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Jen Secor Nelson


reading“We’re a Musical Family”: The Burden of Idyllic Memories

When I was seven, I realized I was different than my first-grade friends. This realization did not bother me, but came upon me as a fact, something I could share as I sat upon on my brown shag carpet-square during circle time: I had green eyes, two sisters, my bottom teeth were missing, and my mind was full of music. An imaginary soundtrack accompanied all of my activities. Walking home from elementary school, I’d make up songs and sing them, loudly, as I made my way. Songs about the yellow leaves, the blue sky, or our new puppy, Suzi. Commercial jingles, songs from my ballet class, and top-forty hits were within me and without—a palpable presence. My musical proclivities happened via immersion, deliberately. Among my extended family, piano lessons, church choir, and dance classes were not only required but seen as essential for creating a balanced, cultured life. My maternal great grandmother taught piano and composed music, and I had a paternal great-great grandfather who played the violin. As I think about the legacy of my family's commitment to music, I find myself contemplating what I can do as a parent to entice my children into loving such a world as well. 

My mother grew up in the 1950s and ’60’s and spent most of her childhood playing with her four sisters. Much of their play time consisted of listening to records. I don’t mean Buddy Holly or Chubby Checker—my grandparents wouldn’t have stood for that—but of classical music: symphonies, Maria Callas, the opera “Amal and the Night Visitors” during Christmas. My mom and aunts not only listened to this music, but also sang along, unabashed. Such music was the background of their daily lives at home when they were in elementary school. During weekend chore days, the pulsing sounds of Rachmaninoff led to intense vacuuming of the living room, and the soaring violins of Vivaldi had little girls pirouetting as they dusted. Folding laundry became a theatrical performance, one little girl wearing freshly clean bed sheets around her shoulders, the “Queen of the Laundry,” ordering the others to do her bidding.

“Princess Sharon, put the undershirts into father’s dresser at once!”

“Princess Libby, bring the towels to the linen closet!”

My grandmother’s role—besides delegating the chores to the girls—was to keep the music playing on their old phonograph, symphonies giving way to soaring arias. Then, perhaps after lunch, my grandmother would drop a 45 of Charleston music and smile as the girls squealed in delight, the strains of “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” interrupting their scrubbing, dusting, and straightening. Into the living room they would run to watch my grandmother dance the Charleston. Their eyes would sparkle as the sounds of the 1920s filled their little rambler. My grandmother would slip off her heels and revel in dance hall jigs of her youth, her daughters copying the foot and hand work intently.

It is against this background that my mother raised my three sisters and me. When I wasn’t watching television or playing with friends, I spent much of my time listening to three musicals: Annie, The Sound of Music, and Grease. Like my mother before me, these songs occasionally accompanied the chores my sister and I did. But mostly, I just sat and listened.

I would sprawl out on the soft gold carpet in our living room, inches away from our record player cabinet, studying the front cover of the Broadway version of Grease. Black and white photos of the actors who played each role surrounded the list of songs and characters. I loved imagining the men in their black leather jackets jumping up onto the hoods of the souped-up hot rods I saw in the picture as I crooned along to “Greased Lightnin’.” My sister and I took turns being Sandy or Rizzo during “Summer Nights.”

“Free to Be You and Me” was another pivotal record in my childhood home, and in hindsight, I believe it played a small role in my development as a feminist. One of my favorite songs was the track “William’s Doll,” about a little boy who wanted nothing more than a doll to play with. William’s father bought him only sports equipment and refused to get him a doll until William’s grandmother stepped in and bought it for him. I loved playing with my dolls and welcomed the validation I found in that song. My mom didn’t bring home  “Free to Be You and Me” to encourage a feminist awakening in me. Rather, it was just something hippie moms did in the 1970s, like ordering from The Whole Earth Catalog and embroidering peace signs on their bellbottoms. However, I am clear that its equality-for-all and feminist edicts revealed to me the power music had to create and convey narratives of and for the world.

