to.
On the morning of December 9, 1980, another comment followed her usual greeting. “GET UP,” she said. “GUESS WHO’S DEAD? JOHN LENNON!” I bolted upright and stared at my sister. She was carrying the same look as me, and in it, it said, how much worse can our lives get?
That day on the bus ride to school, I watched the houses and strip malls drift by. The phrase “shot him in the head” played over and over in my head, a sickening rhythm. I pictured his head lolling back and his body colliding with the pavement while his wife Yoko Ono cried out. The images haunted me. I feared for the state of the world. His views on spirituality and unity changed everything for me. I noticed strewn copies of the morning paper along my path to school. Ghastly headlines rolled past me like tumbleweeds. Could life get any shittier?
I decided to ditch school that day, and I went to one of the few places I could go: the library. At least there I could read the paper in peace and have time to process this loss. All the Beatles records had already been placed in the main display cabinet. Inside was a Beatles album I’d never seen in my mom’s collection. Let It Be, it read. My stomach flipped as I took it from the shelf and headed for the listening room. Amongst the microfilm machines and 70s A/V accouterments, several record players sat with giant headphones tethered to them. I placed the record on the turntable and put the headphones on. I took a deep breath and gently lowered the needle.
I heard the guitar first, then the steady drums that bled into a soothing blend of John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s voices, and I was hypnotized. When the album finished I started it again, and again and again. And then, just the title track, over and over.
When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me.
As I listened each time, the clouds of despair parted a bit more and a glimmer of hope shone through. John Lennon may be gone, but his music was still alive, and in a way, that made him immortal. Things were going to be okay as long as I had music. The librarians must have seen me slip the record under my jacket, but they didn’t say a word. Perhaps they saw my deep grief and shabby clothing and thought it best to let it be.
We got a new house in Vermont and I stayed there until 10th grade. That’s when I began to feel suffocated by my “ordinary” life. I didn’t want to be in a classroom. I wanted to play music. It was all I cared about. I dropped out of school and bounced around New York, playing on the streets or in clubs when I could find a gig. I lived as a free-floating young adult with no direction or interest in getting her life together.
But as it goes, I was falling into bad patterns, thinking love was getting treated like trash. I started seeing a drug dealer who didn’t respect me. I had no intentions of doing anything but music, like the Beatles lyric, I thought, nothing’s going to change my world — that is, until I got pregnant at 19.
Receiving the news was like an electric shock to my heart. I couldn’t understand why this had to happen to me. Why it all had to happen to me.
There will be an answer
Let it be
The song “Let It Be” began to replace the harsh pounding of my thoughts.
Let it be
I had been so reckless. And now, I was going to be responsible for someone else. Gone were the days of figuring it out later.
The day my son was born, his father was snorting cocaine in the parking lot. Call it primal instincts or call it common sense, I knew that I was going to have to do this alone.
Having my son gave me the kick in the butt I needed. Within the first years of his life, I got my GED. It was my job to educate my son and raise him right, and to do that, I needed to be someone he could count on. Life as a single mom was tough, no doubt about that. Most of the time, we were broke because my only skills were music related which didn’t make me much money, but we got by.
On the toughest days, I thought back to the day in the library, and then to the day I found out I was pregnant.
There will be an answer
Let It Be
Life was hard, but it had been hard before. I was reminded that when I find myself in times of trouble, I have to let it be, and have faith that things would work out. And they did. When my son started first grade, I started working toward my bachelor’s degree.
After I got my degree, I started a career as an advertising executive for a radio station, and I made good enough money for us to get everything we needed. I continued playing music whenever I could, but I focused on providing for my son.
There’s still a light that shines on me
After my son grew up and moved out, I quit my job and dove headfirst back into music and my aspirations. I realized that music has helped me draw from experiences my whole life. I started playing music full time until I went for a Master’s in Liberal Arts and created a CD of my own music as my thesis (along with a very long paper about it!).
Maybe if I hadn’t had my son when I did, I’d live a different life, but there’s no use pondering because at the end of the day, we have to take the cards we’re handed, be grateful for the life we had, and just let it be.
This is the story of Deena Chappell
Deena now lives in Vermont and continues to play music. After seeing her mother get abused by her stepdad, Deena had a warped idea of love and her only solace was music. After her house burned down and John Lennon died, she fell deeper into depression until she listened to The Beatles album, Let It Be for the first time. From that moment on, she constantly looked back to that album and the title track to give her hope to keep moving forward and let things be as they are. Deena has been a musician/songwriter for 35 years and plays guitar, bass, mandolin, fiddle, and some piano. Her biggest inspirations (other than The Beatles) include The Rolling Stones and Billie Holiday. She has also pulled inspiration from genres like jazz, bluegrass, and rock. In her 40s, she went back for a second master’s in psychology after finding an interest in how people operate because of the emotional pull music has showed her. With her master’s in psychology, she is hoping to open up her own practice in the future. She is also looking forward to a mastery class she’s taking in New York soon for womanly arts, a class to teach the importance of women using pleasure to regain their power. In her darkest moments, she remembers to let it be and hope for the best.
Life Log #242
This story first touched our hearts on December 16, 2018.
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