(Re)Collection #9: Sultans of Swing
Because I didn't get the chance to have much of a relationship with my father, I have spent many years wondering what I missed and how different I would be if I did get that chance.
My dad died on July 10, 1980. I was 13 years old. He was 42. I was at my grandparents' house in upstate New York in the country. They lived outside a little town called Shushan in amongst the dairy farms. It was a beautiful part of the world. My parents sent me there every summer for a few years. After our visit, they would drive me up to hockey camp where I would spend another few weeks. Then I would fly home.
My sister did not go. I don't know why. She might have been just a little too old and too wild for my elderly grandparents to deal with. I was a milder child. I loved the birds, the woods, the deer, the chipmunks, the cows and all of the other kids of similar age who lived on the adjacent farms and acreages.
I spent most of my days up the dirt road at the Steele's dairy farm. I helped feed and milk the cows, crashed mini bikes, rode on the back of the middle daughter's Yamaha Enduro dirt bike when she rounded up the cows in the morning and in the evening. It was a special time. I had a secret crush on her. She never knew. I was three years younger. I was invisible to her.
My grandmother kept me well fed and made sure I was clean and my clothes were immaculate. She was also a very good Italian cook. Every meal was served in a very orderly manner. First prayer, then salad, then the main course, then dessert which usually featured Cool Whip. The kitchen was always spotless. Never a stray dirty dish around. My granddad would be in charge of vacuuming the kitchen and dining room after every meal. It was a well-oiled machine. My grandmother was the boss.
She is responsible for getting me to read books. Prior to these visits, I read well but I wasn't interested in books. Then, on my first visit, she sussed that out and found something for me: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. That was a very crafty choice on her part. First of all, the story was epic and completely engrossing. Secondly, the books were religious allegories. She got me to read, and she taught me a little mystical religion, too. She also took me to real church whenever she went. Her goal was to get me confirmed. So I had my first communion at their local Catholic church.
I didn't fight any of that. I thought religion was interesting. I wasn't religious and I never would be, but I liked all of the ceremonies. The mystery of mass was romantic to me. The way the church smelled. Everyone was so serious. Everything was so old.
After I consumed the Narnia books, she gave me the Hobbit then Watership Down. Her desire to get me to read worked out well for me. I was sent to a Jesuit boys school in ninth grade. My habit of reading books prepared me for the summer reading list I would get when I was 14 as an entering Freshman. I actually liked reading all the books on the mandatory list. I was excited about it.
I didn't realize that to be excited about reading books was something you hid from everyone in a cutthroat boys school. If you liked reading and learning you were a brain, a nerd and probably secretly gay. That was the way many of my peers thought. I didn't know this.
When the call came in the morning of July 10, I didn't know why my grandmother had collapsed in silent tears and why my granddad was acting so strangely. Then they told me. I did not know what to do with this information.
My father was in and out of my life. He caused me an immense amount of pain. He was not there when I needed him. My mother hated him or so she told me. She punished me when I got home from every visit with him. I was the whipping boy for their marital issues. Killing the messenger was how my mom operated.
I was very ashamed of my reaction to the news of his death for many years. I was relieved in the moment. His death lifted a terrible weight from my shoulders. It meant that my day to day life would get better rather than worse. It meant that I wouldn't have to visit him every week and have to pretend to like his young girlfriend. I wouldn't have to wonder why he grew weed in the backyard and had shelves full of pharmaceutical codeine. It was all stuff that I didn't understand, and I wanted it to disappear. My sister actually disappeared. I didn't have that type of disposition to rebel against the family and the world in such a violent and confidant way.
So I secretly was kind of happy. Now my mother wouldn't lock herself in her room for days and not talk to me when I returned home from weekend visits. Maybe she would stop pointing out how I was going to be rotten like my father was. It sounds sad. It was.
At his funeral, I remember smiling a lot. I was very uncomfortable with all the attention, so I smiled. I was relieved, so I smiled. Some friends of mine came to the funeral parlor for the memorial service. They weren't really friends. They were the children of people who knew my parents. They also went to junior high with me and would later join me at Gonzaga the next year. Two of them came up to talk to me and asked me in an aggressive way why I was smiling so much. I said I didn't know. They pointed out that my dad just died and I was smiling. I said I didn't know. They looked at each other and walked away.
Was I really happy my dad was dead? Of course not. I had all of that hidden away deep inside. Who was he to me at the time? He was mysterious. Sometimes he was genuinely loving, and most of the time he was completely absent.
I now have a few scraps and remnants he left behind. My mom held on to a few boxes. When she died, it all passed on to me. Some are physical artifacts like books and photographs he took. I don't care about this stuff. The most important ones exist only in my unreliable memory. Those memories visit me from time to time with a smell or a phrase or a song.
The musical memories are the most haunting. My dad would come to pick me up in his old Fiat. It had that vintage foreign car interior smell that reminded me of a slightly acrid combination of butterscotch and caramel. In my memory, Sultans of Swing was always on the radio. That mysterious guitar lead line. The opening words. "You get a shiver in the dark, It's raining in the park but meantime."
I know now that it is a song about some jazz musicians. In my thirteen year old mind though, that song is about my dad. It is his song. It is dark and mysterious. It is sad. It is elusive. It is beautiful. It is my favorite remnant of him.