I try to accomplish two things at the dinner table. The first is to get at least a portion of the healthy, balanced meal I’ve put on the table into my sons’ bodies. The second is to polish their table manners. This mostly involves telling them to stop jumping up from their seats like jacks-in-the-box, bargaining with them over “how many more bites” and attempting to engage them in some sort of civil discussion.
It often feels like we are worlds apart, even when we are at the same table. My world has Brussels sprouts, chilled chardonnay and polite dinner conversation; theirs has bathroom humor and ketchup. A lot of ketchup. But once in a while, dinner talk turns to something that reminds me of our similarities rather than our differences. Recently that “something” was the pang of sadness universally felt upon hearing Harry Chapin’s most famous folk song.
My fourth-grader, Kostyn, was telling us he had music class that morning, and his teacher made them sing a song he had never heard. I asked what it was and he said he didn’t know the title.
“It’s about a little boy and a dad and the boy grows up and comes back home,” he said. Then he began singing a snippet he remembered: “Little boy blue and the man in the moon.”
“Huh. He’s teaching you ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’?” I asked, a little bewildered given the substance of the song.
But Kostyn was no longer singing. He was staring at an invisible point above the table, his little chin quivering. Then his eyes closed, and the floodgates opened. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he began to sob.
“It’s just soooo saaaaad,” he said, his whole upper body shuddering. Nodding knowingly, I reached out and pulled him toward me as his little brother looked wide-eyed at us from across the table.
My 9-year-old was, understandably, inconsolable over Chapin’s folk hit from the ’70s, blubbering between cries about what a tragically sad song it is and saying that he doesn’t want to grow up. Like, ever.
As I cradled his not-quite-big-boy body in my arms, I had the flash of a memory: Me at age 12 or 13, sitting in my dad’s silvery blue Mazda pickup truck driving somewhere with him when that song comes on the radio. I can smell the scent of Dad’s pipe tobacco and see the clutter of drafting papers and mechanical pencils on the seat between us as I listen to the lyrics. My chin quivers and I steal a glance at my father, whose eyes are welled with tears too. I lose it then, overwhelmed with love for my dad and the ache that comes with knowing that it all goes too fast, that we only get one shot.
Curse you, Harry.
I pushed the memory to the recesses of my mind and wiped away my own tears, then offered Kostyn my napkin to wipe his. The baked chicken and biscuits sat cooling on our plates; my 7-year-old took tentative bites of his cantaloupe, not understanding what the heck was happening on the other side of the table.
“Every time we sang the song I had this memory, one of my favorite memories, of me and Evan and Daddy playing a game at sunset,” Kostyn said, sniffling. “Only now in my mind I’m all grown up in the memory and I can’t play anymore, and it’s all wrong!”
I remember being his age and wanting to remain a kid forever, having absolutely no inkling of all the good grown-up things to come. I tried to explain to his rattled heart how childhood is a journey that lasts years and years, and how he’s still going to be young for a long time. “I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but someday you’re going to want to get older, to do things like drive a car and stay up late,” I said, my voice breaking at the thought. “But there’s no rush.”
And then, because I got a little too excited about us being on the same wavelength, I took things one step further.
“You know the real reason that song is sad?” I asked, pulling up the lyrics on my phone and reading them, line by line, to two hesitantly curious boys. When I finished, and the singer had hung up the phone in his song, nobody at the table looked any happier. But I pressed on.
“See, it’s not just about growing up, it’s about regret,” I explained. “It’s about being too busy for each other and taking each other for granted.” My voice was cracking again, which Kostyn noticed. “And we don’t do that. We spend a lot of time together. You said one of your favorite memories is of you and Daddy at sunset, right?”
“I guess, yeah,” he said, sliding off my lap and back to his seat.
Finally, as I reheated his chicken, we talked about the power of music to make you feel something you maybe haven’t even actually experienced in real life.
“When you think about it, it’s really a great song in that way,” I said.
“Well,” Kostyn said, defiance rising up, “if my teacher tries to make us sing it again, I’m going to tell him he should stop picking sad songs. I don’t have to sing it, right?”
“I think you absolutely should tell him that,” I said with a smile, realizing that despite all the tears, this nearly 40-year-old tune had helped to produce polite dinner conversation, and the motivation for a young boy to speak his mind.
Thank you, Harry.
Robyn Passante is a journalist and writer. Find more of her work at robynpassante.com.
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