Music helped navigate the tricky relationship with Dad

“It’s just something I noticed, that’s all. When we were young, we had to get dressed up. Now I hear that people are wearing shorts to church and even sweatpants.”

My father winced. “Well, not at the Holy Trinity.”

Before our church moved in the 1980s, it was in a stone building located in downtown Raleigh. The neighbourhood was thought of as rough, at least by suburbanites like us, and though nothing bad ever happened, occasionally something exciting did. “Say, Dad, remember the time you had a meeting with the priest and I went with you?” Lisa asked. “We were on our way back home when a black man exposed himself to us. I think I was 12 or 13, and he just pulled his penis right out of his pants and started waving it around.”

“Oh, right.” Our father wiped his mouth. “I remember that like it was yesterday!”

“Then you made a U-turn so we could see it again.” He chuckled. “It was big!”

“Most fathers would shield their daughters from something like that,” Lisa said. “But there you were, making sure I got a second look.”

Again he laughed. “I guess I saw it as an educational experience!” I like it when Lisa and Hugh are around, as they can always get my father to talk. When it’s just the two of us, I never know what to say. This is hardly a new development. It’s been like this for as long as I can remember.

All his life my father has been handy. He worked on his own cars and once built an addition onto our house in Raleigh. My job, always, was to hand him tools as he called for them and to hold the worklight, a bare bulb in an aluminium cage. It might have been different had I cared what a piston was, or were I interested in the proper consistency of cement. As it was, I never asked, and he never offered. Rather, I’d just stand there, my arm outstretched like a lawn jockey’s.

“Goddamn it, quit moving.”

“I’m not.”

“Well, you sure as hell are, so stop it.”

I suppose I could have asked him questions about his job, or his childhood, but it already seemed too late to get into it. These were the sorts of conversations that should have begun years earlier. They needed foundations built brick by brick, and not just thwacked down whole. He could have asked about my life, but I don’t know how articulate I would have been.

“What were you thinking, slapping that beef roast with your bare hands?”

“I dunno.”

I wasn’t being cagey. I honestly hadn’t a clue why I’d done it. The roast was on a serving tray, puddled in its own juices – juices that, when I hit it, spattered all over the pastel family portrait we’d sat for earlier that week at the mall. I watched the blood drip down our faces, and then I slapped the roast again, wondering all the while what had come over me. It was the same when I took an industrial stapler to our new kitchen counter-tops, an out-of-body experience.

What do other fathers and sons talk about? I’d ask myself, shifting the worklight from one hand to the other. There was never any problem making conversation with my mother. That was effortless, the topics springing from nowhere, and we’d move from one to the next in a way that made me think of a monkey gracefully swinging through the branches of a tree. The silence my father and I inflicted on each other back then is now exacerbated by his advanced age. Every time I see him could be the last, and the pressure I feel to make our conversation meaningful paralyses me.

“How do you talk to him so easily?” I asked Lisa as we carried the lunch dishes back into the house.

“It’s simple,” she told me. “Sometimes I’ll just call and say, ‘Hey, Dad, what are you up to?’ ” “Watching Fox News while doing his taxes no matter what month it is or what time of day,” I said.

“Well, yes, but maybe he found a new deduction. Maybe someone from church died, or one of his old neighbours. You never know!”

That night, we went to a restaurant Lisa and her husband, Bob, are fond of in the town of Atlantic Beach. I put on a shirt and tie, Amy debuted a new dress, and my father wore a T-shirt with white tennis shorts. His legs used to be hairy, but now they’re as smooth as a child’s, the result, he says, of wearing knee-high socks for all those years at IBM. He rode to the restaurant with Hugh and me, and perked up when, halfway through the 20-minute drive, we passed the condominium complex we often stayed at in the 1980s. “Hey,” he said, “that’s where we used to go when we were a family.”

“Well, aren’t you still a family?” Hugh asked.

“I meant when Sharon was alive.”

David Sedaris: "Our mother was the one who held us all together."

David Sedaris: “Our mother was the one who held us all together.”

Photo: Hugh Hamrick

Though I hated hearing him say that, I couldn’t deny the truth of it. Our mother was the one who held us all together. After her death we were like a fistful of damp soil, loose bits breaking off with no one to press them back in. When she was around, we came to the beach every year. The place we’d just passed was set in a complex of 20 or so units, arranged around a pool. There are pictures of us all standing on the deck, my eyes and those of several of my sisters bloodshot from all our pot-smoking. I think of the meth-fuelled sandcastles we built and the dinosaurs made of driftwood the year we could afford cocaine.

