When our New York world shut down Friday, March 13th, 2020, I was not thinking about what my stay-at-home soundtrack would be. It was something that evolved, with a couple points of origin and a changing trajectory, much like Coronavirus itself. It gained momentum from podcasts on long walks with our dog. It provided the backdrop for the shapeless days of schooling three children from home, working from home, living through history from home and cleaning that same home.
If asked to predict what I’d listen to in a fictional, seemingly impossible many-months lock down, I might have imagined the crowd-pleasing Beatles or the emotionally vulnerable poems of Leonard Cohen or Simon and Garfunkle. Maybe I’d guess my favorite late-night party go-to, The Smiths. But I’d be wrong. My Coronavirus musical recipe called for the strength of women with a timely dose of Tom Hanks thrown in for good measure. I did not choose them — they chose me.
First, Tom Hanks got sick. Right as we locked down. That weekend, on a walk on the boardwalk behind Rye Playland where Big was filmed, I listened to the Sunday Reads podcast from the New York Times, an interview with Tom Hanks about his role as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I had recently finished listening to Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House on Audible, narrated by Tom Hanks, and it was comforting to hear his voice again.
I mentioned the movie as a family movie suggestion no fewer than ten times over the next week. The first few evenings, my kids outvoted me and we watched yet another episode of their idea of good television, The Masked Singer. Friday, I put my foot down. “Why are you so set on that?” My husband asked. Because it is rare that all of us agree on a movie. Because I loved Mr. Rogers. Because I just want to have something kind of certain and a plan for movie night is something.
That podcast drew me in and made me curious about the movie, about the decision to tell the story of Fred Rogers through his relationship with journalist, Lloyd Vogel. It was such an honest, human lens with no sugar coating, very much the way Fred Rogers would have wanted it. Real people with real problems and flaws. As we watched it with the kids, I realized that while none of my children watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, my youngest child, Ian, had never even watched Daniel Tiger, the cartoon spin-off. At six years old, he had transitioned straight from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse to whatever the older kids watched, shows like Full House, Scooby Doo and Spongebob.
Ian was riveted by this story of Mr. Rogers, by the characters he had on his show and the way he made children’s television. The other two children fell asleep, but Ian was the one who stayed up until the end, who wanted to find out if Lloyd’s dad died, who wanted to know more and more and more. And at one moment in the film, Lloyd is driving in his car while the Tracy Chapman song, The Promise, plays in the background. The words and teen memories came flooding back as I held Ian, watching the Tom Hanks version of Fred Rogers fill my living room with love, family and big questions in a moment when we had no answers.
The next day, we started our neighborhood project in the basement. With internet printouts of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood and the Land of Make Believe, we descended into a small cave of toys and chaos. Armed with free time, a glue gun, cardboard boxes, and unpaired socks to make King Friday and Daniel Tiger puppets, we began to create our Rye neighborhood. We brought Alexa down to the basement and I played Tracy Chapman and 10,000 Maniacs while we worked. I played my favorite songs over and over again, and Ian did not seem to mind. He asked questions about the lines in the songs, and I remembered when I quoted Tracy Chapman in a paper about social change for a freshman writing seminar. I got a C on the first draft, with the comment, “This (Talkin’ About a Revolution) was not one of the texts I assigned. Please revise for your final draft.” I removed the Tracy Chapman references and got an A-, but what does it say about learning that now, twenty-five years later, I have no memory of the other texts and only remember my mistake. “Mr. Rogers says we learn from our mistakes,” I thought as Ian struggled to get the google eyes to line up on his sock King Friday. His frustrated tears told me now was not the time to impart this wisdom, so I said, “Let me help you,” instead.
In between crafting spurts, when I had to unload the dishwasher, cook, or do other popular pandemic chores, I put on episodes of Fred Rogers from the 1970s. While I worked, Ian watched and learned. He learned how pretzels are made, how battery operated cars work, what it’s like to have divorced parents or to be a child in a wheelchair. Mr. Rogers doesn’t shy away from the tough topics, and since our world was suddenly turned upside down, some child-centered, purposeful perspective seemed healthy. There’s nothing like a pandemic to teach us that life is not all rainbows and unicorns, but those single socks that never find their pair in the laundry could become magical.
Sunday Reads with Tom Hanks:
The Sunday Read: ‘This Tom Hanks Story Will Make You Feel Less Bad’
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
The Promise by Tracy Chapman
It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Directed by Marielle Heller, 2019 release now available on Hulu
by Alison Relyea, Monumental Me Writer in Residence
Originally published on Medium
Soundtrack Stories Part 1, Essays on Sinead O’Connor, Tom Hanks and My Pandemic Mix Tape