Family Music

When Daniel, my youngest, was just over six months old, I took him with me when I flew up to Idaho for my grandmama's funeral. My parents drove up, and my sister Vinca flew in from Virginia. We all had to do plenty of commuting between two small towns in Idaho, the epicenters of both sides of the family. That road was very familiar to my parents, for it was their slice of the world, where they had grown up, gone to school and church, where they'd met. They told stories and pointed out special spots from their courtship.

But my little guy hated his car seat and therefore hated the drive. Like his big sisters before him, he treated it like a torture device and cried inconsolably for most of the time that he was strapped into it. The flurry of family visits and family business that was sometimes comforting, sometimes heartbreaking but a necessary part of saying goodbye and preparing the funeral for Grandmama was hard on him.

One night we stopped at a gas station on our commute, and I comforted and nursed my distraught baby before we headed down the narrow, paved road again. Of course, he was already crying again within moments, overstimulated and exhausted, sick of being confined. My dad felt especially bad for his namesake.

Then Vinca started singing softly to soothe my Danny. It was melancholy and quite beautiful, accompanying the hum of the car and the stillness of the passing rural environment, swathed in consoling darkness.

As Vinca and I sat by my son, holding and stroking his hand and hair, he fell quiet. We were all feeling very sad, and the songs didn't serve to distract us, but simply gave voice to our grief and let us dwell in it together. I listened to Dad, Mom and Vinca sing spiritual songs, completely captivated by their voices as I gazed at my little boy's face and out the window at the trees, fields and streams, my own thoughts hushed.

The five of us on a dark road, grieving and singing hymns to my baby and for our comfort, is one of my favorite memories from that time.

It is not the only memory encapsulated in and kindled by music.

The last night of my visit with my brother Nate this past April, my friend Holly, Natie, my sis-in-law Natalie and I sat at their dining table playing cards, eating pizza and drinking wine. We told family and personal stories, debated a little (something without which my family can't survive), and Nate had a playlist on his smartphone through which he skimmed and skipped. A Gordon Lightfoot song came up, and I asked," Natie, you still like Gordon Lightfoot?"

"Of course."

My heart swelled with familial pride. Dad raised his four kids on Lightfoot's music. I knew my sisters still enjoyed it, but to know that it was honored by Nate, too, made me feel that the years with no visits and the thousands of miles between us, the distance from our own childhoods, was not so great as I sometimes felt.

Natalie and Holly didn't feel the same. Holly said it was sleepy music, and Natalie called it Country.

Nate and I protested. "It's not Country. It's folk music."

But no hard feelings. Nate and Holly sang along to 1990s tunes and made me laugh with their vocal interpretations. Natalie told a story about discovering the true meaning of a song she used to love as a young girl. I confessed that 1980s music made me nostalgic, and Natie pointed out it should be that of the 1990s, when I was a teenager. When Holly said, "Just don't play 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'," by Deep Blue Something, Nate and I banded together again. We have always loved that song.

There are songs and albums that remind me of my parents or make me think of my siblings as soon as I recognize them. "Superman (It's Not Easy)" by Train never fails to remind me of my sister Annie and all the time we spent together when I was first married and still living close to her. Gordon Lightfoot's album, Waiting For You, reminds me of going through the Blue Ridge Mountains with my sister Vinca as she drove fast and sure on those twisty roads. "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" by Green Day will never fail to make me smile and say, "My mom loves this song!", or if I'm speaking to my children, "Grandmama loves this song!" And, of course, "Breakfast at Tiffany's" reminds me of Nate and of our time in Idaho with relatives before he left for the military. As for Dad, many Credence Clearwater Revival and Gordon Lightfoot songs connect me to him. The songs that bring Dad most to mind, however, are the ones he wrote himself and the ones I sing myself with great appreciation.

I could not name all the songs that remind me of special people or specific times in my life. It's a gift that keeps on giving. Music powerfully binds people together, weaving our memories into its melodies and lyrics by capturing our emotions, embracing, even enlarging our experiences, and expressing our culture. It transports us back in time and keeps us forever young, reminiscent of time with family and friends.

I, for one, am grateful for the memories.



  1. Replies
    1. You were a generator of memories, Papa: you and your Guild guitar. Thanks for those wonderful memories.


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