When I was a little girl, my Daddy taught me to dance – first standing on his size 13 wingtips, and then straight-backed, arms crisply bent yet soft, shoulders down and back. Whirling around the living room while the Lawrence Welk show offered the “1 and 2 and 3” of the waltz, the quick square of the 2 step, and, sometimes, if his sciatica wasn’t flaring a few jitterbug moves.
The music improved when he dipped into his vinyl collection and stacked the discs on the stereo turntable. That stereo was his pride and joy, as large as a credenza with one end as storage, while the other housed the AM/FM stereo; the aforementioned turntable and it included a little pocket for the “45 spacer”.
With a hiss and a pop, the record would drop from the stack and the needle would make that whisper noise as it settled in the first groove. It became a running joke that we could pick the songs each parent had chosen. Daddy was easy – if it could get in a car, a boat, a train, or plane – it made him happy. “King of the Road”, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”, and most especially, “Far Away Places” remind me of him, and his penchant for spur of the moment road trips.
The other day I was looking at a Rand McNally Road Atlas (Google it) and I was back in the “navigator” seat in the LeSabre following Daddy’s yellow highlighted path to some state park or historic monument, my finger tracing the little stars that marked stops for picnics or culture that he had researched before the journey.
Mama, fragile and frustrated by illness, sought songs that brought her safely home. A good cover of “I’ll be home for Christmas”, or “Home for the Holidays” could bring her to tears. While standards like “Bless this House”, and “Come on a My House” (Rosemary Clooney could sing the phone book with élan) dominated her “playlist”, she had a couple that wanted to hear all the time. “Red Sails in the Sunset” I learned to play on the piano she loved it so much, and she went all misty for Tony Orlando’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” which surprised the brothers and I because it was so not Lawrence Welk.
Growing up – the tension between flying to the ends of the earth and safely staying by the home fires fueled us with dreams of travel and a safe haven at journey’s end.
This past year, I thought an awful lot about my Dad and his joy of driving as we travelled back and forth from Hershey. One of the first things he taught me as I tucked myself into the passenger seat as navigator, “Notice the road”, he said”, feel its voice and remember it.” I learned to mark the road as more than the highlight on the map, its curves and signs and traffic patterns were different from any other and changed with the time of day and the season. Hwy 15 could be broken into pieces – rural, congested, baby urban, pretty water – and the last 15 minutes. I played with the map, finding variations that staved off traffic or gave us quick access to conveniences, which lessened the time and expanded the view.
As the days evolved into weeks and then months, the blurs sharpened and we had little flags that paced the trip – the barn on the hill at Clearspring Road, the bottleneck in Dillsburg (it is completely traffic free at 3 in the morning, as we discovered one winter night), Wolfe’s Diner which is packed no matter what time we passed it by, the nursery that counted down the days to spring bringing us happiness with each number, the Episcopal church with the sign that offered us “God’s peace as we passed,” and at journey’s end the hearty security guard with a wave that could make a rock smile.
Driving back we found the river’s islands and watched the ice recede over the winter, the billboard that had the inadvertent Snoopy sleeping on his doghouse silhouette, and the flat farmland at the end of the trip offered a lab on weather conditions in southern Pennsylvania. In case you wondered, when wind and snow make the car move like a White Walker from “Game of Thrones” – it challenges that conversation you’ve been having with the road for all those months.
However, and this was a really cool thing, as each of those back and forths brought us back to our cozy (i.e. small) apartment – I found myself echoing my mom’s or Dorothy’s “there’s no place like home…” mantra. My girls safe, protected from the wind, and the night – telling stories of journeys apart and together, the telling making it bigger and funnier and slipping it phrase by giggle into the family canon.
“Yesterday, it was my birthday” and as Paul Simon said, “I hung one more year on the line”. It was one of those full of important significance birthdays – where I determine what life lessons will I bring into my future years? Truly, probably no more and no less than anyone else more concerned with the living of a life as opposed to watching it mosey by.
Yet, as this year “gifted” us with an education in so many things – it’s taken a while to sort. But the other day, as I traced my finger down a squiggly little highway in the Rand McNally atlas, I realized that figuring that trip summarized the year better than any profound analysis I could posit.
The juxtaposition between going and coming, road trips and home fires, beginnings and endings, life saved and begun anew set against my parents’ playlists is life. Learning to take off, go where the road takes you – afraid, brave, prepared or not is only one part of the journey. Its “yang” is finding “home” whether that’s a place, your person (shout out to many episodes of Grey’s Anatomy), or a new path full of adventure and magic yet warmly welcoming.
