Re-learning the lyrics to my mother’s favorite songs: A personal essay

stereo
Willow Yang/File

For some reason, these days, I’m flooded with memories of listening to CDs in the car from the parking lot of my older brother’s baseball practices. These streams of pictures and lost conversations flow from the era in which I dutifully tagged along on any excursion with butterfly clips in my hair and a disfigured teddy bear dangling from my hands. I crawled through childhood faintly recognizing melodies that creeped into my consciousness like the echo of some nameless coach barking orders from the dugout in the afternoon sun.

I don’t really care to recall how the original Napster worked or why it came to reach its untimely end, but I still have the mixed CDs my mother crafted on our prehistoric desktop when I was a little girl. Music was then still a mystery only she could unlock, always making two copies of every collection — one for us to listen to in the car and one for me to nestle into a sleeve of my purple disc carrier purchased at Marukai 99 Cent Store (now closed). If I took a plane ride home this very instant and rummaged through the second drawer of the dresser behind my bed, I could find them untouched and unbothered, could make out the dark blue titles from the paper labels featuring a cat with bulky headphones. Labels that have endured 12 years’ worth or longer of water damage and the pain of being forgotten. Upon these canvases, she curated the melodies that colored my childhood by genre: Motown, worship music, one-hit wonders, oldies.

In recent years, I have on occasion unexpectedly discovered discs without any printed label, replaced by some ambiguous, sharpied “Sarena’s Songs,” and I’ve felt compelled to immediately pop them into the boombox and press play. Although I am rarely impressed by the results of such finds, I still make sure to categorize and secure the CD in a safe place afterward.

Upon these canvases, she curated the melodies that colored my childhood by genre: Motown, worship music, one-hit wonders, oldies.

Call me sentimental if you will, but I guess I’ve never really felt abnormal for sticking to CDs, for continuing to pinch their edges between my fingertips, tapping the buttons of the pink Sony boombox I received for some reason or another when I was 6 years old. At its top is a worn sticker of a smiley-faced heart, gifted by my piano teacher after a mediocre lesson. Its right side sports a dent from the time it fell from our family car in transit to a birthday party. The Sony is not quite so trendy nor nostalgic as the vinyls that spin elegantly in our living room, but still it is endearing enough in its awkwardness. The convenience and complexity of Bluetooth speakers and Spotify playlists only leave me longing for my old Saturday morning routine — Ella Fitzgerald’s silky voice blasting from my tired, pink friend as I cleaned my room by natural light.

My mother loved and will always love Phoebe Snow, so we used to listen to tracks from an album that was a mix of music and storytelling. I cannot for the life of me remember what I ate for lunch two Saturdays ago, but I can remember the narrative behind my mother’s favorite love song. My brother and I thought it was either amusing or impressive to be perpetually disagreeable, so, without fail, we’d complain the instant we heard her crystal voice. Instead, I’d beg my mother to play “Freeze Frame” by The J. Geils Band or some poppy single of a soon-to-be-forgotten “American Idol” casualty. We so adamantly avoided Ms. Snow as to render the “shuffle” button of our SUV’s CD player utterly useless.

I cling to the music that makes me desperately long for memories I myself have not yet experienced.

Some days, now, I listen to “Poetry Man” on repeat and wonder whether I’ll ever be the giddy type in love. I try to sing along, lagging steps behind her runs, and feel foolish, remembering that my mother always said Phoebe Snow had one of the greatest voices of all time.

I cling to the music that makes me desperately long for memories I myself have not yet experienced. I retreat back into the comfortable embrace of the oldies to which my mother danced — she would take my hands in hers and spin me around our tiled floor. I fall back into the sensation of “My Girl” pulsing from a turquoise iPod shuffle — for years I had memorized the lyrics incorrectly.

I cannot help but wonder how many moments and notes and measures I miss as a product of my free will. I wonder if things could have gone drastically different for the girl with the neon hair clips and teddy bear had the soundtrack of her childhood been altered a key or two — if the instances I experience alone in life really matter in the grand scheme of things, if there is evidence within reality that these experiences happened at all.

How many moments are there that belong to me only, are documented nowhere else in this world but within my own ramshackle memory? Am I allowed to claim those as my own? Can anything ever actually belong to me alone?

But most of all, I wonder whether, if I could, I would ever go back and relearn everything, start completely anew. If I went back and heard each melody of my life for the first time again, in this version of reality, would I sit in the back seat of our SUV and listen to my mother’s favorite songs without complaint?

I’ll use that star to write, I love you

A thousand times across the sky

Contact Sarena Kuhn at [email protected].