We had one of those huge wooden cabinet record players in a corner of the living room while I was growing up in the 1970s. It got a lot of use -- my parents loved music. There was a stack of albums and 45 singles that got regular play in our house, but one song stands out to me: "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" by The Ink Spots. My sisters and I would play this one over and over, delicately lifting the needle up at the end of the song and placing it down again in the deep groove that signaled its beginning. We never tired of it:
I don't want to set the world on fire
I just want to start
A flame in your heart
In my heart
I have but one desire
And that one is you
No other will do
This was the song that made me realize there was a love story between my parents; something that began before my brothers and sisters and me, and something that continued beyond us. My father would sing, loudly (he always believed louder was better when it came to music), dancing across the living room to the kitchen where my mother cooked dinner. He sang it with love -- simple and pure. This album came out when my parents began dating in the ' 50s, but it was played in our home for decades after. It impressed upon me at an early age that lyrics were important and that they could be used to keep promises, to hold memory -- to make one feel loved.
One of my earliest memories is driving to work with my father, the 8-track player in his fancy Cadillac playing the soundtrack from the movie The Sting. It was a special day because I had been singled out (among the five children in my family) to go to work with my dad. He did this periodically with me or one of my siblings and we loved it. We had one-on-one time with him, something in short supply in a family of seven. I adored going to see his office, marveling at my good fortune at being allowed to play with any and all office supplies, and having a grown-up lunch in the big city.
I have the song "American Pie" burned into my mind, the complete lyrics memorized during drives with my oldest brother during his senior year of high school. I can still picture Don McLean's stars and stripes thumbs-up stuck to the cover of the 8-track tape as we drove.
But it wasn't just car rides that were marked with music. Every restaurant we frequented as a family had a jukebox center stage. And if we were well-behaved, my mom or dad would give us a quarter and lead us over to help pick a song. This is where my love of Willie Nelson and Freddie Fender began, over chicken fried steaks and enchiladas, respectively. I listen to the Red Headed Stranger album still -- unable to appreciate anything else labeled "Country." And if I should hear the words, "I'll be there, before the next teardrop falls..." well, time stops. That's just it.
We also had a player piano and it was from those piano rolls that I learned songs from my grandparents' era like "Who's Sorry Now?" "Nola, Bill Bailey," and "Music Box Dancer." My three teenaged sons listened, horrified, to me belting out all the words to Chattanooga Choo Choo as it played on the radio on a long drive from New Orleans to Dallas recently. "How do you know the words to this horrible song?" our oldest asked. And I explained the player piano. They thought a piano that played automatically was pretty cool, but they still asked me to stop singing. And to change the radio station. They are pretty tolerant of my musical tastes and have picked up on the artists that signal my own love story with their father: Tom Petty and The Cure, Sting and R.E.M. Our CD collection shelved in the living room is as much of a dinosaur to them as that gigantic wooden cabinet record player of my youth.
I answered the phone once as a teen and my father mistook my voice for my mother's. His voice came over the line, singing:
I just called to say I love you.
I just called to say how much I care...
I wailed, "Daddy!" in frustrated response, not wanting him to say any more, not wanting to witness this gross display of affection -- or so it appeared to my teenaged self. He cleared his throat. "Put your mother on the phone," he ordered, clearly rattled. I did, and then watched her pleased reaction as he again launched in to Stevie Wonder's top hit.
And to me, so many years later, that is love. It is why I leave my husband little tiny notes with the song lyrics written within. I know he likes them -- I found one the other day that he had saved in his bedside table, my writing scrawled across a piece of folded wrapping paper:
I belong with you
you belong with me
you're my sweetheart.
Our boys cringe, rolling their eyes, when they are witness to such acts. "Don't ruin The Lumineers for us!" they moan. But I just smile, knowing what I know.