In Dad’s car, February, 2000
An old man died …
… And when he died
He left a table made of nails and pride
And with his hands he carved these words inside
“For my children”
When I was little there was always music in the house, especially on Saturday mornings. Dad would crank up the TEAC reel-to-reel with its square steel buttons sticking out like teeth, and out of the huge speakers planted around the house would blast Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night. During Crunchy Granola Suite I’d sing along with the dat dat de dum..s excitedly waiting for Dad to join Neil in his exuberant Good Lord! He always got it at exactly the right moment. And then I knew the day was on its way to being a good one. Watching someone be happy is a powerful thing.
When I was that little, that music was more like a feeling or a mood, than a sound. It was happy and hopeful and felt like wrestling with my brothers, games of Monopoly, Mum doing head stands and down face dogs, Dad asking me if I had any problems in the world on the way to the hardware store, and eight-year-old me being able to answer No. I remember the deep, silky tones of Neil Diamond’s Shilo, Sweet Caroline, Crackling Rosie being the soundtrack to these sunny Saturday mornings. Mum, What’s a store bought woman? But I don’t remember Morningside. Maybe because it was on reel two, or maybe because it was sad and serious and wasn’t very catchy. Perhaps Dad changed the reel before we ever got to it.
Then us kids grew up. Especially my big brother. And with all the stuff that went along with that, the music stopped. It’s not like parents got a lot of guidance back then either. Dr Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care never mentioned anything about weed, or heroin, or ripping off family, or car accidents that killed people, or jail, or alcoholism, or things and people not turning out like they were supposed to. And the others of us in the family just watched as a sad, strained silence took the place of songs. I left home and went through a grungy punk phase. I think I just wanted it to be noisy again. Each year I move farther and farther away.
Fast forward ten years. I’m pregnant with my second child, visiting Mum and Dad to escape the Alice Springs heat. Maybe it’s because my three-year-old brings her infectious curly spark into the stillness, or maybe it’s because the support group my parents have been going to for a while now helps them realise that maybe everything is not their fault, that they were, are, doing the best they can. Either way, it’s like something has pulled open the curtains a bit and let a slither of light in.
I’m watching Dad working on the huge driftwood table he’s been making out of wood that he’s found and dragged home from the beach. He wants to give it to me and my little family as a wedding present if ever we do go ahead and get married. It will seat ten, is made without using a single nail or screw, and has bits of rope and coral inlayed in the ends, a magnificent masterpiece of craftsmanship and love.
As he works away, Dad tells me he’s been thinking. He wants music back in the house again. He looks up from his sanding and with a glint in his dark eyes, says he wants to blast Hot August Night loud through all the rooms again. Inside, the speakers are the same and as good as ever, but the old TEAC has long since been replaced by a fancy stereo unit with turntable and cassette, and then upgraded again more recently with a CD player. When we go inside and look, the cassette cover of Hot August Night is there in the stack but the tape is nowhere to be found.
“Come on”, I say, “Let’s go buy it… RIGHT NOW!”
In the carpark behind Cosmos Books and Music in Acland Street, we unwrap the new CD and he slides it into the player. “I want to play you a song I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been making that table.” He flicks through the tracks to Morningside and the soothing velvet sounds of Neil’s voice singing about the old man and the table fill the car as we drive back home with our arms on the open window sills in the summer sun.
Before we get out of the car, Dad tells me he is going to make a plaque for underneath his table before he gives it to us. It is going to say “for my children” like in the song. We go inside and put the CD on the stereo. My three-year-old watches mesmerised as he gets Good Lord! exactly right as usual. That day feels like the start of something. It feels like the Saturday mornings of my childhood.
A month later Dad was diagnosed with cancer. A year or so later he was gone. Somewhere in that time we got hastily married while he was still ok enough to attend. Mum made me a special wedding dress so I could breast feed my ten-week-old son. Dad had the table, weighing a bloody ton, shipped up to Alice for our present. A few months later we played Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now at his funeral. Believe it or not, there was a rainbow over our house the day he went. I cried and I cried.
…the old man died…
Another decade or two down the track, my own kids have grown and left home, and that marriage is long since over. But the table is still with me, has been with us through so much. When I moved back down South, I had to choose a house with a big enough spot to put it. These days, whenever the kids are home, or Mum is up for a visit, someone nods towards the porch, holding their plate of food, or gesturing with their glass, “Dad’s table?” and we’ll settle around it, running our palms over the soft worn wood as we talk and eat. He never did get to add the plaque, but lately I’ve been thinking, perhaps I will.
Wash away the sadness from these eyes of mine
For I recall the words the old man signed
“For my children”
*Video/YouTube clip recorded at Sidney Myer Music Bowl, 1976.
**Cosmos Books and Music, now Readings.