I played a song for Zach the other day. It was a Peter, Paul, and Mary folk song, The Marvelous Toy. I knew all the words and I sang it to Zach with gusto, making the proper ‘zip’ and ‘pop’ sounds in the proper places.
I made it through the first three verses with Zach smiling. First with his eyes, then with his cheeks, and, finally, with his lips. As I finished the third verse, he squealed, begging for me to sing more.
But then the fourth verse began. “The years have gone by, too quickly it seems, and I have my own little boy.” And my voice cracked a little. And I blinked a little too vigorously. Zach looked at me and it was 1979 again.
We had a combination record player/8-track tape player/AM-FM Stereo in our dining room. It had big silver dials, big speakers with black foam padding in case I ran into them, and long buttons that my three-and-a-half year old hands could push down if I used all my strength.
On Mondays, when mom didn’t have to go to work, we would spend time in the dining room, singing and learning songs. She liked pithy, sad folk songs and played them over and over again. I liked to sing along and always became concerned when she started to cry. We listened to Harry Chapin’s “Flowers are Red” and “Cats in the Cradle.” She’d get the first couple of verses out and would then sniffle. I calmed her well, telling her that the song isn’t really sad, that kids grow up. But she went on listening and singing and crying.
She even cried on happy kids songs like “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” It got to the point where dad and I would just shake our heads when the stereo came on, knowing she’d cry.
She had an 8-track of Peter, Paul, and Mary and began playing “My Marvelous Toy” one day. It was a gorgeous song! We worked on the first verse together for half an hour. She sang the words and I made the sounds. She explained to me what ‘lad’ and ‘homeward’ meant and tickled me when I was trying to make the toy sounds at just the right moment. We did the same with the second and third verses. She explained “marched” and “chugging.”
But then the fourth verse began and she started to cry again. I rolled my eyes. “Mom, it’s not really sad. He just has his own boy!”
She nodded and cried a little less each time we listened to the song.
Dad came home and we sang the song for him. He thought it was a great song, too, and I didn’t notice him crying.
It became a sort of family song. Jake and Jean learned it as they grew older. We sang it on some of our vacations to Vegas or Tahoe or Arizona while in our big rust colored van. Mom would ask what we wanted for lunch and we’d pick from the cold cuts in our giant cooler and she’d just start singing as she was making the sandwiches. We were older then, and mom didn’t cry anymore when she heard or sang it.
September 8, 1993 was the day before I left for boot camp. We had traded in our van for a Deep Forest Green Ford Explorer. The whole family took me to the hotel in downtown Los Angeles that night. I was going to be gone for months which is decades for a scared 17-year-old. On the ride down, we listened to a tape I had made of “The Marvelous Toy.” And we all cried.
And now I share it with Zach. He looks at my sad eyes. He’s more empathetic than I am.