In February, I published a list of things that I’d like to do this year. Each item was carefully considered—it was sprinkled with fun, easy to accomplish ones (so that I wouldn’t feel bad about myself for not getting any of them done) and some that are more difficult to achieve (like, “learning to rock the liquid eyeliner”). Yesterday, I tried to check “walk through a corn maze” off of my list, but when I got there I realized that where I was would definitely not count for my list. When I asked about it, they informed me that what I’m really looking for is a “corn labyrinth” (noted for next year’s list). I was able to touch the Mississippi River and then smelled like sewage and dead fish for the rest of the day no matter how much I washed my hands.
I’m on the tail end of recording an album with Ric Hordinski, which I’m pretty firmly convinced is the best work that we’ve ever done. I’m behind schedule on the 52 books to be read in the calendar year, but I’m getting there, and at this juncture, I’m not worried about making that goal. I’m just coming off of a string of post-apocalyptic, dystopian, science fiction novels for young adult readers and thought that maybe I should read something more suitable for people my own age. I went to the book shelf that I have reserved for books that I want to read but have not yet and chose The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma. It’s a memoir about the author’s relationship with her father, a librarian, who decided to read to her aloud for 100 consecutive nights. After the hundredth night, both the author and her father wanted to continue with their reading promise, and did so, reading aloud to each other every night until she left home for college.
With Father’s Day looming, I started to think on my dad, Mr. Elwood. Although I’m sure that he must have read aloud to me at some point, that’s not what I remember from my childhood. From my childhood, I remember the music.
Go to sleep you weary hobo. Let the towns pass slowly by. Can’t you hear the steel rails humming? That’s the hobo’s lullaby. –Goebel Reeves, “Hobo’s Lullaby”
We never play music in the van while we’re traveling. Out trips to and from Cincinnati have proven to be the exception. After a while, it gets to be a long drive and everyone is tired and doesn’t feel like talking anymore. So, we play music and sing along.
I was in the backseat on one of those trips, in that weird half asleep, half awake state. I knew that I was singing as I was waking up, but I couldn’t quite figure out what I was singing. Then suddenly, I woke up and realized that I had been half-asleep, singing George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” (do-do-do-do), and I said, “My daddy used to sing that song to me as a lullaby while he played with my hair when I went to bed at night.”
That got me thinking about those days and laughing about the disservice it was to whoever I ultimately end up with as a life partner. The first thing that I do when I start to date someone is give them the head’s up that my favorite thing in the world is to have someone play with my hair. They always do it. They always think that they’re doing a great job. They always do it wrong.
I don’t know how old I was, but I must have been young because Baby Bear was still a baby. I was in bed, but couldn’t sleep. So, I got up and walked into the living room where Mr. Elwood was watching tv, which I vaguely recall to be a basketball game.
“Hey little girl, you’re supposed to be asleep.”
“But Daddy, I just want you to rub my head” (that’s what I called it when he played with my hair). Instead of shooing me back to bed, he just got up and didn’t even look back at the tv and followed me back to my room. He tucked me in and then he folded up his six foot, six inch frame to fit on the floor next to my bed. He sang “Here Comes the Sun” while he ran his impossibly big hands through my tangled blonde (yes, I was a blonde child) hair, all matted up from playing hard all day as little kids are prone to do. I don’t know what I asked to steer the conversation this way, but twenty-something years later, I still remember so clearly his response, “You know, this is our special thing between you and me. I won’t do this for your mama and your sister is too little, so she doesn’t have enough hair.” And then somewhere in there, I fell asleep happy, feeling like the most special little girl in the world while he sang me the “Hobo’s Lullaby,” which I still catch myself humming from time to time.
Your mama told you never to eat your friends with your fingers and hands. But I say, you oughta eat what you will—shove it in your mouth any way that you can—Paul Kantner, “Silver Spoon”
Mr. Elwood has about a million records (that’s not even an exaggeration) that I used to love to pull out and look through and listen to. They were all great—the soundtrack to my childhood. Most of my dad’s records blended together into a mass of “dad music.” But there was one album that literally stopped me in my tracks the first time he pulled it out and played it in the living room. I heard a woman sing with such passion that it almost made me fall down. Grace Slick and Paul Kantner made an album called Sunfighter in 1971 to commemorate the birth of their daughter, China. Even though I had a Janis Joplin album, whom I considered to be a “woman unleashed,” I’d still never heard anyone (even Tori Amos, who was my idol) command my attention like this. I wanted to BE her. In high school, would listen to Sunfighter over and over and over again, until one day it disappeared (like my Dickies pants, tank tops with spaghetti straps and countless cds where the singers used too much profanity—I’m on to you Mama Bear).
It makes me laugh now to think about it, because I can’t imagine what was actually running through Mr. Elwood’s mind as he sat in his man chair and I was sprawled out on my stomach on the floor in the living room, playing Sunfighter and rereading the liner notes for the fiftieth time, “Dad, in “Silver Spoon,” do you think that they’re really talking about eating people? Like cannibalism? Or do you think that they’re talking about communion like Catholic people have? You know, where the wine actually turns into blood when it’s inside of them and they eat Jesus’ body?”
