Departures

Middle age being what it is, I think about death a little more. Not in the “you’ll be sorry” mode of my youth, but more in a more contrite “what will I have to show for it?” way. How will it matter?

There is a feature on Radio 4’s Saturday Live called “Inheritance Tracks,” where someone famous talks about the two songs that mean the most to them. I think Desert Island Discs gives you eight. Two makes you focus more. “Don’t Let it Bring You Down,” by Neil Young and “Johnny Come Home,” by the Fine Young Cannibals are two that come to mind, capturing certain intense periods of my life, but it makes me seem so shallow… Requiem? Love it, but too obvious. How about Beethoven’s 7th Symphony? Beautiful but I don’t connect it to much in my life in particular.

“Mommy used to dance to this,” my husband will tell the girls as the first twangs of a New Order or Depeche Mode song come on in the car, off the iPod.

“Mommy dances?”

Or they will endure “Rockin’ It” by the Fearless Four, which is on there from my last high school reunion, by no means my favorite song but one which swings a punch of memory, of hairspray and thrift shop shoes and dancing in a big circle.

I think I will leave the playlist to others.

Playing the music my father loved was the most cathartic thing I did after he died. Compiling the funeral playlist. My father left the CDs next to the stereo for us. A mixture of beach music and big band. We used to sing a duet along with morning radio, the dashboard Jesus song, but this, while it could bring us to tears of laughter, was not quite the thing.

Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman. It took me back to the apartment where I grew up, when we were expecting company and he was between duties, having taken down the trash and carved, and done things to adjust the size of the table and locate extra chairs. He would have had poured himself a drink in one of our gray, smoked highball glasses and would be cuing the records, and we were all going to live forever. It was lovely remembering that time together but of course gut-wrenchingly awful because he was gone.

When the girls were little, we sang to them a lot. “Goodnight, Irene,” was the older one’s favorite while the younger one rebelled against sad songs. “The Streets of Laredo,” “Home on the Range,” not allowed. For me, the sad songs were the ones that make me happy, in a sad way.

After my father died, my older daughter suggested we look for him on Google. I thought it was a poignant digital native thing to say but I realize that I was doing that very thing, trawling the Getty archives for his work, saving screenshots of some pictures he took of a famous writer that appeared in the paper not long afterward.

This past weekend I was in Chicago with two of my best friends. One of them was on my hall freshman year by chance and sophomore year by design. (“Pick up the phone, I know you’re in there.”) The other was a housemate for the next two years and we were each others’ Maid and Matron of honor.

In college, the night before departures, in the days before cell phones and email, we were going out of each others’ lives for some time and it was always a little tragic. We played music and talked and talked and talked. About our families, about what people had done last year, about extreme measures someone had gone to complete the semester’s work. Our parents, shadowy background figures, were only visible through our stories.

One summer, we took the train train west and those of us who knew each other gathered in the bar car, then the corridors, but during the night people got off, slipping swiftly back into their hometowns in the small hours, so that when we arrived at the terminus only a few of us remained.

At home, no one understood. The dramas. The meanings. The jokes. The importance. They did not know the people you loved or hated and how everything was just SOOO messed up. You had to be this other person. A daughter. The person you were in high school. Back home your friends had other friends they’d left behind from other schools, other dramas, other memes, different majors. And the stuff that came before that, high school. Totally embarrassing and not at all relevant. Like, why would you even mention that?

One night before break, two of us wrote a silly poem that began “This is How it Goes. Down,” on the back of a dresser. We found it one night another year in another room and were all excited about the posterity.

In Chicago, we stay in my friend’s childhood apartment, which I had first visited one winter break, then for her wedding. Her mom is there but her dad is not. In the last decade we have all lost our fathers. But as we talk about them, not about their major life accomplishments or their impact on the community, but just the fact of them, their physical presence, now absence, in our lives, they join us, pacing in the vestibule, rattling the ice in the glass, throwing on steaks, eyeballing the maître d’, enjoying the holidays and knowing that we’ll be off again soon.

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