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.
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!