Favorite Things, Dead Things, Anniversaries

In Uncategorized on July 30, 2011 at 4:12 am

Ten years ago today, I stopped being a person with a dad and became a person with a Dead Dad. Dead Dads have many obvious disadvantages. You can’t hug them. They rarely attend significant events, like graduations or birthdays or weddings. They can’t tell you they’re proud of you. They never get to meet the friends you’ve made in the ten years since they’ve been dead. They can’t be looked at in pictures without breaking your heart. Etc. But one of the less obvious problems is that they are really hard to talk about. Once they become dead, dads  stop being something you can mention casually, because Dead Dads aren’t something that most people share. When you mention them, it feels like suddenly you’re talking in italics. Or With Significant Words Capitalized. Rooms begin to feel airless and too small, and people don’t seem to be listening to the story anymore. They seem cautious and frozen and like they are watching to see if you’re going to cry.

Not in a malicious way. In a caring way. But still. It makes me feel like a spectacle, which is something I only like when I’m deliberately making a spectacle of myself.

Most of this is in my head. Just run-of-the-mill discomfort about being exposed and vulnerable. Part of being a capable person who dislikes admitting that I am at a disadvantage or at a loss. From being a little unwilling to acknowledge that they are right, my friends who might be cautiously watching me, because I might start crying at any minute if I think (incautiously) about how the story I’m sharing about my dad is one of a finite number of stories there ever will be, because he’s my Dead Dad. When it comes down to it, I am also watching me to see if I’m going to cry.

So, in not-at-all-short, whenever I talk about dad, there’s an elephant in the room. A big, sad, elephant named DEAD. Usually I can’t do it at all, because it’s hard to talk with an elephant sitting on my chest. Other times, when I can manage to talk, it can be hard to silence my fear that, no matter what else I’m sharing, all anyone can see is the elephant. So I don’t talk about my dad much. Which is awful, because I’d really like you to know more about him. I’d like to figure out how to talk about him more.

So I’m going to tell you a story, maybe, and I’m going to do it here, because it turns out elephants are less detrimental to typing than they are to talking.

John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” more than just about any other song, will always make me think of my dad. Which is saying something, because he and I had a lot of songs. “La Vie en Rose” by Louis Armstrong. “Salt Peanuts” by Charlie Parker. “Stranger in My Driver’s Seat” by John Gorka. But of all these songs, none was more ours than “My Favorite Things,” first because of its length (just over 13 minutes) and because of one wrong note at minute 5:02.

The song’s length was important because it was almost exactly the same length as the drive from my house to my high school along the sneaky, hilly back route my dad had perfected by my sophomore year. He drove me to school almost every day for four years. It started when I was in seventh grade and my brother was a junior. Rob was applying for the National Honor Society and could no longer afford to be late, and, since neither of us was sufficiently organized to be on time without a ride, my dad started taking us in. And then, when Rob graduated, he just kept on taking me. I guess by then it was a tradition.  Or a habit.

I think I remember these rides so vividly because they’re one of the only things that me and my dad shared just the two of us. About 15 minutes every day when it was just us. Our songs, all the ones I listed before, were the ones we’d listen to each morning on our way in. We’d go through phases where that one song, whatever it happened to be, was just about all either of us wanted to listen to, and I think our “My Favorite Things” phase lasted longest of all. In addition to being the perfect length, it’s nearly impossible to get tired of. “La Vie en Rose” can get old; my brother nearly killed us for whistling it in a parking lot one night. So can “Salt Peanuts.” But not Coltrane.

I’m pathetically unoriginal when it comes to describing instrumental music– I always resort to water imagery and sound unbearably trite. But that’s just what it feels like to me, the melody just bubbling over you like a noisy stream. Or, in this case, like a 13 minute-long thunderstorm, pattering itself out on the tin roof of a house. There’s something mesmerizing about hearing a familiar song turned so completely inside out, something hypnotic in the way that Coltrane refuses to complete the musical phrase until the very end, keeping the resolution simultaneously very far away and tantalizingly close. It’s beautiful. I felt like I could listen to this song forever, and so could he.

It is, without question, a really great song. But I think what makes me so particularly enamored of it, so singularly possessive, is the one wrong note at 5:02. It’s rare and remarkable to hear any note in a jazz song and feel, definitively, like it’s wrong– even now I’m worried someone smarter than me will pop up and say it’s deliberate. But  for all that it’s jazz, I don’t think we were mistaken. Dad noticed it maybe the second week in our Coltrane period. It comes smack dab in the middle of this soaring arpeggio, a jarring little jolt of NOT RIGHT, like McCoy Tyner’s hand came down just a hair to one side and banged the wrong key. It only lasts a second. At first, dad and I listened intently for it, to see if we could possibly be right. And then, gradually, we waited for it with fondness, because it felt like a secret only we knew about. It seemed like something we’d wrestled from the song, a concrete reward for our incomprehensible appetite for repetition. And I guess even now, even when I’m telling you about it, even now 10 years after he died, it still feels particularly, secretly, eternally ours. It feels like a secret place where the two of us will always be together, driving up and down steep hills, trying to make sure I made it to home room in time.

  1. Thank you for sharing this. Thank you for being willing to share in the past, when I was struggling with my own elephant (more than usual, since as you know it’s always there). I believe remembering things like this–shared special moments–and being willing to think about them, even if it’s painful, is part of what keeps them with us. And it’s clear from the link you shared that you have the same wit, the same brilliant, incisive mind, and the same warmth as your father.

  2. I returned from a tiring (but great) vacation last night and spent 14 minutes with My Favorite Things, you, and your Dad. Thank you.

  3. This is lovely. Is it awful of me that it makes me sad not only for your loss but for the fact that I have absolutely no memories like this of my father? Nothing that’s not almost overwhelmingly disappointing and frustrating? Families are so complicated. I wish you still had your lovely father, Margaret.

    • Yeah. I wish, in turn, that you and everyone could have had a dad like this. And gotten to keep him for literally ever.

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