Last spring, I witnessed one of the greatest mood swings in preschool history. My five-year-old son, Robert, was having one of those afternoons I dread when great anticipation leads to major disappointment. He was really excited about a play date after school with a friend in his class. The friend has a younger brother the same age as Robert’s sister, Eliza. The weather was cooperating. All was going as planned. When another friend and his brother joined, Robert was upset at the change of plans. He calmed down temporarily, as five year olds do, and we started our journey to the Upper West Side from the East 60s, slightly down but not completely off track.
Robert played by himself at the playground, busily climbing and dashing from one jungle gym to another, while the other two boys played soccer. I suggested he join them but he seemed content. I gave all the warnings: The ten minute warning, the five minute warning, the “let’s say goodbye to our friends” warning. Robert was fine. As we walked out of the park, he melted down, crying that the other boys had not played with him, upset that we were leaving and they were staying, upset that we were having difficulty finding a taxi to take us home at 5:15. By this point, Eliza was crying, too, exclaiming, “We’ll NEVER get home!” With each child anchoring down one arm, I started to feel the same way. We finally piled into a taxi and I melted with relief that it was Thursday evening and we would soon have the weekend to relax. In the car, Robert continued his sobs of exhaustion and frustration. I held his hand and watched as Eliza’s eyes fluttered and then closed, asleep before we even reached Central Park West. I breathed deeply, knowing that this moment, too, would pass.
What surprised me was how quickly the moment passed. Mid-whine, the music on the taxicab’s radio changed and I heard Robert quietly sing, “It might seem crazy what I’m about to say…da da da…you can take a break…” Next thing I knew, Robert was wiping the tears off his cheeks and clapping along with Pharrell, declaring himself “Happy.” His brown eyes sparkled beneath wet eyelashes, his toothless grin returned. He was truly happy, more so than he would have been if I had made an effort to persuade him to cheer up.
Ever since this moment, I’ve paid careful attention to Robert and Eliza’s favorite songs, taking the time to learn the lyrics with them. Googling lyrics and videos is our new favorite snowday activity thanks to the many storms this winter. I try to keep music in the background of our daily life, despite the fact that much of the music they like is cheesy pop music and not necessarily my first pick. Some of it is just awesome, though. Who can help but feel a bit more energized after hearing “Uptown Funk”? Once in a while, if one of my children is upset about something or seems to need a smile, I silently search YouTube, put on a favorite song and watch the transformation.
Music creates a bond between people, and a bond between parents and children that I hadn’t really thought about when I was on the child side. Now that I’m the parent in the equation, the power of music to create familial bonds is remarkable. Music serves many purposes and can be therapeutic, energizing, or spark our imaginations, depending on the moment. For my children, it is serves these purposes while also informing their understanding of language and the world around them. If not for Maroon Five, we would never have had a lengthy conversation about the obsolete technology of payphones. As a family, music is a piece of the fabric that shapes our days, months and years.
Looking back, I can easily recall many musical moments I shared with my parents growing up. They had decent taste for parents in the ‘80s and had clearly enjoyed the growth of rock-n-roll in the ‘60s and ‘70s. For my siblings and me, going on a family road trip and searching for radio stations was not a complete nightmare. This was lucky because we drove everywhere, first in a wood-paneled station wagon and later in a very stylish Plymouth Voyager minivan.
One of my favorite musical memories with my parents occurred during a drive from Toronto to Pennsylvania while I was in college. We moved to Toronto at the end of high school, and these long drives were a regular part of my life at the time. My dad was pretending to be a DJ named “Red Hot Sammy” who searched for music that satisfied both my teenage taste as well as theirs. He landed on “Killing Me Softly” by The Fugees.
“Oooh, I love this song!” I exclaimed, asking them to turn it up as I informed them that this is the best new song by a new group, The Fugees. They laughed.
“This song was around before you were born, and it is by Roberta Flack,” my mom informed me before turning the volume up. Lesson learned. Teenagers do not always know more than their parents.
In my sophomore year of high school, my classmates in Pennsylvania were surprised when my dad “slept out” for tickets to the Eric Clapton concert with us. At 4am on a cold winter morning, we drove to the King of Prussia mall to claim our spot in line outside of Ticketmaster, hoping to get Clapton tickets before they sold out. My dad was not there to supervise us; he was hoping to get tickets, too, and promised to make sure they were in a different section from us. An older girl from school didn’t believe he was my father and started quizzing him with questions about his kids, the answers to which he knew, at least enough to get a passing grade. Not only did she prove he was my dad, but also that a 40-something father of four children could attend an Eric Clapton concert with his wife and friends. This is particularly reassuring now as I attempt to dig out from beneath the diapers and board books of my third child and make time for my own interests again.
Perhaps if I were to do it all over again, I would become a movie soundtrack editor. This career, like most in Hollywood, likely requires serious dedication, all-nighters, networking with big names and a stroke of luck to actually make it, but in my imagination, I’m convinced I’d be top talent. It doesn’t even matter that I’m completely out of touch with the latest trends in movies and music. I could daydream of becoming a rockstar, but I’m way too old for that and unfortunately I have a similar relationship to song that Elaine from Seinfeld had to dance. Despite my passion for lyrics and their power to move us, I am a terrible singer.
In my 20s, my friends and I dared to sing in public as karaoke joints popped up at staggering rates in New York City, radiating out from the confines of Koreatown and Chinatown to fill the storefronts of the East Village, Greenwich Village and even the Upper East Side. From pleather barstools or private rooms in the basement, the audience of close friends and complete strangers sang along. They either confused my enthusiasm and knowledge of lyrics for decent singing, or really didn’t care if I was off-tune because I had chosen a familiar song that transported them to a different time and place. Maybe someone in the crowd also listened to her older brother’s Smiths tapes on a pink Sony Walkman in the middle school bus while her friends listened to Tiffany and New Kids on the Block. Maybe someone else had “Norwegian Wood” on a mix tape from a Beatles-fan boyfriend.
The novelty of karaoke wore off long before I had children. For years afterward, I sang bedtime songs to Robert and Eliza in their shared bedroom, choosing from the library of songs I know by heart from my youth. My husband, Rich, and I each have our own mental playlist. They stopped requesting this and now go to bed easily after books and lights out, but my toddler, Ian, is still subjected to my serenades as he settles into his bed each night. These songs that I attach to memories of earlier years – years filled with freedom, friendships, concerts, beach trips, love, loss and finding our way – now remind me of my children’s voices asking sleepy questions from their beds, their bodies becoming calm and heavy as their breathing deepens and they drift off. It is hard to say why music invokes these visceral responses, connecting us to people in our lives or moments in time, creating emotional shifts in just a few notes or words. I am simply happy that it does.
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Note: Friday, March 20 was International Day of Happiness. I would have posted this on Friday but I didn’t know about #internationaldayofhappiness until that day when I opened my search bar. A special thanks to Google for introducing me to this and so many other little-known holidays.