Riding in Cars with Moms (and Fun.)

Every time Don McLean’s American Pie is on the radio, my husband stops what he’s doing and turns up the volume.  As he listens, he talks about hearing the song for the first time in a Volkswagon Rabbit convertible with his mom one summer, how she exclaimed, “I love this song!” and turned up the volume herself.  I do not know exactly how old he was when this memory was formed — ten, thirteen years old?  But I know that not long after she would endure a brief and aggressive battle with cancer, and that she would pass away at age 48, leaving her 15-year-old son with — among many things — this memory of a healthy woman, a happy woman, tanned and blonde and singing along with the radio, the wind in her hair on a Napa road.

We drive a lot.  To school, to camp, to work.  To Tahoe.  To visit friends in the East Bay.  There were many years — four, to be precise — when we walked, or took the bus and BART, but then Babygirl got too big to Ergo for long distances and the schools became farther apart and now…Well, LittleMan likes Katy Perry and Fun.  FireworkSome NightsTonight We are Young.  He won’t let me sing along (though sometimes I can hear him murmuring the lyrics in his seat behind mine).  The radio is his.  But sometimes we’ll be driving — and I don’t know, maybe the deejay had an extra cup of coffee or something to break him out of that Top 40 rut and as a special treat he plays something that really Takes Me Back — and suddenly it’s 1997 and I’m squealing, “Holy summertime jam, Batman!” and cranking up the volume.

As I start to sing some retro tune LittleMan will say, “Mommy, what is this song called?”
What I Got.  Sublime!” I’ll reply, and in his non-answer I can hear him adding this tidbit of information to his inner encyclopedia (while I use my inner monologue to thank God for the radio edit).

Other times he waits, listens for a while.
“Is it a girl singing, or a boy?” he’ll sometimes ask.
“It’s a girl,” I might answer.  “It’s Tracy Chapman.”  And I-ee-I / Had a feeling that I belong / I-ee-I / Had a feeling I could be someone / Be someone.
“It sounds like a boy.”
“I know.  I used to think that too.”
“When you were a little girl?”
“Papa used to listen to this when I was a little girl.”
“Was I in your tummy then?”
“Not yet.”

In Tahoe we listen to The River, or KOZZ: throwback stations where the deejays display a penchant for Journey and Led Zeppelin.  These are the sounds of summer now.  As a toddler, LittleMan used to come home from vacation knowing all the words to Lights — It’s about San Francisco! — and would sing it to himself at bedtime in his crib well into fall.

I try to tell LittleMan about the songs that remind me of him, or of Babygirl.  I tell him about the mix CDs my dad made for both of my labors, how my husband and I listened to them on repeat for hours (and hours…and hours) in the L and D rooms and then for days afterwards.  I remember Babygirl fussing when she was about a week old and I put on the soundtrack she was born to and she became completely silent and aware.  “She knows the music!” I exclaimed to my dad over the phone.  “She recognized it from her birth!”  (This is unlikely, given that when Babygirl was born I was screaming so loud that I literally frightened the nurse, but it felt right in the moment.)

But the bottom line is, there were years — 30, to be precise — when there were no babies and the music was mine, or my husband’s and mine, or my girlfriends’ and mine (“BitchMix ’96” or “SuperSix Volumes I and II”).  Joni Mitchell in the van, driving through Washington, DC in the rain with my a cappella group.  (Yes, there, I confessed it right here on the interweb.  I watch Glee too, y’know.).  Britney Spears in my roommate’s car in Florida during Spring Break senior year.  The Guess Who on the winding road through the Redwoods to a cliff house in Elk, CA over my husband’s 23rd birthday.  Whitney Houston while running errands in my mom’s Peugeot with my sister and (most likely) my mom’s best friend, who came with us everywhere.

I found myself wondering this summer, singing along to Jimmy Buffett’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere along the Truckee River, what song will Take Them Back.  Someday, LittleMan will hear something on the radio and he will get quiet and turn up the volume — not to sing along but to say, “Man, this song just reminds me of my mom.”  I’d like to think that track might be off, say, Joni Mitchell Blue, but I doubt I’ll get so lucky.  We are products of the times, and for us, right now, the times are Fun.

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