Over the summer, we packed our mini van from stow-and-go to ceiling and embarked on a road trip from Wyandotte, Michigan to Acadia National Park in Maine. That kind of trip doesn’t happen in a matter of hours. It’s a lot of days on the road that less foolish people would endeavor to pursue in a much longer period of time than we did. Translation? We were on the road a lot.
On one somewhat ill-timed leg of the trip, we wove our way through the Catskills in the hours that languished beyond midnight. In the interest of keeping the driver awake, we began an hours long sing-along, working our way through cartoon theme songs, show tunes, schoolyard rounds, and every Disney song we’d ever encountered. We eventually shifted to the folk and country songs of my childhood, and pretty soon, we’d worked those into our travel rotation. By the time we made our way home a week later on the 401 through Canada, our dj was piping decades-old youtube requests through the van’s sound system, and we all worked together to help ensure that one of our passengers could reach their summer goal of learning all the lyrics to Don McLean’s “American Pie”.
As stretches of highway flew by, I thought both of the road trips of my youth and the songs that looped through them, winding their way out of cassette tapes acquired at flea markets and booming through our van as we traversed the red hills of the south. So many of those tunes orbited my dad’s record player at home, too, and when I think of Don McLean, I recall his melodies crackling and blaring out of speakers almost as tall as I was, American Pie being one of my dad’s favorites and a matter of great fascination for adolescent me.
So often, these songs and travels with my carload of children remind me so strongly of my dad. Thirty years have now passed since what I used to often think of as “the day the music died” for my brothers, my mom, and I, a morning when we all woke up and he did not. And yet, all those years later, those singers and songwriters of his generations still sneak their way onto the airwaves like childhood friends you bump into by chance in a grocery aisle.
In the darkness and higher altitudes of 2022, as I belted out all those lines about the jester and music icons gone too soon, I’d hear my dad’s grandchildren’s voices in the rows behind me, joining in on the chorus or fumbling along to lyrics they’d pulled up on their cell phones, and I’d think about how one of the greatest tragedies of my experience is that, at least in this lifetime, my dad will never meet the people in the van who comprise most of my world. Sometimes it’s hard to wrap my head around the notion that, despite the fact that that van full of late night crooners and my dad have all influenced me so much, there is no point in which their paths have ever or will ever intersect with his. In the jumble of my life, my husband and children exist in separate, clearly marked compartments from my dad – the larger one containing every memory, moment, or innovation that has come to pass since the clearly drawn line that divides the life I had before and after our family lost him.
I often think of my mom soon after my dad died – attending a 100th birthday party for Granny, his grandmother, and signing all of our names on a giant card someone had taped to a wall, adding my dad’s name with a halo and wings sketched above it. Back then, she was always working hard to remind people that he had existed, or perhaps assuring us that he was still with all of us in spirit. I think, in many ways, she worried the real things about him would be forgotten. Not just things that everyone knew like how he ran a minimum of two businesses while working full time as an engineer at Ford, but other things like how he loved his popcorn burnt or how he dabbled in a little of everything from pinball machines to gigantic aquariums. There were hundreds of quirky, endearing, and maddening things about him, but what was to stop all of those facts and memories from dissipating with the parade of time?
If I could travel back in the early 90’s, I’d let my mom know that she needn’t worry, and that I haven’t even come close to forgetting my dad, even now that I’m older than he ever lived to be. I can be driving somewhere and a song will come on the radio, or even more likely, someone from our family will select it from a playlist, and I’m in two or twenty places all at once. I’m a kid in a van in the seat just behind his, and I’m soaking up the way he adds his voice to the harmonies. I’m a mid-forties parent myself, and despite the ups and downs and insecurities of raising my children and feeling convinced they hate me 97 percent of the time, for the three to seven minutes of those narrative melodies, we’re all doing the soprano part or switching off in duets and okay with one another. I’m in footie pajamas, swinging feet that barely scrape the floorboards, saying Good Morning America with Willie Nelson as we cross the state line into Alabama, I’m on my way to our childhood church in Southwest Detroit wondering where all the flowers have gone, I’m in our Allen Park driveway waiting for a song’s end. I’m cramped into the passenger seat, lodged beneath extra snacks, granola bar wrappers, CD’s, books and itineraries, peeking in the rearview to see who’s still awake, shrieking with laughter over just how cheesie yet wonderful some of these songs now seem as I introduce them to my children.
Sometimes I ache over the impossible desire to have him in the car, singing along with all of us, but mostly, I’m grateful. Grateful for all the music I learned about through my dad’s eclectic collection and for what it still tells me about who he was even when the decades simultaneously crawl and race by. Grateful that I have these fascinating, maddening, and wonderful people seatbelted amongst me to share the new and old songs each time we hit the road.
It turns out that the music didn’t die on September 13, 1992 – at least not all of it. We’re still singing those songs, and through them, we’re telling those stories about my dad and every other person we’ve missed along the way. It’s one of many ways we keep them alongside us. I’m still singing, loud and offkey, but it’s far less noticeable when others are singing along, too. If my voice cracks and it isn’t a high note, it’s probably because I’m thinking of my dad, but sometimes, it’s just because I’m so darn glad to be here.