It’s weird going through somebody’s house and just taking stuff. Unless you’re robbing them, I suppose, but even then I’m sure it feels a little off.
When my father passed away, my sister and I were invited to spend an afternoon in his house and take whatever we wanted, before the bulk of it was sold, or auctioned, or sent to that warehouse from the end of RAIDERS, or what have you.
There’s an odd amount of pressure in a situation like this. The idea that you have a couple of hours to go through one person’s earthly possessions, and decide which ones represent their spirit best to you. And you had better choose right, because this is a one-time offer, bub. Sure, that end table seemed like a good get, at the time. But if you wake up screaming “THE EGGBEATER, WHY DIDN’T I GRAB FATHER’S PRECIOUS EGGBEATER” two years from now, that’s a rotten bit of luck for you. Father’s precious eggbeater is in a secret location, being handled by “Top men.” Or Poughkeepsie. One of those two places.
However, the bigger issue for me that day was whether or not I needed to take anything. My father and I weren’t particularly close, especially in the last few decades of his life. We didn’t share any interests or hobbies, besides falling asleep in front of the TV watching History Channel. And I already had a couch and a TV and a DVR filled with “Modern Marvels,” so I was good in that department.
But there was no item, no physical item we shared a bond over. No baseball we used to toss around, no childhood toy that lived in his house long after I grew up, no favorite bowl I used to eat cereal out of the mornings before he drove my sister and I to school. Considering my father had lived there for decades, it didn’t hold much of anything for me.
We grew apart in the years after my parents’ divorce. As much as I would like to blame him for this, we were both culpable. He kind of made a mess of visitation and fatherly duties throughout my tween and teenage years. He didn’t particularly like or support any of the things that I loved, or if he did, he kept it to himself. I don’t know what his vision of a perfect son was, but I suspect it wasn’t this odd shouting creature who talked for hours on end about drama club and Dr. Demento, and carried around a stuffed penguin from a comic strip, even throughout his early teens.
I don’t hold myself culpable for being a weird kid, you understand. But I do hold myself culpable for being a weird adult. Once I reached a sentient, self-supporting age, I could have taken a more active role in building a relationship with my father. Sure, he made it difficult. He was a difficult person, whose grumpy, taciturn nature became an neigh-impenetrable suit of armor as he grew older.
But I was ignorant, or maybe chose to ignore, the reasons behind this. For many years, I operated under the belief that he was just kind of a jerk. He never had anything particularly nice to say to me, and when I began to accrue success as a writer, the best he could muster was, “You’re a big shot now.”
After he passed away, friends of his told me that he saved newspaper clippings of articles I had written, or that had been written about me. And woe be it to the customer at his pharmacy who asked how his son was doing, apparently he would talk their ears off about me.
This made me feel pretty dumb for not being able to recognize that he was way, way more complicated than just “kind of a jerk.” And it made me feel ESPECIALLY dumb that I couldn’t process that he would rather say something snarky than something emotionally truthful, because that’s pretty much how I operated for most of my adult life.
In his declining years (which I didn’t understand were his declining years at the time, because who thinks their father is going to die at 63), we talked very occasionally on the phone. He never wanted to talk about much of anything, which made conversation a challenge to say the least. And because I’m allergic to challenges, I brought those conversations down from “occasionally,” to “almost never.” He died with me owing him a phone call, in fact. I’m not proud of that.
This all hovered over me as I looked at his odd collection of prints, antique furniture, Louis L’amour novels, and all of the towels and forks and shirts and TV trays and things that makes someone’s house their home. We were so closed off from each other in those last few years, that I was half-hoping that I could find something, anything in that house that would show some kind of commonality between us, besides our odd emotional quirks and droopy eyelids.
One of the last places I poked around was the attic. My room, when I stayed there, was on the second story of his house, right across from the attic. So I spent a fair amount of time rattling around up there, and I kind of knew what I was going to find. Specifically, I knew there was a box of records up there. I had flipped through it a handful of times during my teenage years, but the only one I remembered was (and this in itself is pretty amazing) a record called Travolta Fever.
For the life of me, I have no idea why or how he came to own this amazing artifact. Honestly, I don’t think he did either. But of course, we don’t buy things thinking, “This object is going to represent me when I die.”
So, obviously, I wanted to grab Travolta Fever, because how could I not. And if I’m being perfectly honest, I wanted it for comedic reasons more than sentimental. It was a silly thing, and the fact that my father owned it made it, and him, all the sillier. The fact that I was using this opportunity to go through my dad’s house to find things that would facilitate me making fun of him post-mortem says a lot about our relationship, and how I’m not a terrific person.
So into my bag Travolta Fever went, ha-ha. What a silly man, with his silly 70s records, reflecting the taste in music that he never had, because I had great taste in music, and we have nothing in common and-
Then I saw all of his Steely Dan records.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about their music. Suffice it to say, I am a fan, and if you need to reconsider your relationship with me because of it, you are well within your rights.
Nonetheless, I am a fan. And apparently, he was as well. Not that he ever mentioned it. Or turned up the radio when one of their songs came on. Or had any connection to them in the time that I knew him.
Still, he had a fair amount of their records. Now, of course, he was an adult in the 1970s, and it is my understanding that everyone that had an address was given a copy of Steely Dan’s back catalogue. So he might have just not gotten around to selling them at a garage sale, giving them to Goodwill, or throwing them in that landfill with all of those ET 2600 cartridges.
Something funny happened when I picked up those records. I actually pictured my dad, for a split-second, buying those records. Taking the plastic off, reading the liner notes, and giving them a spin. I wondered what his favorite songs were. I wondered if he and his pals tried to decipher the lyrics, much as my buddies and I did before the advent of the internet. I wondered if he created stories in his head to go along with the songs.
I wonder if he played the records for my mom, and she went, “Ahhh, turn it off, turn it off, turn it off, it’s just smooth jazz with creepy guys singing,” as so many spouses did, and still do.
It was the first time in a very long time that I thought of my dad as a person, and not just this odd, amorphous mass of memories, missed opportunities and bad blood. He was a guy. A guy who liked the same band I did. The same dorky, doofy band, beloved by dorks and doofs the world over.
This was not a life-changing moment. I still have very conflicted feelings about our relationship. But I had gone into that house with the distant hopes of finding something that indicated we shared anything. And I found it.
I wished I had visited him earlier. I wished I had asked him how the hell he came to own Travolta Fever. I wished we had fired up his old record player, blasted Aja, and drank a couple beers. I wished I was a better person to him, even when he was not a great person to me. I blame both of us for how things turned out.
The records now sit in a box at my mom’s house, because I didn’t own a record player at the time. That’s the excuse I used at the time, anyway. But I own one now. And I am traveling to Connecticut this weekend. I will bring them back to LA with me. And I will pop open a beer, and I will blare Aja. And I will raise my glass to difficult men listening to doofy music.
Cheers, Fred. We should have done this sooner.