I could offer you Tolkien, or Kerouac, Twain, or Chaucer, Woolf or Wolfe. I could go really old school and throw in some Frost and his yellow wood…. today, I think Whitman’s lush earnestness captures the joy and companionship of the journey…. Like this bit of “Song of the Open Road”,
Mon enfant! I give you my hand!
I give you my love, more precious than money,
I give you myself, before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
- King of the Road (Rufus Wainwright & Teddy Thompson) – Roger Miller’s classic road song was my Daddy’s go to on long car trips, to this day I can smell coppertone, cheetos, warm Krispy Kremes and the ozone of highway air as you drive with the windows down. Wainqright & Thompson’s version from Brokeback Mountain is a fantastic homage to Miller.
- Carolina in the Morning (Dean Martin) — any crooner could sing this, I still hear my parents harmonizing as we crossed back into NC from wherever our vacation had taken us for a week or a day or 2 hours. When I’m going to visit my brothers back home — this is what plays in my head.
- Leavin on a Jet plane (John Denver) — my parents loved him, you know he wasn’t one of those “crazy rock & rollers” with the drugs and such — well…. so,,, better judges of music that drug use perhaps….
- Country Roads (John Denver) – one of those parental differences, while they both adored this one — and the 8-track in the car got a serious skippy sound because my mom rewound to this one so often — she hated “Jet Plane” as much as my Dad loved it
- Far Away Places (Margaret Whiting) — when I was a kid, I would pull out the globe and my younger brother and I would spin it to see where we should travel. I’ve been to a couple of the places I picked, fantastically he’s been to all but 2 continents and I don’t know if you have to count Antarctica — so many adventures out there still waiting
- You’d be so Nice to Come Home to (Dinah Shore) — one of those dance on Daddy’s toes songs. To this day I imagine the smell of the oil furnace and the chill of the living room in the old farm house
- Half a Mile Away (Billy Joel) — sometimes the longest journey isn’t very far…. this song has always been about adventure just outside the door
- Tie a Yellow Ribbon (Tony Orlando & Dawn) — as mentioned Lawrence Welk, Myron Florin & ads for “rose milk hand lotion” were part of our Saturday nights, so my brothers and I were happily surprised when Mama developed an obsession for this song and the far hipper variety show in which he starred.
- On the Road Again (Willie Nelson) — could there be a more perfect road song? the possibility of living a life devoid of place, just making music is so seductive and then I hear myself sing…. <sigh>
- 25 to Midnight (Sting) — so in driving rhythm that marks the lyrical intensity, Sting just wants to get home — a little jazzy, a little lyrical — and completely Sting
- Truckin’ (Grateful Dead) — so my parents never referenced the Dead or Motley Crüe but these are perfect songs — long strange trips, and shiny lights
- Home Sweet Home (Motley Crüe) — I knew lots of guys that loved them, so I needed a go to song to love from them — and this one always made me happy
- Come Sail Away (Styx) — you know that scene in Aladdin, where he holds out his hand and says “trust me” and then he shows her the world (sounds way worse typed out) — this is sort of the pop version
- Six Days on the Road (Mudcrutch) — Tom Petty’s original band reunited a few years ago and put out the neatest album of covers and new material that is just fantastic — this one is no exception
- Cups (Side Effects) — made famous by Anna Kendricks in Pitch Perfect, this cover is from a YouTube series and it’s just nice because it stretches the song a bit, and repeats one of my favorite road lines several times, “I’ve got my ticket for the long way ’round/The one with the prettiest of views/It’s got mountains, it’s got rivers/It’s got sights to give you shivers/But it sure would be prettier with you”
- Like a House needs a Door (Sarah Humphreys) — the song that makes you understand why you want to be home — home is more than the 4 walls that make it up…. and her voice is perfect for the lyrical joy that spills down the melody line
- Little Red Corvette (Prince) — as my kids would say, this was “my jam”. My first car was a little red Tercel (don’t laugh) and that car took me anywhere and everywhere
- Ass Back Home (Gym Class Heroes & Neon Hitch) — a come home song unlike most others, one reviewer called it “stealthily sincere,” — it’s mix of rap and breezy pop is infectious
- Further to Fly (Paul Simon) — from Rhythm of the Saints, the follow up album to Graceland — and it is so good in its on right. This song makes me want to find the nearest boat and sail the 7 seas
- Home (Edward Sharpe) — quite possibly one of the most joyous songs ever written — the girls had this as an anthem for a while over the winter — I can remember it playing loudly on repeat!
Home, I learned, can be anywhere you make it. Home is also the place to which you come back again and again –> Margaret Mead