Forever Young

(Written for Non-fiction English class in college). Do make fun of me as my peer-reader, Thomas, still does. Also, I acknowledge the grammatical errors.

The family and my grandparents.

I don’t listen to the radio any more, but as the sun cut through the windshield stinging my eyes, the unusual sound of a radio program filled my little car. I was navigating my way back to college from my parents’ house after another Sunday afternoon of emotional pampering from my mother and another inevitable break-up. My parents’ house, tucked away along the country roads beside the forest, had become my safe zone, out of reach from the intruding cell phone towers. I enjoyed the afternoons and evenings of watching my mom cook, surfing the Internet and watching action movies with my dad in between sparse conversation. On my way out the door, my mom would fill my arms with bags of groceries and make me promise to call her as soon as I got to school. My dad would yell, “See you later, chicken head” from his Lay-z-Boy, but only if he wasn’t captured in a book or paperwork for school. Back in my car, nearing the foreboding empty bed back at school, a ’90s alternative pop song began to play. My oversized sunglasses represent a sign of the time and protect my still vulnerable eyes from the setting sun looming over the road in front of me. The backseat is lost in a sea of books, receipts and my mom’s grocery bags. Mixed CDs I once made for every mood and moment cover the floor with bright colors that I decorated before I gave up on my creativity after an earlier break-up. The empty car fills with heat from a one-of-a-kind sunset that makes me think about something my grandmother told my father. “Every sunset is a painting painted by some great artist in Heaven.” I never heard her say it, but my dad relayed the message years later while I stared fascinated at a Monet sky, swept with red, pink and orange brush strokes and trying to figure out why my grandmother was so distant.  Lost in my adult worries of “I’ll be alone forever” and “Maybe you can’t really have both a family and career,” my thoughts twisted back around to my family. The soundtrack of my life skipped across tracks in mind, through childhood anthems and teenage angst to memories of first kisses, best friends and simplistic loves lost along the highways of time. My past is enveloped by soft hums of melodies and lyrics, pieces of harmony that forever imbedded something in the tissues of my mind. The song started off slow and steady and sped up in a crash of clamorous chords, wailing vocals and incessant drumming. “Lightning crashes, a new mother dies.” For a moment, for an unknown reason, I thought about Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” I thought about how at such a young age she could write something that I would read decades later. There have been no great tragedies in my life at twenty, and I wonder if I’d ever be able to write like her. After reading “Angela’s Ashes” at sixteen, I always thought what amazing stories my dad could tell if he ever transcribed his life, but he kept his past hidden. A distant, anti-social grandmother, an angry aunt, an uncle locked away in our basement and another in jail and a grandfather I never knew were all characters in an untold story I was never read while being tucked into bed at night. “I feel it coming back again like a roll of thunder chasing the wind.” My mind jets off in a whirlwind of misplaced memories wrapped in music like another loop on an out-of-control, unpredictable roller coaster. “I can feel it.”

At eight-years-old I was too young to understand the song’s meaning, too obsessed with Disney to like it on my own and too ambivalent to care. But one summer night in 1994, Live’s “Lightning Crashes” forever captured a moment in my memory. The singer screams, “I can feel it” and my memory zips around like I’ve just stepped out of that old red mini-van and into college. One sticky summer night like they typically are in South Carolina, I remember a family wrapped in comfortable silence. That night, a rough breeze brushed across the peaceful night sky, but my skin dripped with sweet sweat. My parents, two older brothers and I piled into the van to go home from my grandparent’s house after another long, Sunday afternoon of homemade peach ice cream, my grandmother’s special macaroni and cheese, sweet tea and hours of rambunctious play. My father took his place in the front, ready to follow the map in his memory home. While my brothers fought over the passenger seat, my mom and I sprawled across the back seat, content in the relaxing feeling of the onset of sleepiness. Every car trip’s “radio controller” depended on who sat in the front seat, and even at thirteen and fourteen, Zachary and Jonathan had raced to the door, playfully – yet forcefully – hit and kicked at one another to get the position. If Jonathan won it would be country music all the way home, while Zachary would turn on the alternative station and bounce around in his musical glee. After the fray, Jonathan, the eldest, reluctantly took the middle seat, dejected and pouty. Zachary triumphed in his win and boasted his position as the controller by switching on the rock station. Some loud, indistinguishable wailing guitar overtook the van. I moaned with annoyance. Jonathan complained, whined and tried all he could to argue is way out of Zachary’s noise; his analytical personality already debating with my dad at fourteen.  But Zachary just laughed; he had won. My dad’s stern look interrupted the “brotherly love.” And we pulled off from our grandparents’ house in silence with nothing but the radio piercing the tangible tension and sleepiness.

I sunk into the back seat, welcoming the chill of night as it ran over me. I put my head on my mom’s lap, and she massaged her maternal fingers across my face, ears and hair. I was instantly at peace, the loud screams in the stereo long forgotten. My sun-kissed blonde hair, then in the process of fading into my brother’s sandy shade, was knotty from a day of running. I put my feet, rough from the heat of asphalt, rocks, splinters and childish play on the cool glass window and stretched out my growing legs. My knees knocked together as I let the last of my energy burst out of restless feet. I swooshed my favorite black miniskirt with neon colored stars, showing a sign of the times, across my thighs, carefree and unaware. I put one foot across the top of the seat and onto Jonathan’s cheek, running my toes through his hair. I giggled. My mother batted my leg down, but I persisted. Still angry from the loss, he turned to hit me across my tan leg stained from days in the sun. A red spot burned across my thigh, and like a penny falling into a pond, the burn mark spread out in concentric circles across my impressionable skin. Our mother cleared her throat, and we stopped, like the good little children we knew we should be. Jonathan popped my foot one last time before turning back to the road, and I returned my foot to the glass. My little sister duties were done.

