I did not grow up in a musical household. My grandma Bess’s Steinway was an ornamental piece of furniture in our formal living room, its rolling feet planted on the ivory carpet with its plush salmon border. It was only when he was driving that my Dad became a music lover, a songwriter, a musical storyteller.
We sang Neil Diamond’s “Love on the Rocks” and Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” while traveling to the cigar store on Sundays, he for the Sunday Times and a Skor bar, me for a Charleston Chew and Sassy or Seventeen Magazine. I learned about holding your cards to your chest from Kenny Rogers’ train riding outlaw in “The Gambler” and was convinced that “Cracklin’ Rosie” was a girl with glass for an eye.
On these drives through the back roads of Greenwich, Connecticut it was always just the two of us, my father hugging the windy curves as graceful and skilled as a race car driver. In the spring and summer, I’d open my window and dip my hand into the rushing air, the wind lifting up baby-fine strands of gold framing my face. It was our ritual, and his songs — from John Denver to Simon and Garfunkel — became the backdrop to the moments when my Dad wasn’t just my Dad. He was my best friend. Sometimes we accompanied each other in “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”, but even then the words made my eyes water. Despite my father’s rocky marriages, I still believed in true love and happily ever after. Imagining a day when there were no more flowers made my little heart ache. I certainly never thought that my Dad might be the one to stop sending them to me.
I learned that he favored male musicians who wrote songs with sweeping piano or explosive drum intros, slapping his hands on the steering wheel spectacularly out of time. He was always a few steps ahead of Peter Cetera or Phil Collins, offering up his own version of the story with alternate lyrics. It was the way he sang them as if they were right as rain on volume ten that struck me. My father was remarkably confident in everything that he did. Even when he wasn’t the best, he could convince you that he was. I remember thinking that he’d never get into my school’s chorus. He had, quite possibly, the worst voice I had ever heard. I also remember thinking that I never wanted him to stop singing. I loved my dad, the unharmonious crooner, so sure of the words and rhythm. His version was always better than the original. Whether he was picking me up from my mother’s house on his weekends after my parents got divorced or driving me to Hershey Park, the stories we sang together were our greatest hits.
As I got older, our duets never cracked the top 200. We grappled to understand each other. We let other people sing our songs. I wish that we had learned to accept the people that we had become. It took me years to realize my place in things, to consider that my Dad had not finished growing up. I was searching for my best friend, the one who sang all of the words with me. There was so much space between our music and lyrics. Instead, we sent each other fat envelopes stuffed with oversized birthday and holiday cards. Our breathless words broke the seals of envelopes. We still had so much to say, so many stories to sing, but we no longer understood each other’s versions.
Eventually the letters stopped appearing in my mailbox and my world went silent. When my grandmother told me that he was dying and I realized that I couldn’t make it to him in time, I wanted to take it all back. Rewind. Pause. Please pause, Dad.
For two months after he died, hours before each Southern California sunrise painted the room the colors of rainbow sherbet, tangerine and raspberry light dripping down the bedroom walls, I walked barefoot to an empty beach where I monogrammed the sand in his initials with a whitewashed stick. Tourmaline is a small neighborhood beach in San Diego named after the semi-precious stone of the same name which some believe to have healing properties that aid in understanding oneself and others. Digging my toes where the sand met the salt water, foam fastening itself to my ankles, I fished out my phone, pressed my index finger on New Playlist, and renamed it “Dad Songs”. It was simple and uncomplicated, the way that things once were between us.
The songs swam back to my shore: “The Way it Is” and “Mandolin Rain” by Bruce Hornsby and The Range, “Sailing” by Christopher Cross, and his very favorites, “Back In the High Life” and “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood. I listened to the lyrics and wondered what these songs meant to him. Some were easy to figure out. Before he sold his boat during his first divorce, my Dad lifted me in his arms to steer the wheel while navigating the navy blue Long Island Sound. Maybe “The High Life” was a celebration of a renewed life, a second chance at love in his second marriage. But what about The Way It Is, a cassette tape he wore out like a teenager? What did he love so much about that album? I pressed repeat over and over again, wondering why it brought him so much joy.
I added songs that I thought he’d like: “Rosanna” by Toto, “Vienna” by Billy Joel, “Overjoyed” by Stevie Wonder. Like Stevie, I too wanted to build my father a castle of love. I thought about the way it is, or was for him. Maybe it was nostalgia for a simpler life before things got so complicated. I moved Vance Joy’s cover of “Heartbeats” and John Mayer’s version of Beyonce’s “XO” to the mix, hoping he’d appreciate how they made those songs their own.
The playlist wasn’t really Dad songs, they were ours in moments and memories, in all the unsaids and misunderstandings. In the foreground, as far as my eyes could see, were shades of blue where the earth met the sky. That’s where we are now, I thought. We are an endless blue.
From my window, I watched the Pacific Ocean reach for the metal wheels of the Pacific Coastliner en route to Los Angeles. My hands touched play on Dad Songs while drawing arrows in my journal pointing in every direction.
Over time, I’ve been building / My castle of love / Just for two, though you never / Knew you were my reason, said Stevie.
I was headed home where bills and junk mail now bloated my mailbox. But for the first time since our road trips together, I knew that my Dad was next to me, with no one else between us, singing our songs, reminding me to raise my own voice, write my own lyrics, and trust that if I believe in the words, others will want to sing my version too.