I’m seven-years-old. No, wait, I’m eight-years-old. Or am I—Meh, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t know why we always try to figure out our exact age while reminiscing. Let’s just say I was little.
Here’s what’s important: I clearly remember the first time I saw my parents share a genuine moment of affection. And it’s all thanks to The Beach Boys.
The three of us were driving home from Concord Mills, a mall in North Carolina that was over an hour away from our home. Naturally, we listened to Hawthorne, California’s own: The Beach Boys.
The Beach Boy’s greatest hits album is one of the few albums my mom can tolerate listening to while driving or riding in the car. It’s not that she doesn’t like music. Put on some Barry Manilow, Chicago, or even NSYNC (Lance is her favorite) and she’ll jam out with the best of them. She just has a hard time with music when she’s trying to concentrate on a task. She’s mentioned to me that she loves shopping at Target because they’re one of the few retailers that don’t play music. But she’s especially sensitive to sound when in the car.
I’ve lost count of how many times she would, when lost or frustrated behind the wheel, dramatically flick the volume knob all the way down until the voices and instruments faded to a quiet hum, just loud enough for me to hear the song but not enjoy it.
So why was she usually game to listen to the Boys of the Beach? Maybe it’s their pretty vocal harmonies? Maybe it’s the simple lyrics and instrumentation of the early Beach Boys that she doesn’t find too distracting? I’ve never asked her. (Note to self, ask her.)
Surfer Girl, My Little Surfer Girl
Back to the story. Since it takes a little over an hour to get back to our house from this particular mall, Mom sleepily reclines in the passenger seat, probably trying to relax after what was likely a day full of me throwing Ninja Turtle-sized tantrums for action figures: “Please oh please get me the Turtle Blimp! It can count as my Birthday and Christmas present!” As my mom is getting comfortable, the opening riff of “Surfer Girl” begins.
A word on this special Beach Boys song before I dive into the memory. Brian Wilson has described it as the “first real song [he] wrote.” It was inspired by his first serious girlfriend of three years and, as you might expect, is pretty romantic stuff.
If you haven’t heard this early surf pop classic, here is a lyrical sampler and illegal youtube version of the song for your enjoyment:
Little surfer little one
Made my heart come all undone
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?
We could ride the surf together
While our love would grow
In my Woody I would take you everywhere I go
So I say from me to you
I will make your dreams come true
Do you love me do you surfer girl
Reading the lyrics without the accompanying music, I realize they aren’t much on their own. But when you mix in the tender vocal harmonies and soft surf guitar, a genuine sweetness and youthful innocence permeate the song.
At one point while my family quietly listened to “Surfer Girl,” I saw dad’s eyes glance over at mom. Then he did something my young eyes had never seen him do. He started to slowly and gently stroke her hair—something you might see 18-year-olds do pre-makeout at a drive-in movie in the 60s.
During this quiet moment of marital devotion, the little boy in the back seat began to feel profoundly uncomfortable. Sure, I had seen my middle-aged parents exchange a quick peck on the lips every night when dad got in from work. But the way he looked at her and stroked her hair during a song about young love was a way more intimate public display of affection than I was used to.
What is it with little kids being grossed out by their parent’s physical affection? Perhaps it was, for me, the unfamiliarity and newness of the act. But I don’t know. Maybe it’s Freudian or something? Can someone fill me in here?
Because now when I think about that memory, a wistful kind of warmth has replaced the discomfort I felt as a child. My parents have been together a long time. And like most couples of their ilk, they give each other shit pretty often. My dad doesn’t usually say anything. He prefers to employ an incredulous shake of the head while his mouth droops slightly open, as if to say, “Can you believe this?” Of course, this drives my mom crazy. Occasionally, he’ll opt to loudly flatulate in bed, for the sole purpose of terrifying my unsuspecting mother.
She, on the other hand, is more verbal: “I went in the bedroom at seven, and John was already asleep!” she’ll complain to my siblings and me. Or, from the other room, you’ll hear her scream “Jooohhhhhnnn!” after said bedtime wind breaking occurs.
Regardless of these (mostly) harmless verbal and psychological jabs, My sibs and I know they still love the hell out of each other. From time to time, my dad will still surprise my mom with a spontaneous kind word and loving caresses. Just last Christmas, he took her hand and started dancing with her in a kitchen crowded with grandchildren, Elvis’s rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” serenading them in the background.
But my most vivid memory of seeing a tender moment between them will always stem from that time “Surfer Girl” came on during the drive home from Concord Mills. Because of the Beach Boys, Barbara Reed Williams will remain John Charles William’s surfer girl, in my mind at least.