“You’re all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” our mother used to say when we’d return from our midnight walks on the beach. She knew what was up, while I don’t think our father had a clue. The condo we rented was arranged over five floors. When my sisters brought boyfriends, they had to sleep in separate rooms. It was the same at my parents’ place in Raleigh. “It’s my house, so you play by my rules,” our mother used to say. The sole exception was me, for some reason. I said to my father not long ago, “The only sex you and Mom allowed under your roof was gay sex. Didn’t that seem odd to you?”

“Well, there was us,” he said.

“Us?”

“I mean your mother and me.”

I covered my ears and vomited a little in my mouth. The restaurant in Atlantic Beach resembled a shack, so I was surprised by the fancy menu, which was handed out by a young, bow-lipped woman with a sweet eastern North Carolina accent. “I like to start with the women if that’s okay,” she said when it came time to take our orders. She turned to Lisa. “So what will you be having this evening, milady?”

It was such an unexpected word, so refined, and Amy repeated it all night. “How were your five double Scotches, milady?”

When our food arrived, I mentioned a flight attendant I’d recently met. “I was asking her about the things passengers leave behind on planes, and she told me that earlier that week she discovered a used sanitary napkin in one of the seat backs.”

“Oh my God,” Amy said, delighted.

“And it was still warm,” I added.

My father looked down at his flounder. “Is that any way to talk at the table?”

“He’s disgusting,” Hugh said, happy to have found something he and my father could agree on.

I then brought up a fellow I’d met in New Mexico who has an uncle named Phil McCracken.

“What’s wrong with that?” my father asked.

“Fill my crack in,” Lisa said.

“Get it? Like butt crack?”

My father sighed. “The level of discourse here is definitely lacking.” “So tell me, Lou,” Hugh said, “what was your father like?”

He was trying to open things up a bit and didn’t realise that, subject-wise, he’d steered us onto a dead-end street. My grandfather, the man we addressed as Pappoú, died when I was six years old. He came from Greece, as did Yiayiá, my grandmother. Neither of them spoke more than a hundred words of English, yet they owned and ran a newsstand in Cortland, New York. The space was long and dim and narrow, like a hallway that led to nothing, lit by a bare bulb. They lived in the small apartment upstairs, and though I can picture it clearly, all I remember about Pappoú is that he was short – five foot one, according to his immigration papers.

“Why are you asking about my father?” my father said. Hugh shrugged. “I’ve just never heard much about him.” My father signalled the waitress for another vodka tonic. “Well, he was a very … hard worker.”

“You’re not going to get any more than that out of him,” Lisa said to Hugh. “Believe me, we’ve been trying all our lives.” I never told my father, but a few years earlier I’d received a letter from an 82-year-old woman in Cortland. She said some nice things about my books, then added, “Your grandfather was a pig.” Then it was just her name, no “best wishes” or anything.

“I have nothing more to tell you,” my father said when Hugh asked for details. “The man worked very hard, both my parents did. There wasn’t time for anything else.” It’s maddening how tight-lipped he is on the subject. Greeks tend to disapprove when their children marry outside the culture, so Pappoú was a real dick to my mother. She’d shudder at the mention of his name but never got specific, saying only, “You’ll have to take that up with your father.”

“How can you not have a single memory of him?” I asked later that night on our way home from the restaurant. “I mean, there has to be something you recall. Did he drive a car? Did he ever listen to music or read? I remember Yiayiá saying some pretty rough things about black people, which is odd given her limited vocabulary

It’s like she took English lessons from a Klan member but quit after the second day. Was he that way, too? Did he smoke? Did he give you Christmas presents?”

“He’s asleep,” Hugh told me.

“What?” “Your dad, he’s asleep.”

The next morning I saw my father at the dining room table, leafing through a magazine Bob had brought. It was about North Carolina crafts and had a salad bowl on the cover. “Hey,” he cried, looking up as I came down the stairs, “there he is!” Lisa entered at around the same time, saying, “How you doing, Dad?”

“Fantastic.”

It’s my habit to write in the morning, so I made a pot of coffee and carried it up to the room Hugh and I share. My worktable is in a corner, beside a sliding glass door that looks out onto the ocean, and I’d been sitting at it for an hour or so when my father wandered in. This is something he’s done since I was a child. I’d be at my desk, drawing or doing homework, and he’d come in and stretch out on the bed.

“What’s going on?” he’d ask. A minute later he’d be fast asleep. This continued after I moved out and had my own apartment on the other side of Raleigh. He’d walk in without knocking and go straight to my bed, almost urgently, as if it were a toilet he desperately needed to use. “So what’s going on?” my father asked, hands on his hips, looking out my sliding glass door at the ocean.