My mom had a more subtle way of infusing music into our home as well. Every night, as she would tuck my sister and me into bed, she’d sing us songs from her childhood. Often, these were hymns and children’s songs my great-grandmother composed and published. The lyrics in her songs were simple, reverent, and innocent. Some of how I came to be in the world came from her lyrics. Through her songs, I learned what my family valued, and what they expected I value as well. The songs she wrote created a fabric of stories and tales that would be passed on to later generations. As my mom sang “The Swing Song” to us, I could imagine the inspiration my great-grandmother found in her granddaughters as she watched them play:

I sing a song, and reach up to the sky in my swing, swing, swing
I soar through the air in my swing, swing, swing.
I touch fleecy clouds as they go floating by
And all the world’s so fair!
When I can swing, swing, swing.

As a six year old, I loved imagining my mom being a little girl like me. I wondered if she believed, as I did, that if she stretched up high enough as she pumped her legs on her swing, she could touch the clouds with her feet. I wondered if she considered the flight of birds and how they were so lucky to be soaring up there amongst the trees, never in danger of falling. Did she contemplate them as I did? Did she sing a happy song of her own creation as she flew higher and higher in her swing, just like me? Did she lose all track of time as she played, assessing her being in the world through the imaginative ways she navigated through it?

Another aspect of music that was ever-present in my home was the sound of my mother humming as she worked around the house. Perhaps, due to her training as a young girl, music and chores paired together naturally. In between my bouts of listening to records, I could often hear the soothing hums of a song as she washed dishes or swept the floor. Many times, it was one of her grandmother’s songs she had sung to us the night before. Sometimes, I’d hear a snippet of a musical we had attended recently. Whatever the tune, and whenever it was, when I heard my mom humming, I knew all was right with the world. When my sisters and our families were gathered together recently at my parents’ home, my sister walked into the living room where I was reading my book. I looked up and asked, “What’s mom doing in the kitchen?” She immediately replied, “Sweeping the floor and humming.”

Dad, too, brought his own experience of music to our family. It was through him that my sisters and I first heard The Beatles’ The White Album. We would put the CD on and crank up “Back in the U.S.S.R” and “Rocky Raccoon,” thrilled to see my dad playing air guitar and drums. From time to time, he’d regale us with stores about listening to The Beatles in college—what kinds of students liked Yellow Submarine compared to those who preferred The White Album.  My dad loved to sing his favorite songs in the car as well. We’d listen to the oldies station on long car rides, singing taking up the space of talking. Each song, whether he fully remembered the lyrics or not, was an opportunity to pound the drumbeat on the steering wheel or dashboard, to air guitar the best riff, to point to us in the car during the “BRAH!” part of “Oh blah di, oh bla da.”

Although my dad claimed to be tone deaf, that wasn’t true. Sundays, we’d sing songs together, sharing the worn red hymnal. During a classic like “The Old Rugged Cross” or “Amazing Grace,” his baritone was actually quite pleasing. Throughout the contemporary tunes however, he would warble along indeed, sending me and my sisters into stealthy giggles, lips pressed tightly together for decorum, our shoulders shaking, until my dad was laughing too.

It is against this background that I consider what sorts of stories and memories of music my children will have. I am certain I have done them a great disservice. This kind of thinking happens by default when it comes to my children, but this area is a new concern to me. I have exhausted my supply of guilt about their refusal to eat a balanced diet or brush their teeth without multiple reminders. Now, I fret about the musical legacy I am failing to leave them.

Growing up, long road trips were for listening to a Kenny Rogers 8-track en masse, or for perfecting our round of “I Love the Mountains,” my dad boldly joining in during the “Boom De Ya Da” part. Now, a DVD player, an iPod touch, and Nintendo DS’s accompany us on long road trips. My husband, Dan, and I enjoy lengthy, uninterrupted conversations for the three hour stretches at a time, our nine year old son and seven year old daughter entertained by whatever they’re watching or playing. Awashed with guilt, I realize they are wholly unaware that we are missing out on prime round-singing opportunities.

