They split when I was nine months old, my mom and dad.
My son Ash, my first, he’s nine months old now. I look at him with a kind of envy, with his joyous bubbly eyeballs, as he blissfully jabs his little fingers into his giggly mouth and drools the drool of ignorant bliss. My husband and I are arguing about finances, and about where to live, and about laundry, and dishes. We may be upset with one another on occasion. Sometimes very upset.
We are not getting divorced.
The little man makes me wonder what I must have been thinking in my own nine-month-old baby brain; he makes me wonder what must have been happening in the actual room around me. Two parents so at odds with each other that, even though they’d just produced a child, their alliance was deemed unsustainable and intolerable.
Kathy and Jack. We all know it wasn’t meant to be, but nobody ever talks about the details. They were high school friends and met again shortly out of college and got hitched – in my humble revisionist opinion – without really getting to know each other very well. They bought a house, made plans, had kids, the way you did in 1966. (Which sounds like a great opening line to a country song I’ll never write).
Kathy was the one to leave, so the story goes. She left their Manhattan apartment, went to stay at my grandparents’ house in New Jersey, then got her own place, worked computers full time, got a babysitter for me and my then 4-year-old sister Alyson.
My old man, Jack, he stayed in New York. They both got into (or were already in, the details are fuzzy to me) new relationships immediately. I was a year old, and totally unaware of what was happening.
I got pregnant, last year, at 39. I figured my mother, who’d been dying for grandchildren, would see me struggling with my own infant and would finally open up about the hardships she endured as a single mother of a 9-month old and a 4-year old. When I went home with the baby and spent some time with my mom and long-time step-dad….I waited, I let the atmosphere warm up, I finally asked. What was it like? It must have been difficult…a divorce, a new baby, a four-year old…how did you deal? She pondered this question over a latte. It was fine, she said.
It was fine? Okay.
I didn’t push it.
Fine. My mom was the one who left the relationship, but my dad was the one who left the family. Who knows what their arrangement really was. God knows they didn’t make their dislike of one another a secret, but they get massive points for not dragging each other through the mud and bad-mouthing each other in front of the children. They kept it clean. My mom did, by a mile, the main work of child-rearing. My dad stayed in the swinging world of non-burdened metropolitan New Yorkers, resigned (or so it seemed) to giving up one weekend every couple of months to have two female alien creatures – me and my sister – show up at his apartment, needing to be entertained.
He was a decent entertainer. He took us to the movies. He took us to sushi. We didn’t like sushi. He took us to toy stores. I don’t remember singing with him, I don’t remember fantasy-paradise times, I don’t remember feeling that connected. To tell the honest truth, I don’t remember that much at all.
I remember, mostly, looking at his record collection when nobody else was around, poring over the fascinating images on the album covers; The Eurythmics, The Police. I was eight years old and had never heard of these bands. But my dad didn’t try to give me a musical education. Mostly, he didn’t seem to really want to be a dad. Which was fine.
Fine. We did occasional dad-visits. Weekends, summer vacation, until I was about fourteen.
Apparently, somewhere in there my dad disappeared for a year and didn’t send a forwarding address or phone number; This was the eighties, before we all had each other in Facebook-strangleholds. My mom says she tracked him down. I don’t remember that even happening, I think I barely noticed, and that tells you about how close I was with my old man. There were birthday and Christmas cards; they weren’t heartfelt. Happy Birthday. Love, Dad. I opened them, hoped there was a check or a ten-dollar bill, and threw them away.
When I was twelve, my mom gave me an option of continuing to Go To Church once I’d gone through the excruciating boredom of “confirmation class”. You’re twelve now, she said. You’re grown up enough to decide whether or not you want to go. I did not want to go. It was boring. I stopped going. I’d gone through the ritual of “confirming” my faith in Jesus Our Lord with about as much gusto as I pledged-alliegance-to-the-flag-of-the-unitedstatesofamerica every morning while exchanging spitballs with Douglas Frawley, who I sort of had a crush on because he was a rebel and ate crayons.
When I was fifteen, my mom gave the option of continuing my relationship with my dad on my own. She’d been the one booking the plane tickets and trying to arrange dad-visits. You’re fourteen now. I’m done, she said. If you want to continue your relationship with your dad, it’s up to you. I waited to see if he would call. He didn’t. So I didn’t. So he didn’t. About ten years passed and we barely talked. Still occasional calls at Christmas. No drama. No ill will. No will at all, really. Just a long blankness. It was fine.
Fine. During my emotionally chaotic college days, it finally occurred to me to be upset. I didn’t know how to be upset at someone who wasn’t doing anything wrong. He wasn’t, in my opinion, doing anything wrong. He just hadn’t really wanted to be a dad. That wasn’t a crime. I could understand that.
Could I? I couldn’t understand anything back then; I couldn’t understand my own paralytic desire to stay wrapped under quilts in my college dorm room, fending off suicidal thoughts, much less the intricacies of my own family psycho-dynamics. Maybe I should be upset? I’m not that great at being upset at people. I find it not enjoyable. I like liking people – and moreover, being liked – far too much to go about finding a way to be upset. Perhaps that’s, at the Heathers of that era would put it, my damage.
