In the early autumn of 1981, my Mom and I discovered a new radio song to harmonize over as we drove around town. It was an Oak Ridge Boys tune called Elvira. You should go Youtube it and then unfollow me. I deserve nothing less. Of all the things I share with Mom, the biggest may be that I’m a big picture dreamer who sometimes needs to focus on the details as to not screw them up. With that song, we spent about a year singing the lyrics wrong. Although to this day, I still think ‘My heart’s on fire….hell fire-ah” is a gutsier choice than what the Oak Ridge Boys recorded.
Those last weeks of August were dreamy, though the threat of school skulked at the edges of my mind. Still, it was hot enough for shorts and we weren’t yet ready to go shopping for Trapper Keepers and pencils. The station wagon didn’t have air conditioning, so the drives were windy and warm. Our legs stuck to the seats unless we wiggled around from time to time. The syrupy remains of cola in the console drew flies if you stopped in traffic too long. The music took our minds off the heat and bugs. We didn’t care who heard us singing.
If you were to catch our passionate duet as we pulled into a parking lot in those days, you would likely be in one of three places in town. This might be outside the A & P, as grocery shopping was our never ending endeavor. You could be a tired commuter stopping to grab some low calorie TV dinners on the way home, your double knits really chafing your thighs, your comb over slipping down over your gigantic eyeglasses as you glanced up to see who was making the commotion.
Actually that guy would be my father and if he had smarts he’d disavow any knowledge of our existence in that moment. He’d hunch down in his gas-guzzling, Flint-built Ford, waiting for us to disembark from the station wagon and make our way inside. This was a different time, before smart phones, so he would have likely wound his wrist watch, balanced the check book, and people watched while he waited for us to leave.
The other place you might find our mother son performance playing out would be the parking lot of the Tastee-Freez. Musical artists need creamy indulgences – it is our fuel, our reward and our punishment. My sister Bird would be along for the ride, scowling out the side window, puzzling over a thing she’d heard about on 20/20. Called emancipation, it was something kids could do to divorce their parents. Most likely she would have been working out who to hit up for shopping money if she went through with it. Tinkerbell makeup didn’t buy itself. One thing was for sure: she wasn’t enjoying our singing and she wasn’t joining in. When we got to the counter, we all united around the theme of helping Mom cheat Weight Watchers, that cult she and Dad had joined earlier in the year.
That had started innocently enough in the late winter. At our first barbecue of the spring, Mom made a special sauce that had half the calories. They took the skin off the drumsticks before they grilled them. We were likely not told that the mayo in the potato salad was low cholesterol because in memory we gobbled it down with all the usual verve. Our new ways were different, but they were tasty enough, so we had no reason to fear.
But then our grocery shopping began to entail skipping whole sections of the store. There would be no more strawberry Quik, so more Chips Ahoy. Breakfast cereals were edited to only beige and brown as colorful bowls of morning happiness became a thing of the past. It was as if this Weight Watchers crowd had explicitly said, “Children should learn nobody promises us rainbows.”
Then came melba toast and cottage cheese. It was war.
“Mommy, we were good at K-Mart. Can we go to Tastee Freeze?”
“Now, damn it, kids. No.”
“Please? Please? Please?”
Ever the staunch hold out, she’d make an abrupt u-turn, cutting off a pedestrian with a stroller, and in moments we’d be heading toward sweet, icy bliss. As we drove around town ten minutes later, licking down our cones while singing Elvira wrong, she’d say, “This will be our little secret. Daddy will be sad that he didn’t get any.”
We’d shrug in agreement and though Bird would still not sing with us, she was happy to lean her face out into the crisp sunlight, letting the wind ruffle her hair and eyelashes like a winsome golden retriever. Up along Main Street, belting ‘hell-fire-ah, hell-fire-ah’ as we passed the movie house, the five and dime, the old ladies gaping at us from the bench outside the furniture store.
The other place you might have been standing as our car pulled in, blaring that song, was the local library. If it were a light day there, we’d find a spot quickly, happily dashing in to find new books. On a busy day, Mom circled the parking lot with a seething resentment. She was all too happy to explain who was to blame for our parking troubles. Lest there be confusion, our family holds the belief that someone is always to blame.
“It’s the transplants. They come here to live, bringing their snobby Northern Virginia attitudes, telling us there’s nothing to do here. But they love to belly up to the public library.”
Then as a woman approached a car, she’d pause hopefully. If the woman got in and drove off, we were golden. If she were merely retrieving a forgotten volume from the car seat, Mom watched her return to the cool, air-conditioned library with a scowl.
“Now she saw me waiting there. She could have waved me on. Typical transplant.”
Perhaps Mom was cranky. It had been a couple of hours since she perched a slice of canned peaches and a dollop of cottage cheese onto a melba toast wafer and called it lunch. As she scoped out the next opening with a set jaw, we gazed out into the grasshoppery meadow along side the library, knowing that this too would pass, that the song would catch us up again, carrying us along to the next stop. Most importantly, if we played our cards right, there would be ice cream.