At home, any common space we share as family gets filled with the music Dan or I choose to play on Pandora while we clean the kitchen or prepare a meal. If the kids hear what we’re playing, it’s accidental, while they’re passing by to get a glass of water or to ask for some ice cream. If they happen to be held captive by our tunes (perhaps their need for us at the moment is particularly pressing), we are deluged with commands to change the station or pleas to just turn it off. My son and daughter also don’t have a shared space in which Dan and I can listen to their music. Whereas in the past my mom and grandmother controlled what music their girls heard, my kids have far more options with which they can spend their free time. I’m not sure that listening to an album in its entirety has ever occurred to my kids as Something To Do. As a lover of music, this inattention to music kills me. As I am often inclined to do when it comes to parenting, I seek to remedy this by force.

“Hey, we’re going to listen to some classical music today while we all tidy up our rooms and make our beds,” I declare.

“What’s that?” my daughter asks.

“It’s music, but with no words,” I reply, avoiding her gaze.

“What do you mean, ‘no words’?” my son asks, giving me the stink eye.

“You’ll see,” I say, herding them upstairs. I figure if I trap them up there when the surround speakers start filling the house with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, they’ll be closer to their bedrooms, so they can start cleaning, and farther away from the front door, from which they can escape.

The first strains of “Winter” begin.

“Oh Mom!” My son shouts. “What is this? This is horrible!”

“No no!” I panic. “Let’s pretend we’re queens of the laundry!” I shout over the sprightly violins. I consider it is a bit loud, but turning it down means I’d have to leave, abandoning my post and certainly weakening my position.

“Queens of what?” my son asks incredulously.

“Or kings, too,” I add hastily. “Or like a general. From the army,” I blurt desperately. Maybe I should have started with some John Phillips Souza, something that would inspire them to march. I make a mental note to play Wagner next time.

“This is the worst music I have ever heard,” my daughter whines. “It’s so boring,” she falls into her room dramatically, landing on piles of clothes, stuffed animals, and knocking over a stack of books on her way down. I scramble to think of a game they could play, something they could do that would make their chores enjoyable and, furthermore, their childhood as bucolic as my mother’s and her sisters’ seemed to be.

 I draw a blank.

“Just go clean your rooms, ok? No shoving things under your beds, either. I’m going to check,” I warn. Vivaldi continues unabated in the background.

“Mom, we can’t clean until you put something good on,” my son declares. “Like Pitbull or Flo-Rida.”

“Or Taylor Swift!” my daughter chirps.

“No!” my son yells. “Something good.

“Oh, fine!” I snap. I begin to head downstairs to find my phone so I can change the song, deciding that of the battles I have to fight today, the need for picked-up rooms and half-made beds is more critical to my sanity than instilling a love (or at least an appreciation!) of Vivaldi in my children.

I turn back to them, hesitantly.

“But, do you guys want to try to be, you know, like captains of laundry or majors of clean rooms or something?”

Heading to their rooms to begin, they flatly respond no.

And so it goes, this journey of parenthood. I think of how fraught the road is. How rarely I make a parenting decision with assured confidence. How my best-laid plans almost always go to waste. Where I am constantly balancing how I think I should be as a mother with the reality of how I am. The mythology of the women before me looms large—my Grandmother’s lighthearted Charleston, the home my mother created by teaching us Great-Grandmother’s songs and buying us carefully chosen records. How can I possibly do for my own children that which was so generously and readily done for me?

Yet, fleeting scenes testify to small moments of victory I can joyfully claim: my son wanting to open the windows as he practices piano so the neighbors can hear his “beautiful music”; my daughter singing from the front row of the choir loft, her voice clear, her gaze confident. Or, both of them, building with Legos together in the living room, humming as they work, just like their grandmother. In these ephemeral moments, music is a habitual hum, a comforting presence, a subtle goodness as natural as their own sweet breaths. Perhaps these memories will stick in the recesses of their minds, or maybe not. Their recollections of childhood deserve to exist on the merits of the memories alone, not for them to tease apart, analyze, and emulate at a later date. So for now, I have faith that music is and will continue to be part of the sustenance I provide them, something to grow their souls, creating the soundtrack of a rich, blessed life.