Songs in the key of life

Some chapters in life seem to come equipped with theme music. I can’t think of my first year of college without the thumping percussive downbeat of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” thrashing from the boys’ rooms in my coed freshman dormitory. Incongruous it may be, but the slideshow of memories I have from my maiden voyage to Europe at twenty-five comes with Bruce Hornsby as the soundtrack: my traveling companion brought along her boom box and just one cassette tape, so that’s what we listened to, over and over, as we tramped through Italy and France for a summer. I see us at our impromptu dance party in Florence, convened in the piazza between the Duomo – the cathedral’s Gothic façade like a candy box in its stripings of pink, green and white marble – and the octagonal Baptistry, one of city’s oldest buildings, a jewel of a place I hadn’t wanted to leave when I stepped inside and saw its glittering Byzantine mosaics. That night, with the building where Dante was baptized on one side of us and the architectural feat that launched the Renaissance on the other, we were dancing to “Every Little Kiss” with a pack of bemused Italian boys trying to cajole us onto their Vespas. It was sort of ridiculous, but it was sort of great, too.

After my first marriage broke up, a redemptive love affair played out against the melancholy flamenco ballads of the Gypsy Kings.  And for the four years I spent feverishly listening for the voice of Sylvia Plath, I could listen to nothing else but Pablo Casals’ recordings of Bach’s haunting suites for cello.

When I think of Cakewalk, I hear only one melody: “Love You” by the Free Design, a song I first heard when I was a small child. The Free Design was a sixties-era singing group, a family with voices as harmonious and pure as seraphim. Their song (my song, I believed it to be) was so infused with the unhindered joyous innocence of childhood – something I yearned for though I knew my family was unhappy, my childhood anything but secure and innocent — that I could never forget it.

I didn’t hear “Love You” again for what must have been almost forty years. By then I was the mother of a son on his way to college, a daughter going into middle school. I was living the life I’d hoped for: I was content, the family I’d made was thriving, I spent my days writing with cats in my lap and a dog snoring at my feet. The last thing I expected was to be revisited by my own confusing, bittersweet childhood, but there it was: “Love You” was the song playing during the cakewalk game during the spring picnic at Celeste’s new school. I’d never been in a cakewalk, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity even though I was the oldest contestant by at least three decades.

To win a cake on your first try at the game is one thing. To win the cake as the theme song of your childhood plays accompaniment seems verging on the numinous.  I didn’t know then, three years ago, that I was going to write a book about my childhood, about the sweetness I could still find amidst the bitter, but as I stood in the new green grass of a San Francisco park with a besprinkled, three-layer chocolate cake in my hands, still hearing the words of the song replaying in my head, trees swaying their crowns in the breeze, the day glorious, children squealing and chasing each other with cans of whipped cream all around me, in the way of all writers I thought to myself, maybe I can use this someday.

Knowing where to end a story is almost always hard, and especially so when it’s the story of your life. Somewhere along the timeline of writing Cakewalk, though, I remembered…the cakewalk. And the song.  If I could have included a recording of “Love You” to play along with the reading of every copy of Cakewalk, I would have. Since that proved impractical, you can find the story of the cakewalk and the lyrics to the song in the book, for which I offer grateful thanks to The Free Design and the Dedrick and Zynczak families. And here you can learn more about The Free Design, and listen to (and better yet, buy!) “Love You.”

Cakewalk, A Memoir, will hit the bookstores next week after a lifetime in the making, and just yesterday I revisited the scene of its initial inspiration: Celeste’s school’s spring picnic, held every May for the last ninety years. This time, there was one event during the afternoon that was even sweeter than the cakewalk: every year, after all the younger classes sing songs and recite poetry for their families and teachers sprawled out on the grass, the school’s eighth graders weave ribbons around a maypole as a final ritual together before they scatter to different high schools. My little girl was one of those eighth graders this year.

Celeste

Maybe such a ritual seems old-fashioned in 2010, when eighth graders have iphones and blue hair and Facebook pages. Some of the kids seemed a little embarrassed by their crowns of wildflowers – or, more accurately, like they thought they ought to be embarrassed. But when the music started, they all joined the dance.

Give a little time for the child within you
Don’t be afraid to be young and free.
Undo the locks and throw away the keys
and take off your shoes and socks, and run, you.

