I’m driving to work, listening to music, and suddenly, I experience myself as the child I was, in the backseat of my parent’s car. I see my mom and dad in the front seat, I hear their music on the radio, and I find myself wondering about them as a couple in love, instead of as parents. The song playing was sung by a singer who had provided the soundtrack to their adult lives; while torturous to my young self, it was meaningful to them. Did hearing it lead to a knowing glance or a slight smile that only they understood? What passed between them as they alternately tuned out and listened to their talkative children? Did they think back to when there were only two in their car, during their courtship and 10 childless years? Where did that song take them?
One singer, one song did this to me as I drove to work a couple weeks ago. It made me wonder for a few moments, about the private world my parents shared during “family time.” How did I get to this point of realization? It’s a long story.
I grew up in a simpler time. For much of my middle-class childhood, all the TV you could watch was brought to you on three network channels, and then a couple others that aired only TV reruns, old black and white movies, and regional sports events. Our musical options were fewer as well. At home, your parents likely had a stereo cabinet often the size of a small credenza, that had, at the very least, a turntable but usually also had a deck to play 8-tracks, which were all the rage in the 60s and 70s and the absolute worst music format ever created. If you didn’t have a stereo doubling as furniture, you surely had a more simple record player that may also have had a radio.
Small tangent here: every December, to make room for the Christmas tree, my father and my brother (or my mother or me once I was a little older) would have to drag the 2 foot deep by 4 foot long by 3 feet high stereo cabinet from the living down our narrow hallway and then find room for it in the corner of my parents’ already crowded bedroom. There it would stay for the holidays and often a couple months into the new year because no one wanted to strongarm it back to its place in the living room. Finally, one year, probably in the 80s, we never moved it back so it remained in the bedroom. After my father died in 1997, my mother moved out of my childhood home and insisted on moving the stereo to her new house. However, there was no room for it in the living room of her new place, so it was laboriously moved upstairs into the unfinished room above the garage, where it stayed, rejected and forlorn until she decided to finish that room about 8 or 9 years ago. And at that point, my brother (he had to have had help, I’m sure) removed and disposed of it.
Cars of the era had an AM/FM radio and if they were newer and nicer, an 8-track tape player. There was no such thing as portable music, not until Sony developed the battery-operated Walkman in the 70s. If you were a child of the 70s, you spent your childhood sliding seatbelt free in the back seat of your parents’ car, listening to whatever music they enjoyed. There was no musical cocoon in which you could wrap yourself.
This brings me to the point of this post. My parents were older than most my friends’ parents. Married in 1950, they didn’t have children until 1960, when they were 30 and 31 respectively, not because they wanted to wait, bur rather because it simply didn’t happen. My two brothers were born 18 months apart in May 1960 and October 1961. I came along 7 years later in November 1968. Being in elementary school with parents over 45 was not the norm back then.
My parents’ musical tastes would today be called vocal standards or the “Great American Songbook.” My mother’s favorite was Perry Como, followed by a long line of vocalists like Andy Williams, Robert Goulet, Nat King Cole, John Gary, and Ed Ames. My dad loved Doris Day and enjoyed Big Band and Sinatra more than my mother, but he listened to all those my mom listened to as well. The 70 was also the era of bandleaders with lush orchestral arrangements sometimes joined by a group of singers (think Ray Conniff and Percy Faith). Lucky for my parents, there was a radio station tailored exactly to their needs. WGAY (drawing on the original definition of gay as “carefree and happy”) was the DC’s “beautiful music” station. It played a mix of easy listening, vocal standards, and instrumentals. It was my parents’ radio station of choice at home and in the car. My brothers dubbed it “old fogey” music, and at times, I followed suit. Regardless of its merit as music, we were simply too young to recognize it as anything other than uncool.
At least in my case, if not my brother’s, there must have been some musical “imprinting” going on, because when I became an adult, I wanted to listen to some of those great vocalists of the mid-20th century. Like my father, I liked Frank Sinatra more than some of the mellower singers, but I came to appreciate crooners of all kinds. These were singers whose diction and phrasing were so impeccable you didn’t need to go online to decipher the words. These were singers who often covered the same songs but whose arrangers made the songs fit their styles so it never sounded redundant. These were singers whose careers spanned four and five decades because they were that good. And some of these singers, like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett (one of the last great crooners still with us), are once again cool as younger generations discover them.
So it likely was a combination of nostalgia and genuine interest that led me to copy all of my mother’s CDs when I visited last Christmas. I copied blindly without any censoring, figuring I could easily delete singers and songs later if I couldn’t stand them. In January, I began methodically building a collection of music on a 32GB USB to listen to in my car. The first folder of music on the device is “Anita’s favorites,” comprised of my top 12 or 15 singers. The second is “Vocalists and the American Songbook,” and that is where much of my mother’s music ended up. In addition to my collection of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Nat King Cole, I added her collection, which featured Andy Williams, Robert Goulet, John Gary, and her beloved Perry Como, among others.
And it was Perry Como singing “It’s Impossible,” his 1970 hit that I heard hundreds of times during my childhood on records at home and when WGAY played it, that transported me to the backseat of my parent’s car. “And tomorrow, should you ask me for the world, somehow I’d get it. I would sell my very soul and not regret it. For to live without your love–it’s just impossible.” Hearing this song as a woman who is the same age my parents were when I was 10, this song about the impossibility of falling out of love with your soulmate, made me see Buck and Gloria Fusco not as middle-aged parents but as middle-aged lovers.
As a child, I thought that we kids in the back seat were all that mattered, that we had a right to complain about the music we were forced to listen to. As an adult, listening that that same music, I see clearly that the front seat is what mattered because if those two lovers in the front had never fallen in love there were be no annoyed child in the back seat.
One song made me remember that these two parents–who loved three children into existence, who made sure those children always felt loved, who buried their first-born son when he was 15 1/2 and who helped the other two cope with that unspeakable loss–these two parents had a life before, outside of, and beyond their lives as parents. And my brother and I are most certainly better for that.
November 1975: Mom and Dad celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. I’m 7 in this photo, proudly wearing my Winnie the Pooh smock dress from Sears. My brothers, Michael, age 15 (left), and Kenneth, age 14 (right), are behind me. This was the last photo of all five of us because Michael would die a few months later.
For those who are interested in hearing the song behind this post, you can listen here: It’s Impossible by Perry Como.