“Nothing,” I said. “Just trying to get some work done.”

He sat on the edge of the bed and tested it, the way you might if you were shopping for a new mattress. I noticed that his feet barely touched the floor, and as he lifted them in order to stretch out, I turned back to my computer and finished a letter I was writing to a convict. I get a lot of mail from people in prison, both men and women. They rarely say what they’re in for, but what with the internet, it’s easy enough to find out – drugs, in this case.

“So how are you doing?” my father asked. “How’s your health?” This was possibly the 10th time in two days that he’d asked me this question.

“Fine.”

“You feeling pretty good?”

“I guess.”

I can see him doing the same thing I am, trying to make some sort of connection. We’re like a pair of bad trapeze artists, reaching for each other’s hands and missing every time. Meanwhile, the stage crew has gathered below us and begun to roll up the safety net. “Thank you for dinner last night,” my father said. “That was awfully generous of you.”

“It was my pleasure.”

I returned my attention to the letter I was writing and wondered who might be the first to read it. Someone must surely open the envelopes before they get to the inmates, searching for money and easy-to-hide drugs. By the time I turned back to my father, he was snoring, which was for the best, probably.

Growing up, I never got the sense that he particularly liked me. I didn’t feel completely unloved: if the house were on fire he would have dragged me out, though it would have been after he rescued everyone else, including the cat and dog. It could have been worse – at least I had my mother – but as a child it really bothered me.

What can I do to make him like me? I used to wonder. The harder I tried to mould myself into the sort of son I thought he wanted, the more contemptuous he became, so eventually I quit trying and founded the opposition party, which I still lead to this day. Whatever he’s for, I’m against. Almost.

Watching my father asleep on my bed, I thought again of the pastel family portrait I’d ruined. If that were an isolated incident I might have a right to my self-pity, but if I’m honest about it, I wouldn’t have liked my childhood self, either. I regularly lied, and stole money from him. If there was silence in the car, I’d break it by making one of my sisters cry. “Dad, David keeps saying I’m pregnant and that the baby will have a cat’s body and be born dead.”

“I never – “

“Did too.”

“Did not, liar.”

For a while, when I was 11 or so, I used to drop the empty cardboard toilet rolls into the john. They would take a while to disappear, five or six flushes usually, but I was in no hurry. The first three times the toilet clogged, my father went at it with the plunger, and that did the trick. Then, for some reason, the plunger wasn’t enough. He ordered me to get his toolbox and to stand in the open doorway, ready to hand him whatever he called for.

After draining the tank and turning off the water supply, he used his wrench on the lug nuts and unmoored the toilet from the floor, exposing a foul, corroded, fist-size hole that stunk up the entire house. I held my breath and watched as he reached down into it and withdrew part of the roll I had flushed a few hours earlier. “Who in the hell …?”

That night there was a big lecture at the dinner table.

Author David Sedaris: "The harder I tried to mould myself into the sort of son I thought he wanted, the more contemptuous he became."

Author David Sedaris: “The harder I tried to mould myself into the sort of son I thought he wanted, the more contemptuous he became.”

“When I get my hands on whoever’s doing this …” He didn’t even use a glove, I thought, watching as he took a piece of bread from the wicker basket we had. A few nights later, I flushed another empty roll down the john, which clogged again. Out came the plunger, the tools, orders to stand in the doorway. The toilet was lifted off the floor, and as my father cursed and rolled up his sleeves, I must have laughed or at least smiled in some telltale way. “You,” he growled, looking up at me from his kneeling position on the floor, “you’re the one who’s doing this?”

“Me?”

“Don’t even try to talk your way out of it.”

I offered some lame denial: “I hardly ever even go to the bathroom. You should ask Amy or Tiffany. They’re the ones – “

“You are going to reach down into this pipe and pick out that cardboard roll,” my father said. “Then you are never going to flush anything but toilet paper down this toilet again.” As I backed away, he pounced. Then he wrestled me to the floor, grabbed my hand, and forced it deep into what amounted to my family’s asshole.

And there it has been ever since, sorting through our various shit. It’s like I froze in that moment: with the same interests as that 11-year-old boy, the same maturity level, the same haircut. The same glasses, even.

What I remember more vividly than the stench, and the sight of my hand when I pulled it out of that terrible pipe, was how strong my father was. I’d put up the fight of my life but might as well have been a doll, the way he wrenched apart my folded arms and took me by the wrist. I couldn’t imagine being that powerful. He’s slighter now, of course. Shorter by a few inches and downright skinny – arms and legs no thicker than the bones beneath them. How was I ever afraid of this person? I wondered now, watching his narrow chest as it rose and fell.

