That’s me, sitting in the middle. Somewhere between North Plainfield, New Jersey and Allentown, Pennsylvania. My father is driving us to see my grandparents in our brand new blue Subaru Legacy station wagon. My mother is in the passenger seat watching the speedometer, looking more than nervous. After eight years of marriage, she has not been able to see what I’ve already written as fact inside my four (almost five!) year old mind: only the coolest dad can make this machine move so fast.
Dad is making note of all the drivers who should be staying out of the left lane. Mom is tightening her grip on the door handle. And I am giving a boastful look to every slow poke we pass, making sure they know.
We rule the road.
The gently glistening static of blank analog space signals the next song on my dad’s new mix tape and we are drawn to the voice of a solitary man: “That was a weather report, now here’s the news” he says to a laughing audience before starting the song.
You stand there looking so surprised, a sad confusion in your eyes.
And I sit mesmerized. Looking at my dangling Velcro shoes, listening to the man tell the story of the games lovers play. A game I, of course, do not understand. A game that I can only relate to Nursery School or by pretending that I’m the starting point guard for the New York Knicks. I don’t know who he’s singing to, or why. But I do know that the two minutes and twenty seconds he’s singing are not enough.
“Dad, can you play that one again?”
He graciously complies, and so begins the second time I hear Paul Kelly’s “Taught By Experts.”
The story continues. With every trip we take, every new tape seems to hold a different Paul Kelly treasure for me to embrace. Allowing the gentle accent of the Southern Australian narrator to lead me wherever he chooses. Taking me on a trip from St. Kilda’s to King’s Cross. Asking if I’d ever seen Sydney from a 727 at night. A voice like this can only lead you to the safest places in the world. Places even the most imaginative young minds could never dream of.
And when it’s over: “Dad, can you play that one again?”
That’s me in the living room. Neshanic Station, New Jersey. It’s coming close to Christmas. First-grade halls are emptied for the holiday and I am making the most of my break, memorizing career batting averages and home run totals as I leaf through my baseball cards.
My dad is in the kitchen cooking a special dinner, playing a tape he made of Christmas songs. I’m paying no special attention until I hear that familiar voice coming through.
Hello, Dan, it’s Joe here. I hope you’re keeping well.
I move toward the kitchen and park myself against the doorway, watching my father sing along as he’s making our supper. The words are all memorized. Every syllable stressed with perfect unison to Kelly’s voice. I feel a warmth come over me as I watch, knowing that my dad is lost in the story Paul Kelly is telling. Lost like me. And as the song begins to fade, he walks over to the boom box and hits the rewind button.
He turns and notices me standing there.
“How did you know I was here?” I ask, sure that he has, at this point, assumed that I want to hear every Paul song twice in a row.
He smiles at me. “I didn’t. There are certain songs that just need to be heard more than once,” he says as he picks me up and sits me on the countertop. “Especially this one.”
The machine clicks and the song begins again.
Hello Dan, it’s Joe here. I hope you’re keeping well. It’s the 21st of December, now they’re ringing the last bell. If I get good behaviour, I’ll be outta here by July. Won’t you kiss my kids on Christmas Day? Please don’t let ‘em cry for me.
“Where is he? Why isn’t he going to see his kids on Christmas?”
“He’s in jail. This song is a letter to his brother from prison,” Dad tells me.
Who's gonna make the gravy now? I bet it won't taste the same.
I listen as Joe contemplates what Christmas will be like without him—I
am awestruck. This man, a criminal, a bad guy, is singing with so much
love for his family. For each person and moment he is going to miss, good
and bad, there is the same sadness. The same love. This is no bad guy.
This is a man who loves his family and is going to miss them on Christmas.
But I am happy. Because I know how lucky I am—my dad is here. My
dad is singing to me as he makes our dinner.
And as the song fades off once again, he smiles and nods to the stereo.
I gleefully take the chance to hit the rewind button.
“Sometimes two isn’t enough either,” he smiles. “Not
for ‘How To Make Gravy.’ Not for my favorite song. Not when
I’m making the gravy for my two favorite people.”
That’s me sitting in the living room. Crystal Lake, Illinois. My father standing next to a chair which my mother is sitting in. My little brother sits with me on the couch, wondering why we’re having a family meeting when we’ve never had one before. I’ve come home from my first year at college. I’ve been around long enough to know. To know when the word “divorce” introduces itself to the room, I don’t even need to acknowledge it. I knew it was coming.
I look my father in the eyes while he stands in the doorway as I’m about to leave, while he tells me that he did everything he could. Asking me if he’s let me down. The realities of the situation fail to settle in. A hard heart has developed over the years, one that allows me to stay safe and guarded. It’s not until I come home for Christmas that year before I am confronted.
Before going to do my shopping I made myself a solid Christmas Mix CD.
All the good ones. Nothing that I was going to hear over the PA at Best
Buy, the real ones. As The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”
faded off the sound of a familiar chord progression came, followed by
Hello Dan, it’s Joe here. I hope you’re keeping well.
My father's favorite song. The first time I had heard it since last Christmas,
when I came home to find him playing it in the kitchen. (“What are
we on, Dad, the third play in a row?”)
Won’t you kiss my kids on Christmas Day? Please don’t
let ‘em cry for me.
And I could feel tears well up.
I thought about everything that had happened over the past few months.
Divorce. New houses. Split weekends. And now a split Christmas. And I
thought about watching my dad sing this song while I sat on the kitchen
countertop years before. And the places this song has taken me. The places
Paul Kelly has taken me throughout my life.
The memories Joe has of Christmas flashed through my head. Good and bad.
How being away from each one carries the same sting. Whether dancing to
Junior Murvin or fighting with Roger, each carries the same feeling. The
same regrets. Because when you’re surrounded by the people you love,
there’s nothing else. No bad memories or unspoken anger can change
things. You love your family and that’s all that matters.
This was my father singing to me as I drove through town. As I drove
my own station wagon, passing the slowpokes. My father was Joe. Telling
me how much he was going to miss every moment from a Christmas that could
have been. For the first time in twenty years he would not kiss his son
on Christmas morning. Would not hold his wife. Would not be making the
And there was nothing I could tell him. Nothing I could do to change
the facts. All I could do was sing with him. Every word memorized. Every
syllable stressed in perfect unison.
Tell her that I'm sorry, yeah I love her badly, tell 'em all I'm
sorry. And kiss the sleepy children for me you know one of these days,
I'll be making gravy. I'll be making plenty. I'm gonna pay 'em all back.
And there was nothing I could do as the song faded off but play it again.