Run through the meadow and scare up the milking cows
Run down the beach kicking clouds of sand.
Walk a windy weather day, feel your face blow away
Stop and listen, love you.

Be like a circus clown, put away your circus frown;
Ride on a roller coaster upside down
Waltzing Mathilda, Carrie loves a kinkajoo,
Joey catch a kangaroo, hug you.

Dandelion, milkweed, silky on a sunny sky,
Reach out and hitch a ride and float on by;
Balloons down below blooming colors of the rainbow,
Red, blue and yellow-green I love you.

Bicycles, tricycles, ice cream, candy
Lolly pops, popsicles, licorice sticks.
Solomon Grundy, Raggedy Andy
Tweedledum and Tweedledee, home free.

Cowboys and Indians, puppy dogs and sand pails,
Beach balls and baseballs and basketballs, too.
I love forget-me-nots, fluffernutter sugar pops
I’ll hug you and kiss you and love you.

–THE FREE DESIGN, 1969

Many thanks to Dorte Lindhardt for the photographs!

Category: Books, CAKEWALK, Family, Motherhood, Uncategorized, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , 6 comments »

6 Responses to “Songs in the key of life”

  1. Sandra Dedrick

    Dear Kate,
    Congratulations on the publication of your new book, “Cakewalk”!
    I have ordered several copies for myself and friends, and look forward to reading it as soon as it comes in.

    Also, a big thank you for including my song, “Love You” in the Epilogue. I am elated and so pleased to read what it meant to you! It was inspired by my son Jay’s birth some 40 years ago. (He is the one with whom you have had contact.)

    Now I’m writing songs for and about my grandchildren – Reid and Graham, Jay and Heather’s 2 little boys, and Josie, my other son Aaron’s little girl. (And the beat goes on.)

    Best wishes to you,
    Sandy Dedrick

  2. kate

    Sandy, how thrilling to hear from you, especially as today is the publication day of Cakewalk! I still tear up whenever I hear “Love You,” which is often because I have it on my ipod while I walk my dog in the mornings. This book would not have been complete without it, so I’m so grateful to Jay for making it possible to include the lyrics. I’ll look forward to hearing your new songs too!

    And…I’ve just sent Jay a copy of the book for you!

    all best,
    kate

  3. Sandra Dedrick

    Dear Kate,
    Thank you! I’ll be going to Utah to visit Jay and family in June so I will get it then – and certainly treasure it!

    Because you love food and music – and exercise – I’ll have to send you another song called “Pineapple, Crabapple”-(also written ‘way back then’) – just for your enjoyment. It came to me while riding bike, and obviously hungry because as one line says, “I’m riding my bike singing good things to eat.” A friend who also enjoys good food was happy to contribute to it. It’s in the rhythm of bike wheels, but might work for a certain ‘movin’ along’ kind of walking. (The kind where you’re hurrying home to have breakfast!)

    Best wishes,
    Sandy

  4. kate

    Hi Sandy — I would love to hear that song! Any chance you can send me a link to it?

    all best,
    k

  5. Sandra Dedrick

    Hi Kate,

    Regarding “Pineapple, Crabapple” I don’t have a digital copy – but if you have iTunes, it’s on there along with all the Free Design songs. It’s on the album called “There Is A Song”.

    Meanwhile, I’ll send you a copy of the cd – it’s one way I can thank you for sending me your book. I am really looking forward to reading it! I know it’s going to be a great success – you are such an incredibly gifted writer!

    Sincerely,
    Sandy

  6. Sandra Dedrick

    Dear Kate,

    I received copies of your book “Cakewalk” and read it ‘all at once’ – unable to put it down. (I gave a copy to one of my best friends and she did the same.)

    It is a beautifully written, poignant journey and spoke directly to my heart – I was in tears by the end – but didn’t want it to end! I wanted to know more about how your life continues to unfold.

    It seems courageous to share one’s life as you did – but you’ve been courageous throughout your life. Just know that you have inspired me to look with more love and forgiveness upon my own (sometimes crazy) childhood and life experiences – and I’m sure many others will also be so inspired.

    Thank you for sending a special copy to Jay for me. It will be honoured as a family treasure and one day I know it will be highly regarded in the world of great literature.

    Best wishes to you,

    Sandy

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