“David!” he used to shout from the top of the stairs. “Get up here!”

“What did I do?” I’d call from my room, certain he’d found me out for something. “Whatever it was, it wasn’t me.”

“Get up here, now!” Half the time it would be trouble – he’d discovered the branches torn off the tree he’d just planted, or the football he gave me melted on the hibachi – but just as likely he’d be in the living room and music would be playing. It was always jazz, most often something on the radio.

My father’s most prized possession was his stereo system, which he housed in a glass-doored cabinet: turntable, amplifier, fancy tape deck, all of it top-of-the-line and off-limits to the rest of us. “Sit down,” he’d say, gesturing to the couch. “I want you to listen to this. I mean really listen.”

I knew a guy in high school, Teetsil, who’d do the same thing. “There’s this song you have to check out,” he’d insist, taking Born to Run or some LP by The Who out of its jacket, filling his bedroom with the pleasant stink of new record. Though I’d pretend otherwise – “Wow, great!” – nothing Teetsil played ever moved me or made me feel any better about the world I was living in. My dad, though, the things he exposed me to blew my mind. “Who is this?” I’d ask.

“Never mind that now, just listen.” He tried doing the same to my sisters and my brother, Paul, but none of them ever heard what he and I did. John Coltrane’s I Wish I Knew. Betty Carter singing Beware My Heart. The hair on my arms would stand up, and everything else would recede – my shitty life at school, the loneliness and self loathing I worried every day might drag me under – all of it replaced by unspeakable beauty.

“Are you getting this?” he’d ask, his hands balled into fists the way a coach’s might be, pacing the room as I listened. Afterward, spent, he’d turn down the volume, and we’d share that rare silence that was companionable rather than tense. This was what we had in common – music.

When he was growing up, jazz was the equivalent of rap or punk rock. Listening to it meant something. It made you a certain kind of person, especially to parents whose best-loved instrument was a bouzouki.

I don’t imagine Pappoú could have distinguished Miles Davis from a passing dump truck. It was all just noise to him. That might have been part of its appeal to my father, but it had nothing to do with mine. Music is the only way I didn’t rebel against him.

Sitting in the silent afterglow of a song he’d just ordered me to listen to, I’d imagine myself onstage, sweat-drenched at the piano like Oscar Peterson, or perhaps I was the headlining trumpet player or guitarist taking a bow. The audience before me would be going wild with appreciation, though one person in particular would stand out – my father on his feet, cheering. “Did you hear that? That’s my son up there!”

There was a baby grand piano just outside the bedroom I occupied until I left for college, and I’d strike the keys from time to time, imagining how proud I could make him by buckling down and really learning how to play. By the age of 12, though, I knew a setup when I saw one. There’s an expression you often hear from recovering alcoholics: don’t go to the hardware store for milk. If I were to master an instrument, or do anything creative with my life, I’d have to do it for myself, and myself only.

As an adult I regularly return to Raleigh and read out loud at what used to be Memorial Auditorium but is now part of the Duke Energy Centre. My family will attend, and afterward – without fail – my father will say, “That was nice and everything, but it wasn’t sold out.”

“Well, actually, it was,” I’ll tell him.

“No, it wasn’t,” he’ll say. “While waiting for you to walk out onstage, I counted 30 empty seats.” This is him all over. The place accommodates more than 2200 people, but all he can see are the unoccupied chairs.

“As a rule, 5 per cent of concertgoers who buy their tickets six months or more in advance either forget to show up or make other plans in the meantime,” I’ll tell him, quoting my friend Adam, who started producing events 30 years ago and knows what he’s talking about.

“That’s not true,” my father will say. “Those seats weren’t forgotten. They were empty.”

This, as if a marked disinterest in me had turned them a different colour.

“Okay,” I’ll say, thinking: who does this – goes to the shows of people they’re supposed to be proud of and counts the empty seats? Were I playing the piano to a packed house at the Monterey Jazz Festival, it would be no different. “Where the hell was everyone?” he’d ask when my set was over.

He takes a lot of naps now, my father. Two or three a day by my count, at least when we’re all together at the beach. In 20 or so minutes he’d wake up, recharged, and though I wanted to join the action downstairs, I didn’t want him to wake up in an empty room. There was nothing to do but wait, I supposed, and in the meantime I’d put together a playlist we could listen to. A little Jessica Williams, followed by Sam Jones and Eddie Higgins, people he might not have heard lately, a bill guaranteed to really shut us up for a while.

Edited extract from Calypso by David Sedaris (Hachette, $30), available from May 29.

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age.

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