When I was growing up, the start of summer meant walking down to the public swimming pool and diving into its cool water, staying there until my fingers pruned and my eyes were bright red from the chlorine. It meant bad food from the snack bar and huddling—well, shivering—under an overly wet towel until my mom or my brother had to drag me home.
Summer meant playing four square with my cousins in the street until dusk when the street lights would come on. We were thrilled for the longer days that inevitably meant more playtime and we loved the feel of the warm, hazy air on our bare legs and arms. We’d sleep deeply until we’d start all over again the next morning, riding our banana seat bikes or climbing the monkey bars until my aunt called us in for lunch.
Summer meant listening to the tree frogs and cicadas at night. I’d hear them trill and sing under the hum of the box fan as it shimmied in the open window until my eyes would grow heavy as I would dream of another day of exciting adventures with my friends.
When I was growing up, summer also meant that we’d take the inevitable family road trip. My mother would pry me out of bed at 4am, load me in a car where I’d fall back asleep until it was time to eat soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. At some point she’d force me to eat carrot sticks so I could “see better in the dark”. We’d leave Western Pennsylvania and go North to Connecticut to see my mom’s sister, Ginny, or go South to Ocean City, Maryland or head on down to Florida to visit my Grandma at the motel she managed in Clearwater.
We would drive and drive and drive, stopping only for pee breaks, gas, or to pick up a chicken sandwich for mom, a whopper for my brother, and a plain hamburger with mustard only for me through the Burger King drive-through. We’d play “I Spy” and “A my name is Anna” and the license plate game until I grew bored and then my mother would pop a cassette in the tape deck and we would all sing.
We had this one mix tape that we listened to the most, which my mom had carefully curated from her extensive record collection. I don’t remember all of the songs but there are several that are etched into my memory like diamond on glass. We’d sing them in the car. I’d sing them in the house when we got home, belting like Ethel Merman at the top of my lungs while my mother vacuumed. At ages 5, 6, 7, 8, I was singing things I probably shouldn’t sing.
“She put the lime in de coconut and drank ‘em bot’ up.”
“Cause I’m a wooooooman. W-O-M-A-N. I’ll say it again…”
“HEY BIG SPENDER!!!!! Speeeend a little time with me…”
“It’s just a little bitty pissant country place, nothing to high tone…”
Harry Nillson, Peggy Lee, Melanie, Judy Collins, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Dolly Parton, Joan Baez, Country, Folk, Rock, Showtunes, it didn’t matter. That little tape had it all and was the background music of so many family trips in our little brown Civic hatchback and of so many impromptu concerts in my dining room as I sang very loudly for my invisible audience.
Several years later, when we bought a new car, a barebones VW Fox, we couldn’t afford a car radio. By this time, my brother and sister were grown and long out of the house and so it was just me and my mom. Without a radio or tape deck, we’d fill the car with our chatter or songs I learned in school or children’s rounds, or sometimes, I’d ask her to sing me a few of my favorite songs to which I didn’t know the words. I remember watching her profile as she sang Harry Belafonte’s song, Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair) for me, and I’d chime in where I could as the words would creep slowly back into my memory.
But for me—like all of you—music was so much more than family car trips. It was woven into the fabric of the entire tapestry of my life. Just talking about it now, moment after moment—memory after memory—flashes through my mind like the old movies we’d rent from the library and play on our reel-to-reel movie projector in our Living Room.
My mother, sitting on the living room floor, playing Gordon Lightfoot on her Martin 12-string or Goya Classical guitar.
Singing camp songs with my cousins, Megan and Abby—even though I never went to camp—because the songs were fun, strange, and often just-this-side of inappropriate.
Me then fighting with those same cousins about how I got to be Dorothy because I had brown hair and could sing, while they had blonde hair, and well…couldn’t.
And then there were the musicals or kids albums that I’d listen to on my little Fisher Price Brown and Orange record player: Carole King’s Really Rosie, Peter, Paul, and Mommy, Free to Be You And Me, The Sound of Music, The Annie soundtrack, The Wizard of Oz. So many songs. So many moments. So many memories. But most importantly, so many feelings of lightness, expansiveness, of love, of full-on expression, of an absolute and completely overwhelming sense of full-throated freedom.
But music doesn’t just live in the moments of long-past. Music, and our love of it, is alive. It is evolving. Our memories of it are evolving. Our relationship to it is evolving. Music connects us more deeply than we can ever really understand or imagine.
Because now, I will never not hear Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and not think of Wendy lying with her father as he died.
I will never not hear Carly Simon and think of Candi singing her modified verse of “Jamie Through the Glass” to her daughter.
I will never not hear James Taylor and think of how Secret O’ Life became a moment of sweet serendipity for Patty and her sister-in-law at Patty’s father’s funeral.
I will never not imagine Lisa and her sister choreographing elaborate routines to the Sound of Music when they were young.
I will think of Tamera when I hear “I Hope You Dance” and Jill when I hear “Closer to Fine”. I’ll think of Candace when I hear Evita and Amy’s parents when I hear Amy Grant’s “Somewhere Down the Road” and of Bridgette and Kathy when I sing “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog” at the top of my lungs.
“Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog…DUH-DUH-DUH…”
Because this, THIS, is the gift of music. It is a common language. It is not just melody and verse, chorus and bridge, but it’s also thread and needle, stitching us together over time and space, our hearts rejoicing or lamenting in harmony.
Your stories, your songs? They are now part of me too. Part of my memories. Part of the symphony of my life. A tune with lyrics written by you now playing in my heart.
Your music. Your moments. Your memories, They are now part of the Soundtrack of not just your life or my life, but of OUR lives together or apart.