The Songs of Youth


I arrived a little early for Back to School night, so I drove around the block, looking at the small homes nestled in the wooded neighborhood of old Tulsa. My sports radio shows had long since gone off the air, so I listened as a woman shared a story as part of an NPR series about the songs we associate with our parents.

The concept caught my attention, and her story was compelling. Her parents, one white and one black, met and married in 1929, at a time when it was illegal for them to do so in Missouri where they lived.

I was back in the tiny room that tucked under the tiny set of stairs in our house on Brooklyn Street in Rochester, New York. My favorite room in the house, the study is where my dad wrote her sermons, where mom paid the bills. My dad kept graphing paper and fountain pen ink in messy piles. Mom kept stamps and envelopes, office supplies. I loved playing with these small trinkets of their work. There is still something comforting about erasers and sharpened pencils and the smell of ink and envelope glue that calms me.

But, there was another reason I liked being in that room. It’s where the record player spun. Joan Baez, and Judy Collins, The Kingston Trio and the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar. The best yet: Simon and Garfunkel.

They loved Simon and Garfunkel, and my dad would often play along on his guitar or banjo. The song I associate first with my parents is I am a Rock. The song is a folksy reminder that no man stands alone. This was a big deal in my house; community. Our nightly prayers included the phrase, “we pray for our friends and colleagues,” and we knew our colleagues were all the people surrounding us. Pat, who watched us after school. Evelyn who had the funkiest parties and brought the best casseroles to church. Mike who snowplowed our driveway, making sure to leave stacks and stacks of snow for us to clamber up. Mrs. Reeves who lived next door and who gave us my favorite lifesaver candies after school.

I parked the car, walked up the sidewalk and noticed a WPA 1939 engraving on the sidewalk, marvelin at how long ago that was, and how much that program did for communities. I wandered the halls, visiting my daughter’s classrooms. In three classes, I heard, in sincere and impromptu ways, that this is a school “dedicated to community.” I mean, they actually used those words, the words that have sung to me since I was three and dancing in those crazy thick white tights.

I suppose it’s easy to see connections anywhere, if you want to chisel them out from the solidity of brick and mortar and books and tests. I felt old visiting my own child’s high school and I felt like a child myself, thinking about singing with Mom and Dad. I saw this long line of community, like a conga line stretching back to Brooklyn Street and the little room under the stairs.

What song do you associate with your parents?