Lately, I’ve been listening to Harry Chapin again. His Greatest Hits Live album was the soundtrack of my childhood. Or at least of our family road trips, and the further I feel from my father, the more I seek out the music of my childhood. Not just Harry’s Greatest Hits, but Willie Nelson’s Always On My Mind and Johnny Cash’s San Quentin album too. As Father’s Day approached, these albums have taken a more prominent place in my playlist.
Technically, I’m a millennial as I was born in 1977, but I identify more as Gen X, probably because of my older sibling who I idolized growing up and often tagged along with, making their pop culture references and experiences more prominent than those of my peers born in 1977 or after. For that time period (and even for today by many standards), I had a very engaged father. He was there for me. He took me to every piano competition and recital (there were a lot), attended all of my basketball games and even chaperoned school field trips (often the only father there). He was so present and yet also kept his family (and everyone else in his life) at arm’s length. Still, he supported me in ways that truly matter for a child and for that I am grateful.
And yet, I’ve realized that the unsettling feeling I had when I was younger, that I would never really know him, was not a product of the natural distance parents can keep from children as they portray a particular persona of themselves, but was a product of his own insecurities. I didn’t ever really know him, and I probably never will for he allows so few people to truly know him.
As a kid, my family went on countless road trips, and I loved those road trips (despite a proclivity for car sickness). I loved sitting in the front seat with my dad (because in those days we could) and singing along to Harry Chapin or Willie Nelsen with him. For me, those songs held them the secrets of who my father was, or so I imagined. He and Harry became one in the same. In Mr. Tanner, Harry tells the story of a man who owns a cleaning company but dreams of being a concert hall baritone. In that song, I saw my dad’s longing to be a writer rather than a minister. In Harry Chapin’s Taxi, I felt my father’s desire to be carefree like the taxi cab driver seems to be, his longing to renounce the many obligations that life placed upon him, all the people he had to care for in the church, all the expectations of others he strived to live up to.
In Willie Nelson’s Always On My Mind, I saw his love for my mother that he couldn’t always show or express, but that I needed to believe that he felt. In Johnny Cash, I imagined a secret desire to be a bit more of an outlaw, rather than so straightlaced, maybe truer than I knew, as he smoked in secret for years. The desk drawer with Listerine, Altoids and Brut cologne, should have been an obvious clue if I’d known what to look for, but the idea of my father smoking cigarettes was so far-fetched in those days that I never would have imagined it as a remote possibility and so I missed the clues entirely.
The current political climate has pushed my father and me further and further apart over the last 4-5 years. As the emotional distance between us has increased so has my return to the music of my childhood. Maybe he feels this too.
For Christmas this past year, he sent my sibling and I a CD of that Harry Chapin album (neither of us has a CD player, of course). Was he expressing his longing for the connection felt on those road trips? Maybe. I don’t know because I can’t ask him.
Instead of talking to him about it, I listen to those albums of my childhood over and over again, hoping to catch a glimpse of my father, wanting to understand something that previously alluded me, to feel close to him once more, like I did when I was sitting in the front seat of the red 1966 Ford Mustang we spent brutally hot Texas summers reupholstering together. My dad always drove it just a little too fast on the two-lane Missouri highways that made me feel nauseous, but which I never wanted to leave: the air from the window whipping through the car, our voices melding together as we belted out the words of those songs, all of which I still know by heart.
In those moments, I felt so safe. I felt loved, and when I listen to Harry, Willie and Johnny today, it’s because I long to feel that way again. The tears that come now are because words that never felt relatable, like those Cat’s in the Cradle, Harry’s most popular tune, suddenly are and I imagined one last road trip without the chasm of the body politic between us, but with just the small sliver of the tiny Mustang middle seat and nothing else. Just Harry, Willie, Johnny and My Dad.