Monday, January 8, 2018

My Dad and Elvis Presley

Today would have been Elvis Presley’s eighty-third birthday, had he lived. There are some conspiracy theorists out there who say he is alive. I don’t know anything about that. I do know that if my dad was here, he would have celebrated his seventieth birthday back in November. There are no theories about the man who was my father. Everyone agrees that he has, in fact, left the building.



In spirit, though, my dad is very much alive. At least for me he is. It’s just kind of understood that parents are a huge part of their children’s lives. How could it possibly be any different? No one talks about it, it’s just a fact. It’s the way things are. Even though this is something that isn’t questioned, it still amazes me on a surprisingly frequent basis just how much influence parents continue to have on the lives of their kidseven after those kids become adults themselves, and a long, long time after those parents are gone.

I was never a Daddy’s girl. I wanted to be. Oh, lord, how I wanted to be. I think every little girl does. That wasn’t the kind of relationship my dad and I had, though. The two of us weren’t anything alike, not from the very beginning. For one, I’m a girl. After he finally came to terms with the fact that he was going to be a father, I had the audacity to be born female. That didn’t come as too much of a shock for my grandfather who had four daughters of his own, my mother included. I’ve heard a story about how he took the news of my arrival. “Of course she’s a girl,” he said. “I never expected anything else.” It was a joke that my grandpa had started to doubt that we’d have any little boys born into the family. That wasn’t a joke my dad found very funny.




There were other reasons he didn’t like me much. Even at the start, it was obvious that the two of us had different personalities. I’m soft … both in heart and with my words, he was gruff both physically and verbally. I’m playful, but he teased mercilessly. I’m affectionate, but he liked to use open palms and clenched fists.  We were like oil and water.

He was different around other people. He was funny and engaging, and women loved him. Things were better for us when we were with a crowd. He gathered up all his good qualities and showed them off when we weren’t alone. It took me a long time to realize that he was carrying a lot of his own pain and anger inside him. Even after years and years of dealing with his substance abuse and counseling, both with him and on my own, that still wasn’t clear to me. He never talked about it. Never shared. He’s been gone for seventeen years now. I’ve learned a lot about him that I didn’t know back then, and I see it now. I realize how good he was at hiding that pain and anger when in the presence of those outside his family.

My red teddy bear chair.
My dad was a good-looking guy, and when he smiled, I remember feeling hopeful. It was a good smile, a striking smile, and I loved seeing it on his face. I see him in me when I look in the mirror. We don’t look a lot alike, but I carry much of him with me. His hair was wavy and dark. His eyes were hazel, but most people thought they were brown. You had to get really close to him to see the green and gold that swirled inside them. I got his big, wide eyes. I was gifted his long eyelashes, too, but not his prominent Greek nose. Although my Dutch ancestry gave me fair skin, blonde hair, and blue-green eyes, my dad peers out at me sometimes when I let him. My smile? He only gets partial credit for that. My mom has a pretty killer smile of her own.  



I may not have been a Daddy’s girl, and the two of us might not have had much in common … but he unknowingly gave me something I could relate to, something that came from him that was good in every single way. Music. And that’s where Elvis comes in.

It would take me a very long time to list all the music my dad introduced me to. He was born in 1947, so he listened to all of the amazing songs that came out of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. My mom liked music, but she didn’t have a passion for it like my dad did. He was a musician himself, and he played in a few bands while I was growing up. The one I remember the most was called Freeway, and he played lead guitar and sang lead vocals in the smoky, dimly lit Goodsport Lounge while my younger step-brother and I bounced and ran around the dance floor until we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer. We ate many cheeseburgers and drank countless Coke’s in that rounded, red vinyl booththe same one we’d crawl into when the clock crawled past midnight and we could dance no more.

My dad converted a corner of the dining room into his music space. He had rows and rows of albums lined up against the walls. I’d sit on that gray, threadbare carpet, and I’d go through the stacks to see the artwork on all the covers. It didn’t matter how many times I’d seen them, I always wanted to look at them again. He had several guitars, and the cases would always be opened, a cat or two curled up in the red or bright orange felt that covered the insides. Music was always playing, and I knew the words to all the songs. Like I said, I couldn’t possibly include every album that spun on that turntable, but the two artists that had the most profound affect on me were undoubtedly the Beatles and Elvis Presley.



It didn’t matter that my dad and I had been haphazardly thrown together in this life, completely mismatched and unsuited for one another while we sat in that corner of his house on Bradburn Boulevard. Whoever was in charge of making sure parents got the right babies screwed up big time when it came to him and me … but all of that was forgotten in that dining room corner with music swirling around us. He never scolded me while we were there together. He never told me not to touch the albums. He never made me feel self-conscious when I’d get up and dance. He never made me feel less than. He never made me feel stupid, or ugly, or wrong. I never felt the shock of his hand against my skin … and his smile was nearly as bright as the sunshine coming through those tall windows. He shared something he loved with mesomething he loved with all his heart and souland it became a part of me. It’s a part I will always love. A part that I am incredibly grateful for. A part that has gotten me through some of the most difficult times in my life.


There were many Elvis albums, but the one I remember the most was Elvis’ Golden Records. “Hound Dog”, “All Shook Up”, “Jailhouse Rock”, Too Much”, “Don’t Be Cruel”, “Treat Me Nice” … oh, so many wonderful songs.  I loved that album so much that my dad bought me own copy for Christmas, but I liked listening to it with him best. He had a terrific voice, and he sang right along with the King. It was marvelous, and to this day, every time I hear Elvis, these incredible music sessions with my father come to mind.

One summer day when I was six, I was sitting beside my dad in his Dodge van. We’d just come back from doing somethingwhat I can’t recalland the radio was on. He’d just pulled the van into the driveway when we heard the news that Elvis had died. I didn’t realize that he’d only been forty-two years old at the time, or how incredibly young that was. I didn’t know the particulars surrounding his death, and at six, I didn’t think to ask. What affected me the most was my father’s reaction to the news. It blindsided him. He was speechless. I remember watching him as he stared at the radio, and I had to blink, then squint when I thought I detected a tear in his eye. I’d never seen my dad cry before. He was all bluster and mean, scary words spoken in a loud, angry voice. His emotion was heated and fearful … not sad and thoughtful. That’s a memory that will forever be wedged into my head.

So, on what would have been Elvis’ eighty-third birthday, I find myself listening to many of the songs my dad introduced me to, and feeling grateful that, even though he didn’t mean to, he gave me a beautiful, irreplaceable gift. It’s one I hold near and dear to my heart, and something that I enjoy nearly every day of my life.