By the time I was twenty-two I was upset enough to try to make some kind of sense out of being upset, and my go-to disentanglement tool was songwriting. I tended to only write songs when I was really upset, which came with a sustainability issue, given that being upset wasn’t something I really wanted to be. But I really wanted to be a songwriter. I took the issue to my piano.
The song was called Half Jack.
Half Underwater. I’m half my mother’s daughter. A fraction’s left up to dispute…
I had faced the frightening reality, at one point, that I was actually, genetically, physically manufactured by Jack and Kathy and there was just no getting around it. This must happen to all sorts of people going through identity crises in their twenties. It was made weirder to see my flesh following the DNA-driven format of a man I felt I barely knew. I saw his face in my face, I knew his blood was coursing through my veins. The formatting of this near-stranger. It felt unfair.
It was a good song. When I started my band, The Dresden Dolls, Brian added a drum part and it became a great song, and a staple. My dad was living, by that point, in Washington DC. Years had passed, the long blankness continued. He had no reason to reach out, and I had little reason to go to DC, so there was never any pretense about meeting up. I once tried to meet up with him in New York, and he missed our appointment time while I waited at an Oyster Bar. In the span of time during which he didn’t show up, I ordered four wines, went to a museum containing a show of modern tattoos, and wrote fifteen drunken pages in my journal about my giant realization concerning this generation’s obsession with tattoos and how it must be inspired by our lack of organized religion.
Then The Dresden Dolls got more famous, and started to tour. DC was on the schedule, so I inevitably invited my dad, who was living there. I played Half Jack to a tiny bar containing 12 people…and my dad and his new wife. I trembled through the performance. We didn’t speak about it.
I kept inviting him to our shows. Every time it got a bit easier. He seemed to enjoy coming. We’d get dinner at a nearby diner. The Dresden Dolls were consummate couch-surfers, staying in every home we could, so it stood to reason we’d stay at his house.
I got to know him, a little bit, on my own terms. We’d drink wines at night and discuss everything but the past. I examined his CD collection over morning coffee, before leaving for the next city. Leonard Cohen, a lot of Dire Straits. I asked if he ever played the guitar anymore…I remember him having one and playing it a little when I was kid. Not really, he said. But he did sing in the choir, with his booming bass, and actually got paying gigs making the rounds of various churches and cathedrals.
I went solo for a while, left the band, and had the stage to myself. When I hit DC, I asked if he’d jump up and play a Leonard Cohen song with me. It felt like something healed, a little scar over a long-festering wound. We sounded good together, even great. The next tour, I asked him again, and again. Each time, I felt a little more comfortable with him. Stage comfort with a human being isn’t like other kinds of comfort. It’s a gang membership, a camaraderie. I was building it with my dad. We could now make jokes abut the dressing rooms. It was evolving into a friendship. We still rarely talked about the past. Why bother? Eventually I made the crack that someday we should go in the studio and record.
Six or seven years later, we did. I was eight months pregnant, and we recorded in a church in the woods – a holy occasion to pay tribute to some old, dusty heroes and songwriters. My dad brought his guitar and we booked a studio for a week in upstate New York; just having fun, playing the kind of easy sing-in-your-living-room songs that we’d played on stage. Leonard Cohen, of course. My dad turned me onto an old song by Phil Ochs called In the Heat of the Summer, written in the swell of the 1965 Harlem riots, and I returned the gesture by suggesting that we cover Sinéad O’Connor’s Black Boys on Mopeds. My dad updated a couple of the lyrics of the Phil Ochs song to make the connection to Black Lives Matter more obvious than it already was.
I suggested a Richard Thompson song I’d recently become obsessed with. An old country song called Louise that my dad liked. Some songs by my younger songwriting friends. I included Kimya Dawsom, who’d written a better song about pregnancy than I had. My dad and I ate together. My dad helped me out of the car when my pregnant body got stuck. It felt real. And it was, by far, the longest stretch of time I’d spent with my dad since I was fourteen.
Things change, and they don’t change at all.
I knew the baby was in there, kicking, waiting listening. My dad’s first grandchild. I wanted to give him a good soundtrack. The sound of wounds getting stitched up a little. The sound of something kind of lost getting kind of found. I played piano, glockenspiel, vibraphone and ukulele and spent a lot of time in the studio laying on the floor. I inadvertently wanted something that would also work as a children’s record…nothing too abrasive. Just, you know, nice beautiful songs. I was also over-emotional and pregnant. Covering Motörhead was not on the list of things to do.
We covered a Leonard Cohen song.
You got me singing / Even tho’ the news is bad / You got me singing / The only song I ever had
You got me singing / Ever since the river died / You got me thinking / Of the places we could hide
The record’s about to come out, and my eight month old son isn’t talking yet. But I think he’s starting to sing (well, it sounds like singing to me, even though it’s slightly….atonal.)
I’m 40 now.
My dad is 72.
We spent a long time hidden from one another, for whatever reason, me and him.
Music is, in so many ways, a catalyst, a benevolent skeleton key that pries open doors that stick. I’m not sure what I would have done to find my dad, if I hadn’t had the map of music to help me find him.
Music creaks, like water into narrow cracks, under our memories and our emotions in a way nothing else can. We use it to grieve, we use it to heal, we use it to love.
They say that, long ago, we humans sang before we learned to talk.
Maybe it doesn’t all need to be said.
Amanda Palmer: international performing artist, musician, activist, blogger, New York Times best-selling author.