Singer Karen Carpenter died 40 years ago today, at age 32, of a heart attack related to physical and psychological stress from anorexia.
My earliest memory is of waking to my father’s alarm, going into his room, and quietly lying on the corner of his bed while he dressed. It was 1970; I was three. The radio was always on, tuned to the Hit Parade station, and the huge Carpenters hit, “Close To You,” played every morning. I looked forward to it, because when I closed my eyes, Karen’s voice made me see colors.
In 1974 the Carpenters scored another hit that I loved, “Only Yesterday.” I would go out back to the swing set and swing while singing this song out loud over and over.
I had become a Carpenters fan and I was in love with Karen’s voice. Their 1974 album, Horizon, was my first record. As I got a little older and got an allowance, I bought other Carpenters albums — first Close To You, then their debut album Ticket To Ride, and then later a just-released album from them, Made in America.
By this time I was in high school, and one of the ways I earned money was babysitting. One family in particular called me often to sit with their boys. One February evening after I put the boys to bed, I sat in their living room watching television. A news brief came on, and at its tail end, the briefest of announcements: Karen Carpenter had died.
Unbelievably, I came across that very news brief on YouTube.
I was distraught. I felt as though someone had hit me in the head with a shovel. I tried to explain to the boys’ parents when they came home, and while they were kind, they didn’t understand. By the time I got home I was in tears. My parents were still up, so I told them that Karen had died. They knew how much I loved the Carpenters’ music, but they didn’t understand why I was so upset over the death of a celebrity and told me I was taking it far too hard. I had to process this all alone.
The next day was a Saturday, so I took the city bus to the mall and walked straight into the record store. I was going to buy one of each Carpenters album they had, up to the limit of my savings. One of the albums I brought home was A Song For You, released in 1972. The very first song, the title track, contained this lyric:
And when my life is overLeon Russell
Remember when we were together
We were alone
And I was singing this song for you
I could not believe I heard these words! I knew that Karen was only singing a song chosen for the album. But the timing of hearing this song and these lyrics for the first time ever, the day after Karen died, seemed impossible. I took it as a sign that my sadness was okay, and that I could find solace in this loss simply by listening to those records and listening to Karen sing to me.
I’ve had enough experience with grief now to know that I grieved Karen Carpenter’s death. I was disappointed for a long time that none of the people in my life who loved me could understand why this affected me so. I would have benefited from some support. Fortunately, I found support in Karen’s music itself.
Over the years I’ve encountered more information about Karen’s life and death. It appears she came from a perfectionistic family with impossible expectations. Karen’s mother may have had narcissistic traits and is said to have not only been cold to Karen, but openly favored her brother Richard. The duo overworked themselves on their road to fame, and they suffered heavily from the strain. Karen found love elusive, but finally married in 1980; the marriage was troubled from the start and a divorce was underway when Karen died. It’s little wonder that Karen was troubled enough to develop anorexia.
Carpenters music remains in rotation as I listen to my music collection. I’m still in love with Karen’s voice! I often wonder what music she and Richard would have made if she had lived. While I feel a little cheated that we didn’t get to find out, I realize that Karen was the one truly cheated — out of a long life.