With so many Americans back on the road this summer, friends and I started talking about the family trips we took as kids. My mom didn’t like to fly, so wherever we traveled as a family it was in a classic wood-paneled Pontiac station wagon or later in a giant white Buick LeSabre we nicknamed “The Tank”.
I grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania, but our extended family lived far away. Our road trips have taken us to and from Chicago, Toronto and the Jersey Shore and sometimes tourist destinations like Washington, DC or Orlando. Hours of my childhood summers were spent in the car.
Something I had never before thought to be particularly unique about our road trips surprised a friend when I described it: the soundtrack of our family’s trip. The very democratic rule my parents set for what we listened to while driving was that each of the five of us had to choose a half-side from a tape. Repeat. This process created our eclectic soundtrack.
My mom loved Broadway musicals and when The Cage Aux Folles created in 1983, it has become his anthem. The words “Best of times are now” stuck in my brain because of the number of times she chose The cage when it was his turn.
My father enjoys classical music, opera, jazz, calypso and folk music in particular. He had acquired a compilation tape called 60s folk hits 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 little brother: Michael Jackson or Weird Al. We all sang “Beat it” and “Eat it”.
For my turn, I would choose something from a singer with her own sound. There wasn’t that much to choose from in this genre a decade before I discovered singer-songwriters like Ani DeFranco, Patti Smith, Alannis Morisette, Dar Williams and Liz Phair. I usually chose The Eurythmics and tried my own dramatic version of “Sweet Dreams”. It was tolerated.
Over the years, each road trip has introduced something new. My mother ordered a documentary-style Jewish culture cassette that included comedy clips with Mel Brooks and excerpts from Yiddish folk songs. The Jacksons Victory tour album entered the mix. My mom took us to the Monkees reunion tour in 1986 for our very first gig and we all sang “Daydream Believer”. I bought the one from Paul Simon Graceland album. My sister threw out the Violent Femmes. My dad turned in the passenger seat with a look when he heard “Why can’t I just get an F -” but let it play.
I never thought of the way we took turns and listened to each other’s music as something out of the ordinary; it was just a way to pass the time so as not to kick us too much during those endless hours.
My parents fostered a family culture full of creative expression. I know they didn’t always like our musical choices, but they listened.
As a Gen X mom, trying to explain my childhood to my teenage daughter is like describing life on Neptune. She tries to figure it out, but I know it feels as far away as the life of Laura Ingalls seemed to me when I was young.
When we take road trips now, we use our digital music platforms to create playlists. No reversal or rewinding of a tape. Every song ever recorded is at your fingertips.
My husband and I introduced our kids – who both love music – a wide variety of genres and they introduce us to tons of new artists. My 18 year old son, suffering from severe and nonverbal autism, gives us a window on his unique brain through the songs he chooses and especially those he plays on repeat. Right now, I happily join him in endless hours of “Levitating” by Dua Lipa. He chose groups as disparate as Gogol Bordello, Vampire Weekend and the Judds as his favorites. I sit down with him and open up to connecting with him while he chooses his music. He smiles at me and waves his hands excitedly. These are some of our best moments.
When my daughter plays new music that I don’t understand or like, my first honest impulse is to ask her to plug in her headphones and listen to it on her own. But I’m making up for it. From the way my parents tolerated 80s bands that they might not have liked, I stop and recognize the opportunity. It’s an intimate learning, listening to the words that express the words that she doesn’t say to 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 “Amish Paradise”, “Word Crimes” and yes, “Eat it”.
We want our descendants to have better and more peaceful lives than those we inherited when we came to this earth. I love technology that makes our lives easier, but I also hope to pass on to my children what my parents gave me in a time of more limited technology: the instruction to listen to each other, not to not log out.
At the very least, the idea that one day four generations of my family might love Weird Al as much as we did in The Tank makes me happy.
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a writer and educator who lives with her family in Elkins Park. She leads writing + spirituality workshops. Learn more about www.gabriellekaplanmayer.com.