Let Them Be Kids: The Kindness of Blissful Ignorance

The beautiful thing is, music can be like a time machine. One song — the lyrics, the melody, the mood — can take you back to a moment in time like nothing else can.

Lisa Schroeder

Ah, this old record player.

It sure doesn’t look like much. The years have faded the two tone case. Tiny touches of rust fleck the hinges. The once-white speed adjustment switch is decidedly more beige now. Yet it’s more valuable than anything any audiophile in the land stands and gloats over.

Because it belonged to my grandparents.

Because it tells a story beyond the songs.

It still spins slabs like a champ. Most of the albums I’ve intermittently stolen from my father have had their turn turning on it. Gerry Rafferty, Jim Croce, Chicago, Air Supply, Christopher Cross. But the 45’s are where the deep nostalgia lies. Nat King Cole. Tommy Dorsey. Sinatra.

My grandfather’s records.

I look over the collection, knowing full well he didn’t pay full price for any of them. I’m confident they were all trophies of successful flea market and garage sale raids. Mostly from Donlo’s, I’d say. I remember the hours we spent in Don and Lois’ flea market, a sleepy institution run by old friends of my grandparents. Tucked in the woods outside of town, it sported a portmanteau name that poor Lois got the short straw in.

I always had the hardest time choosing.

We’d set up camp for the afternoon. Grandpa would pop open his shopworn aluminum lawn chairs — first for Grandma, then himself — and settle in with a sigh for unhurried conversation between the cash register and the book table.

Meanwhile, I would wander the dusty labyrinth. I’d muse about how a particular hubcap had become dislodged and orphaned here. I’d agonize over which keychain I was going to buy with my newfound pocket money this trip, caring not I owned no keys to pair it with. I’d worriedly explain to Lois that she shouldn’t price the battered bicycle helmet at two dollars, because they cost twenty new.

Then, when conversation ran its due course and with my keychain selected, we’d all pack back into Grandpa’s prized sea foam green 1964 Ford Fairlane. Interior adorned with textured vinyl seats and a miniature oscillating fan on the dashboard, it was a happy steed as it took us back to their very humble home, whose square footage is back in vogue now. There were puzzles to puzzle over, you see, and cuckoo clocks to fix, and houseplants to water out of the dehumidifier bucket.

And records to listen to.

I thumb the latch open and lift the case lid. It’s adorned with Grandpa’s trademark — those old, embossed labelmaker strips, proudly declaring “This Side Up” and “Our First Christmas” and “40 Years,” though the latter designation is itself decades old. The case exhales, smelling sweetly of old dust, and layers of hinge oil, and record vinyl, and…time. The pop and squeak of the flexing hinges recall important conversations a grandson has with his Grandpa. How the raindrops were splattering like bird poop on the windshield. How you could possibly get used to living so close to the train tracks. How tart cranberry juice can be.

But never Korea.

All the years of whiled away afternoons and drives around town, of conversations and stories and trips to the park, and not once did he ever mention his involvement in the Korean War. After he died suddenly of a heart attack when I was sixteen, his obituary dispassionately informed me of his service on an aircraft carrier. At first, I felt a little put out. Why didn’t they think I was mature enough to be privy to the past?

I think I know better now, though.

I realize now that he (and everybody else in the family, for that matter) was not interested in deceiving me. I’m sure if I’d made inquiry for some reason, we’d have had the conversation. But he had the wisdom to know that I needed a childhood as free from worry and anxiety as possible. The wisdom to know his grandson, even as a teenager, needed to be able to spend time not with Grandpa the seafaring warrior, but with Grandpa the Grandpa.

The Grandpa who sat and listened to call-in swap and trade shows on AM radio every morning. (Not to buy and sell, apparently, just to pronounce judgment on the quality of the deals.)

The Grandpa who’d take an ill-advised move, or three, in a game of Chinese checkers to see my delight in winning.

The Grandpa who took pleasure in spinning those static laced 45’s, exposing me to a style of music that I’d never heard before, and that still influences me to this day.

To this minute. Leaving the others to lie silent for the moment, I feather through the vinyl pillar and slide a Sinatra out. As it crackles and hisses before giving way to a rich melody, I’m back on deep scarlet carpet, bunched and beaten by time and travel, jamming Tinkertoys together and dreaming of saving the world.

Little did I know that, in more ways than one, Grandpa had already saved it for me.

None of this is to say we should pull the wool over our kids’ eyes when they have direct questions about difficult issues. But neither should they be saddled with the responsibility of processing everything you must as an adult, even when they’re teenagers. Let them be kids. I’ve never heard someone recount their having to assume adult responsibilities as a child with a tone of gratitude.

Guard the magic and mystery of life for them so long as you’re able. Relish opportunities to play with them. Even as you explain their world to them, remind them there’s plenty we don’t know, which is okay. A world without mystery ceases to be organic and becomes a complicated machine we are but gear teeth within.

The world will reveal its ugliness to them in due time. Make sure, as you guide them through those valleys of uncertainty, that you’re drawing their primary focus to the peaks of its beauty and grace.


Previously Published on The Unbothered Father


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