“The angel opens her eyes.” That song came on the radio. Slow strums of the same guitar chord drifting through our van. The melody hummed in my ear, and I liked it. I turned my short attention span to the window and treetops flying by like crows along cotton-candy clouds. Beyond the foggy window and my dancing feet, I saw a sky filled with stars. I got lost in those stars. In my imaginative mind I thought about what I knew then of the world from movies like “Home Alone 2” and “Big” — big cities, fashionable clothes and important people all grown up. I wanted to reach those stars twinkling like the nursery rhyme. My mother’s soft hands caressed my head as my feet cha-chaed clumsily along the glass that kept me inside my family’s haven and away from the outside world. Jonathan rested his heavy head against the back of his seat, his eyes drooping, while Zachary bounced around in the front seat, banging on his knees. Even at thirteen his musical instincts were on beat. My dad’s eyes were trained on the road, as he got lost in the unending crevices of his brilliant adult mind — somewhere perhaps in one of his many books I liked to pretend I could read. My mom looked dreamily off in the distance as she continued to stroke my tomboy tangles.

My dad steered the van into the driveway of the comfortable home I grew up in, that we would abandon five years later when, at the fragile age of thirteen, my parents thought moving would be “the best.” We tumbled out of the van eager to reach our beds. My dad scooped me up in one motion; my head rested against his shoulder. I could hear his heart beating in his chest as his beard scratched against my smooth skin. Zachary and Jonathan had long forgotten their feud and walked to their rooms bonding in their playful teases of me while discussing next week’s soccer strategies. In my sleepy state I could hear their playful banter as my mom opened the door and let out a tired sigh. My dad made a silly comment to our dog, calling her a chicken head, and my mom responded with sarcasm; they were the perfect complements. My dad walked back to my room and put me in my bed, kissed me on my cheek before my mom came in to say goodnight. I could still hear the faint sounds of my brothers in their rooms — Zachary listening to music and Jonathan getting ready for bed. They were much older than me and despite our mother’s constant calling to go to bed; they would push the limits until midnight. I could still make out the heavy footsteps my dad was making walking around in the next room. Less than a minute later, his nighttime ramblings would fade into a deep snore. My mom would scoff and laugh. And the night was over as I drifted off into my dreams of stars and cities like the movies. “Forces pulling from the center of the Earth again.”

As I steered my car effortlessly back along the roads imprinted in my mind years later the song came to an end. My family had changed. We couldn’t all fit in that van again even if my parents still owned it, and now the car would fill with debate and conversation instead of Zachary’s music. My brothers got older, taller and smarter with years, fell in love and split away from our van to create their own families. My mother’s hands have become wrinkled, but still just as soft and strong as they were that night running through my unmanageable hair. My father still gets lost in the deep abyss of his mind, somewhere I can never understand. On weekend afternoons, when he doesn’t go to visit his mother or he has a lighter load of papers to grade, he retreats to his tool shed to build beautiful pieces of furniture for my mother’s garden. Like my feet, I’ve built a callus layer of skin across myself as the years of broken hearts, best friends lost to growing up and “love” forgotten in shoeboxes stuffed under my bed forever weathered the little girl who stared out windows. I’ve learned to withdraw into the quite of the moment and let songs speak for me. “There’s still a little bit of your ghost, your witness.”

By the time I read Norman Mclean’s “A River Runs Through It” in AP English senior year, ten years after that “magical moment” in the van, I felt what he was saying like it was the cold window beneath my feet that night. As the novella came to an end, a quote jumped out at me like his Montana fish. “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.” I think about that night in the van and everything I couldn’t understand at the time. Why my grandmother wanted to be alone or why on her seventieth birthday she said she didn’t want the “and many more.”  That night was a simple feeling long before the complication of comprehension, boys and adult aspirations. It was a moment before I empathized with Macbeth’s ambition. It was a moment full of love — not unconditional love, but a real love I could feel warming the tips of my toes against the cold window. Now that I’m older I hear the whispers at family dinners, and I wonder how I never knew what was going on. “He’s in jail again.” “Grandma doesn’t want us to come visit this Christmas.” My parent’s conversations aren’t so mysterious to me anymore. As I got older I began to piece together my family’s past as if my childhood had been puzzle shapes, unarranged and messy on a playroom floor. It seems now like I knew nothing of my family, as if we lived together behind closed doors.

As I swing my car into my apartment parking lot, the song ends with one last guitar strum. Another alternative rock song from the mid-90s comes on again. My life is like one of those mixed CDs scattered and scratched on the floor of my car with songs frozen in place to make my mind zip back to another moment captured in a melody. As I step out of my car and walk across the parking lot alone, the still-sticky South Carolina summer breeze brushes my blonde hair away from my pale face. I look more and more like my mother everyday, but I am father, lost in my books. The next time I get in my car I put in a CD and turn the radio off. There is no radio controller in my car.  “May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung.” Bob Dylan’s voice echoes through me, singing a song I could get lost in and saying all I want to say. “May you stay, forever young.”

2 Responses to “Forever Young”
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