Gifts from my Father

Kylie and Tom - edit-1One of my earliest memories involves a Christmas gift from my father when I was six or seven years old. It was a stocking stuffer, not the main event, and at the time I didn’t think much about it, but it’s stuck with me for a long time. It was a CD entitled Best of the 60s, and I guess it’s memorable both for its incongruity (I don’t think I had any conception of what the 60s were at six years old) and because it was the first of many ways that my father has tried to share music with his children.

He’s been wildly successful in that regard. My brother and sister have been able to see some of his favorites — Bruce Springsteen and Levon Helm — with him. I was finally able to share a live show of my favorite band with him two years ago. On a whim he sent a copy of The Band Live at the Academy of Music to each of us when he bought his own, and I’ll occasionally send him a recording of a show I’ve gone to recently. When I come home to visit, Dad and I have gotten in the habit of trooping down into the basement after dinner to watch concert footage, like The Last Waltz, together.

Even when we’re not sharing the music with each other, my siblings’ and my own relationship with music bears his influence. My dad once remarked how cool it was that, one way or another, all of his children wound up loving the music of his generation. It didn’t happen because he forced it upon us — he never made that classic parental mistake of pushing too hard for us to be like him. Instead, he encouraged me to love music in the same way my mom encouraged me to read: by being completely open-minded and non-judgmental, by allowing me to express it any way I wished, by never forbidding or disapproving of my tastes, and by enthusiastically sharing these experiences with me whenever I was open to it.

One year, due to a very complicated set of circumstances, my dad and I ended up living alone together in New York, while the rest of our family stayed behind in California. I was in eighth grade, and my musical tastes could be described in one of two ways: American Idol or Show tunes (I was a theatre kid, and musical theatre is really the only outlet for that at age 13… I’ve since recovered). I can only imagine how obnoxious this was to my father, but instead of shutting himself off in another room whenever Idol came on, he’d eat dinner with me on the living room couch and thoughtfully discuss Clay Aiken’s prospects with me.

High school rolled around and I discovered punk music. I was wearing a lot of eyeliner and my IM (remember those days?) screen name was something to the effect of iamasexpistol66. This was around the time that my parents used to do a lot of whispering about me in the kitchen, and I remember coming down the stairs one night to hear the tail end of something my mom was saying, “mumble mumble mumble… and what on Earth is a sex pistol??”

“It’s a band,” my dad reassured softly.

One of my sweetest memories was when my dad accompanied The Boy and me to a Furthur show. Beyond the coolness of hanging out with my dad, who’s a pretty neat guy, doing something we both enjoy…. it was so wonderful because it was something I could only share with him. A mother-daughter relationship is a special thing, and there are so many things that I share with my mom that my dad just wouldn’t get, but when it comes to music, it’s just us. That show was the kind of thing that my mom would rather chew off her own arm than go to, which made it all the more special that my dad was so excited to share in something I love so much.

My father is having surgery today, and I’m going to be thinking about him all day long. It’s been a scary few weeks thinking about the fragility of my parents — two of the people I love most in the world, who not terribly long ago I thought of as infallible. I know he’s going to be ok, but it hurts to think of your parents hurting. So today, rather than all the scary messy what-ifs and could-bes, I’m choosing to think of the things my father has given me, like music.

Because really, it’s indicative of all the ways that my father has supported his kids. By listening thoughtfully when we speak, really engaging with our opinions and interests, and encouraging us to interact with the world on our own terms, and always being excited to share our experiences with us whenever we invited him in.

So, with that in mind, I’ve got two songs to play for my dad today. The first is a haunting live version of “The River” by Springsteen, one of my dad’s all-time favorites, and an artist I may never have come around to without him. The second is “Box of Rain” by the Grateful Dead, a song that Phil Lesh wrote when his own father was in the hospital, full of all the bitter sweetness of growing up and finding out that your parents are human, and loving them all the more for it.

Photo by Richard Shapiro.

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