Camberwell, mid-1970s; Ballarat, 2020
I grew up in the 1970s in a California bungalow with an entrance hall large enough to dance in. One of my fondest childhood memories is dancing in that hall with my father to Sammy Davis Jnr singing Rhythm Of Life from the soundtrack to the 1969 musical Sweet Charity. The record would’ve been playing on a turntable in the adjacent lounge room so our vigorous dancing didn’t make the needle jump. When Sammy sang Flip your wings and fly to Daddy, we flapped our arms and pretended to fly. When he sang, Take a dive and swim to Daddy, we freestyle-stroked through the air. And when he sang, Hit the floor and crawl to Daddy, I remember my father falling on his knees and shuffling across the floor, a vision of pure joy.
My dad loved having children and was a hands-on father long before it was fashionable. When I think back over my childhood, I’m struck by how present he was in the day-to-day of our lives. He didn’t work late. He didn’t play sport on the weekends. He devoted his time to his children. When I entered my teen years, Dad would often sit with me and my friends, asking questions, taking interest in our lives. At a time when we were at our most self-conscious and awkward, he was always telling us how beautiful we were. Several of my friends said they had closer relationships with my father than they did with their own in those years.
And yet dad was quite socially awkward himself. Confrontation terrified him and if an exchange risked becoming too intimate or emotional, he would conjure a segue to deflect it. He dealt best with the strongest emotions on paper, rather than in person, and wrote beautiful, thoughtful letters throughout his life.
The compulsion to keep a tight lid on his deeper feelings was explained, to some extent, when Dad came out as gay in his early 50s, a brave move that caused seismic shifts in our family and community, changing all our lives—ultimately for the better. But Dad had terrible internalised homophobia, and more than 20 years would pass before he could call himself ‘a proud, gay man.’
I think his 75th birthday was a turning point. We’d prepared a slide show for the occasion, with two songs to the soundtrack. The first, covering the photos from his childhood, marriage and years of raising children, was Peggy Lee’s Mister Wonderful. I can’t remember if this was a song Mum used to sing to him, or that Dad would sing himself, tongue in cheek. The second song on the slideshow soundtrack covering the years after he came out was The More I See You by Peter Allen.
Dad told me afterwards that the slideshow had made him feel truly loved in a way he’d never felt before.
“I was an imperfect father,” he said from his hospital bed in Ballarat. He been admitted with a broken leg after falling at home, and he wasn’t doing well.
“You were a great father,” I protested, and shared with him the memory of dancing in the entrance hall of my childhood home to The Rhythm Of Life.
Dad laughed and in the inimitable way he had of diffusing an intimate moment said, ‘That really was a very large entrance hall.”
The rhythm of life left my father on 24 September 2020, less than two weeks after he turned 85. I hope he’s not resting in peace. I hope he’s dancing.
Stereo Story # 559
Angela’s previous Stereo Story was a tribute to her late mother, via The Gambler by Kenny Rogers.