My earliest memory is a song. It’s a snapshot of a moment:
I’m a toddler wobbling across the muted carpet in the playroom at the back of the arts and crafts building in Sefarady’s bungalow colony in Monticello, New York. A bunny rabbit rattles in a cage. And from a staticky cassette player, “The Kids” of Sesame Street are singing Joe Raposo’s “Somebody Come and Play.”
This song unlocks the gateway to an entire era of my childhood, to those long, hot summers when family reigned supreme. Sunday mornings hanging out in long, dry grass, dodging the dragonflies, as my father and the other dads who came up for the weekend try to hit home runs into the forest at the far end of the softball field. On those same Sunday mornings, rushing to the front lawn with my brothers so we could be among the first in line for fresh onion rolls or Mom’s Knishes. Trekking down the country road with my mom to get iced coffee at Kutsher’s Country Club. These moments of nostalgia are precipitated by the memory of a single song.
I’ve been thinking about this memory, this song, as of late, and of how music can shape the way in which a person remembers an event, or, as in my case, an entire chapter of your life. Music that accompanies a memory can invoke all kinds of emotions — longing, fear, contentment, glee.
This last emotion comes to mind when I think about riding in the station wagon with my mom when I was a kid, when she would always listen to CBS FM. I smile when I remember the radio station’s jingle, with its alternating bass and falsetto: “One-o-one CBS FM, One-o-one CBS FM. We play your favorite oldies — CBS FM, New York…” I laugh when I recall how every time I heard the words “the morning sun is shining like a red rubber ball” play in that car, I would think how stupid those lyrics were. I laugh at how every time I heard the song about the yellow polka dot bikini, I would wonder why they didn’t have anything more interesting to sing about back in the Olden Days.
And then I wonder about what kinds of music memories my own kids are creating.
A car can be an excellent vehicle by which this process can occur. (See what I did there?) Recently, I was driving in the car one weekday morning with my three daughters. We were running way behind schedule and I had to reverse the commute, first dropping off my toddler at day care so that afterward I could walk my two older kids into school and claim their late notes at the office.
My youngest, who woke up on the wrong side of the crib that morning, was fussing in her car seat, and the two oldest, in an effort to cheer her up, were cycling through the usual favorites like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes,” and “Row Row Row Your Boat.” Finally, they broke through with “Mishenichnas Adar marbim b’simcha” (“When the month of Adar arrives, we increase our joy”), an outcome that was quite apropos given the lyrics and time of year.
After the first drop-off, instead of the usual Kidz Bop Radio or Radio Disney Live — or, as is my favorite, the now-defunct UK band Keane — I turned on the CD player and introduced them to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” from the Simon & Garfunkel: The Concert in Central Park album. I didn’t hear a peep out of them for the entire ride. I wondered then if, perhaps, they each were forming a new memory, the kind that they might one day look back on and smile.
Simon & Garfunkel were before my time, as the saying goes, but good music is good music. My kids have a love for music — and an ear for it, too — which they acquired from both sides of the family. Sometimes, the car acts as a sound stage. My 11-year-old daughter will belt out songs from school musicals, dramatically capturing each character’s tone and intonation. My 6-year-old is a master of the crescendo, composing an entire 15-minute symphony — four movements and all — about all the different kinds of feelings and how all of them are important. And my toddler is really good at saying “twinkle twinkle” over and over again.
I’m grateful for this shared love of music, because I know that the layer of depth that music adds can enhance a person’s memories, and I know that a musical moment can be a fond memory in and of itself. This understanding of how great a role music can play has made me more cognizant of its existence in the present moment, not so much in terms of how it will affect my own future memories, but in light of how much it will affect those of my children.
I want them to remember hearing Adele’s “Hello” 20-plus times on our drive down to Orlando one winter break, and I want them to laugh about it with each other one day, just like we laughed at the absurdity of its constant presence on the radio. I want them to feel something when they remember a song like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” coming through the speakers for the first time, and I want them to remember what was happening in their lives at the time that contributed to those invoked emotions. I want them to remember singing along to my Keane CDs in the car ad nauseam one day, and ask themselves, “Why didn’t mom play anything else in the car other than Keane?” Except for that time when they heard Simon & Garfunkel.
For me, music opens a window through which I can reach into the past. It can have this effect beyond the four doors of a car, as is evident with my earliest memory listening to the sounds of “Sesame Street.” But the car, specifically, as a shared physical space, can function as the perfect sound studio. Whether it involves show tunes, obscure rock bands, a first grader’s on-the-fly-symphony, or a self-conscious girl in yellow polka dots trying to step out of her comfort zone, these days music serves as a gift, a reminder to appreciate the importance of family. Overall, music has the ability to transport me to a place where new memories are formed and old memories are palpable.
If you want some music for the road, I can lend you a CD or two. But chances are, you already have a soundtrack of your own.