We don’t always recognize how pivotal those moments are when we’re there. I think that there was a lot of weight in the answer Mr. Elwood gave. I’m not sure that I even knew it then, but now as I think back on it, I wonder if there was a part of me that was feeling it out—“Can we treat music like it’s serious? Or is it always just a frivolous thing that you do on Saturday nights around a bonfire after you listen to A Prairie Home Companion?” He could have totally said something along the lines of, “Why are you such a weird kid?!? Who cares what she meant when she wrote those words!?!? Why are you obsessed with a song about cannibalism? Why are you even wasting your time thinking about that? Why are you not doing normal things like reading Seventeen magazine and talking on the phone with boys?”
Instead, he considered it for a bit and answered my question like we were having a normal, everyday conversation about school or homework: “You know, I don’t think that you find too many rock stars who are that much into Jesus. So, it’s probably not about transubstantiation. And all of those rock stars from back then spent a lot of time tripping on acid, so she might have a fried brain, in which case, nobody really knows what that song is about… even her! I think it’s safe to say that you can make it mean whatever you want it to mean.”
Boom! Good answer Mr. Elwood. I tucked those thoughts away in my heart and kept reading through the liner notes again and again, looking for clues as to how I might grow up and shake people to the core like Grace Slick did when she sang as though every note was intended only for me.
If only I could have a puppy, I’d call myself so very lucky. Just to have some company, to share a cup of tea with me. I’d take my puppy everywhere. La la la, I wouldn’t care. Then we’ll stay away from crowds and signs that say ‘no dogs allowed.’—Harry Nilsson, “The Puppy Song”
Happy Father’s Day, Mr. Elwood. From me, and from Milo, the dog that you were so opposed to, but finally let me have when I cried like a baby until the whole front of my shirt was soaked with snot and tears. We’re happy that we got stuck with you and not some a-hole like “Sam Stone.” As much I’m sure that you felt like a bull in a china shop, living your entire adult life completely surrounded by girls and menstruation and crying and makeup, even a girl dog for 14 years, you were a good dad. Thanks for giving up your one true love of cycling so that you could spend every weekend on the road with me and my traveling soccer team. Thanks for taking Baby Bear and me to a New Kids on the Block concert even though being at a boy band pop concert probably took away some of your masculinity points. Thanks for letting me go to Germany by myself when I was 16—I still think that was crazy for you to do as a parent, but a major milestone in my development. Thanks for coaching Baby Bear’s softball teams. Thanks for getting us a new playground at our elementary school and one at the park by our old house. Thanks for standing up for me and going to talk to the parents of the mean girls who hit me on the school bus with a hair brush. Thanks for telling me that you thought that I was pretty and that one day I’d find the right person, when (shockingly) at 23, I was one of the few of my friends left unmarried. Thanks for helping me with my math homework and quizzing me incessantly on spelling bee words so that I could win my fifth grade spelling bee with the word “thoroughly.” Thanks for teaching me how to play the guitar. Thanks for being at every one of my shows that you can, even back when they were crappy open mic nights, way past your bedtime at college bars on Tuesdays.
I’m sorry that I can’t be there for Father’s Day today to go fishing or kayaking or bike riding. I’m off playing music that Grace Slick, George Harrison, Arlo Guthrie, The Mamas and the Papas, the Woodstock album, Tom Petty, the Eagles, the Loving Spoonful, Neil Young, Heart, and all of the other stuff that you exposed us to when we were growing up catalyzed and fed as it grew inside of me.
So, I’m in as a part of the industrial sized hedge trimmer that mom and Baby Bear got you. But I also have another gift for you—today when I came to your house on my way out of town to get some extra vitamins, it was true that I had run out of mine. But, really, I came to hide your Father’s Day present in your sock drawer! So…. Stop reading this blog right now and go and find it (and DO NOT SHARE IT with anyone who does not either share your home or have the same last name as you)!!
Why must every generation think they’re folks are square? And no matter where their heads are, they know mom’s ain’t there. ‘Cause I swore when I was small, that I’d remember when, I knew what’s wrong with them that I was smaller than. Determined to remember all the cardinal rules, like sun showers are legal grounds for cutting school. I know I have forgotten maybe one of two, and I hope that I recall them all, before the baby’s due. And I know he’ll have a question or two. Like, “hey Pop, can I go ride my zoom? It goes two hundred miles an hour, suspended on balloons. And I can I put a droplet of this new stuff on my tongue, and imagine frothing dragons while you sit and wreck your lungs?” And I must be permissive, understanding of the younger generation. And then I’ll know that all I’ve learned, my kid assumes. And all my deepest worries must be his cartoons. And still, I’ll try to tell him all the things I’ve done, relating to what he can do when he becomes a man. And still, he’ll stick his fingers in the fan. “And hey Pop, my girlfriend’s only three. She’s got her own videophone and she’s taking LSD. And now that we’re best friends, she wants to give a bit to me. What’s the matter, daddy, how come you’re turning green? Can it be that you can’t live up to your dreams?” –The Lovin’ Spoonful, “Younger Generation”