With so many of us Americans back on the road this summer, friends and I started talking about the family road trips we took when we were kids. My mom did not like flying, so everywhere we traveled as a family was in a classic wood-paneled Pontiac station wagon or later a giant white Buick LeSabre that we dubbed “The Tank.”
I grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania but our extended family lived far and wide. Our road trips took us to and from Chicago, Toronto, and the Jersey Shore and sometimes tourist destinations like Washington, D.C., or Orlando. Hours of my childhood summers were spent in the car.
Something that I had never thought of before as especially unique about our road trips surprised a friend when I described it: our family’s travel soundtrack. The very democratic rule that my parents established for what we’d listen to while we were driving was that each one of the five of us got to choose half a side of a cassette tape. Repeat. This process created our eclectic soundtrack.
My mom loved Broadway musicals and when La Cage Aux Folles premiered in 1983 it became her anthem. The words to “The Best of Times is Now” are hardwired into my brain because of how many times she chose La Cage when it was her turn.
My dad loves classical music, opera, jazz, calypso, and folk music especially. He had acquired a compilation tape called Folk Hits of the ’60s and on our road trips I learned the lyrics to classics like “Little Boxes” sung by Pete Seeger and “Turn Turn Turn,” which sounded to me like songs from centuries ago.
My older sister’s turn: Duran Duran.
My younger brother: Michael Jackson or Weird Al. We all sang along to both “Beat it” and “Eat it.”
For my turn, I’d choose something by a female vocalist with her own sound. There were not so many choices in this genre, a decade before I would discover the women singer-songwriters like Ani DeFranco, Patti Smith, Alannis Morisette, Dar Williams, and Liz Phair. I usually chose The Eurythmics and attempted my own dramatic version of “Sweet Dreams.” It was tolerated.
As the years went on, each road trip introduced something new. My mom ordered a documentary-style Jewish culture tape that included comedy clips with Mel Brooks and snippets of Yiddish folk songs. The Jacksons Victory tour album got in the mix. My mom took us to see The Monkees reunion tour in 1986 for our first-ever concert and we all sang “Daydream Believer.” I bought Paul Simon’s Graceland album. My sister threw in the Violent Femmes. My dad turned around in the passenger seat with a look when he heard “Why Can’t I Get Just One F — ,” but he let it play.
I never thought about the way we took turns and listened to each other’s music as anything extraordinary; it was just a way of passing the time so we didn’t kick and poke one another too much during those endless hours.
My parents encouraged a family culture full of creative expression. I know they didn’t always love our music choices, but they listened.
As a Gen X mom, trying to explain my childhood to my teenage daughter feels like describing life on Neptune. She tries to grasp it, but I know it feels as far away to her as Laura Ingalls’ life felt to me when I was growing up.
When we take road trips now, we use our digital music platforms to make playlists. No flipping or rewinding a cassette tape. Every song ever recorded is at our fingertips.
My husband and I have introduced our kids — who both love music — to a wide variety of genres and they introduce us to tons of new artists. My 18-year-old son, who has severe autism and is nonverbal, gives us a window into his unique brain through the songs he chooses and especially the ones that he plays on repeat. Right now, I’m happily joining him in endless hours of Dua Lipa’s “Levitating.” He’s chosen bands as disparate as Gogol Bordello, Vampire Weekend, and the Judds as his favorites. I sit with him and open myself up to connecting with him while he chooses his music. He smiles at me and waves his hands with excitement. These are some of our best times.
When my daughter plays new music that I don’t get or like, my honest first impulse is to ask her to plug in her headphones and listen on her own. But I catch myself. In the way that my parents tolerated the ’80s bands they may not have preferred, I pause and recognize the opportunity. It’s an intimate learning, listening to the lyrics that express the words she doesn’t tell me.
Sometimes when everyone is cranky and just wants to get out of the car, it’s time for Weird Al. We all know the words to “Amish Paradise,” “Word Crimes,” and yes, “Eat it.”
We want our descendants to have better, more peaceful lives than the ones that we inherited when we came to this earth. I love the technology that makes our lives easier, but I also hope that I am passing on to my children what my parents gave me in a time of more limited technology: the instruction to listen to one another, to not tune one another out.
If nothing else, the notion that someday four generations of my family might love Weird Al as much as we did back in The Tank makes me happy.
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a writer and educator living with her family in Elkins Park. She teaches writing+spirituality workshops. Learn more at www.gabriellekaplanmayer.com.