Picture a kid, a girl kid bursting with energy. Screen door slamming behind her as she runs outside to climb the giant maple in the front yard. Branch by branch, pulling, straining ever higher, she reaches her favorite perch, perilously near the top. The leaves rustle and the breeze whistles softly as she surveys her world from high above.
Were you that kind of kid? That’s awesome. Because I surely wasn’t. If you’d been looking for me, you’d have had to rewind that little movie, climb branch by branch down the tree, slam through the screen door, back into the house. There I am. In the living room. Curled up in the puffy chair with pencil and paper or a book in my lap.
Or LOOK or LIFE magazine. Or a volume of The World Book encyclopedia, which my parents bought from my second grade teacher, Miss Mershimer, who sold encyclopedias to make money during summer vacations.
Or I could have been looking at one of my parents’ high school or college yearbooks, which I poured over repeatedly, feeling in some way that they could reveal great secrets. It was the same with my dad’s World War II scrapbook. When I was a kid, those memories were still too painful for him to share. It took decades for him to talk about his experiences in the war. But his scrapbook was on the bookshelf, sepia snapshots held in place with glued black photo corners, captioned meticulously in white ink on the black scrapbook pages, clues to his mystery.
I read other books, too, of course. Novels, biographies, comic books. The usual for a kid growing up in the fifties and sixties. But the book I loved best, stored on the bookshelf with my father’s scrapbook and my parents’ yearbooks and lots of other volumes so densely packed with words that I shut them immediately if I opened them at all, was The Family of Man, a collection of 503 photos selected by Edward Steichen for exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955.
Steichen called it “a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world. Photographs made in all parts of the world, of the gamut of life from birth to death.” Reading that now, I think it’s a pretty fair description.
But kids don’t think in those terms. They look. They feel. And even as a kid, The Family of Man made me feel that people’s shared experiences transcended their differences. That all families are part of the human family. That when all is said and done, we are all one. I believe that to this day.
How much of your childhood stays with you as you age, as you negotiate your way through the complicated, confounding landscape of adulthood? Bits, scraps, shadows, flashes of light. Scents on a breeze. The way things felt on your skin, inside your eyes.
I remember the way it felt to look at The Family of Man. It was as if my eyes were little vacuums whose work it was to suck all the understanding they could from every one of those 503 pictures. I didn’t think that in words, of course. But I felt that – somehow – absorbing the meaning that those photos held would help me understand life. Over and over, I returned to that book, held it on my lap, slowly turned the pages. Looking. Feeling.
Many years later, decades later, way far into adulthood, I got the idea for a song. I can’t write music. I don’t have that gene. But my brother David does. And I can write words. The words came urgently to me. I called the song The Family Tree. I emailed it to David. He picked out notes, melodies, harmonies on his guitar.
My husband George and I flew down to Florida to visit David and his family. While we were there, we sat together and sang and revised and sang some more. We finished the song. After George and I flew home, David recorded it. Later, he sent me the music file, and I imported it into iTunes. That was 2005, eight years ago.
Life goes on. It’s complicated. It demands all your attention, all the time. I pretty much forgot about our song. Till one day this past July, driving home from Philadelphia, listening to the shuffle of music on iTunes, our song came up, the first time I’d heard it in eight years. Like hearing something new. I played it over and over, turning up the volume, recalling the words, savoring the sounds. Feeling the feelings. The same ones I felt when I was a kid, memorizing the pictures in The Family of Man.
Here’s our song, The Family Tree. David’s singing lead, with harmonies by his wife Janie, his daughter Mollie, and their friend and band mate Joe Terrana. David’s on guitar, Joe’s on keyboard, and Mollie’s on drums.
I hope you like it. Feel free to share it with your family.
P.S. Just in case you’re moved to sing along, here are the lyrics to The Family Tree: