Amidst all of the terror and grief and isolation of COVID-19, you might not have paid attention to the fact that Kenny Rogers died this week.
I know that’s a weird thing to focus on now with everything else going on, but Kenny Rogers was the soundtrack of my early childhood, and his death hit me in unexpected places. My father, who was the strangest person I have ever known, loved Kenny Rogers. No, he didn’t just love Kenny Rogers – he obsessed over him. It’s hard for me to remember what it was like to live with my father, since he moved out when I was so young, so my memories of that time are more sensory than anything else. When I try to remember what it sounded like to live with him, a man so wild in his emotions, so unkempt in his keeping, I think of Kenny Rogers. If we begged to listen to something else we were sent to our rooms. My mother divorced him for many reasons, but I’m pretty sure that Kenny Rogers played no small part.
This one’s for Kenny. My father, I swear, wore the exact same glasses up until he died.
For most of my life I knew my father for all of his wild obsessions. His hoarding. His PTSD from Vietnam. His rambling, never ending phone calls. His lottery addiction. The way you never knew whether he was lying or telling the truth about anything, but trusted that somewhere there was a sliver of legitimacy buried deep in the swirling madness of his storytelling. He was constantly storytelling. He was a voracious talker, and you had to really work to follow one of his tales from beginning to end. They never ended up where you expected them to. Up until he died, my sister and brother and I had a joke that when he would call us we would put down the phone, go make a sandwich, pick it back up, listen for a moment, put it down, use the bathroom, pick it back up, listen again, watch an episode of Seinfeld, pick it back up, and he would still be talking away. It’s only a slight exaggeration.
Not once did anyone ever say to me your father is mentally ill. And then about fifteen years ago I watched The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the documentary about the Austin musician who struggled with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I watched that documentary (which is beautiful, and you should totally watch it!) and all I thought was, oh my god, that’s my dad. That’s exactly my dad. The way he spoke, the way he looked, everything. That was the first time I thought, oh. Oh. So that’s what this is. I had lived most of my life desperately embarrassed of him, but suddenly after a lifetime of grasping for answers it was all there in front of me. There was nothing to be embarrassed about. It wasn’t his fucking fault.
It wasn’t my fault.
Now imagine your dad is Daniel Johnston, and it’s the summer of 1988. I just turned eleven years old, and I’m walking through a carnival with my dad. It’s the summer of cut-off jean shorts, Keds, and endless bike rides. My parents divorced a few years before, and every other weekend my dad would pick me up on a Saturday and take me to do something together. My older brother was no longer coming with us by this point, and my older sister never came with us at all. I wasn’t riding any of the carnival rides because I had no one to ride with me, so we were just walking around, people watching, and eating carnival food. I went through a couple of funhouses, ate a hot dog, sweated in the hot August sun. At dusk my father suggested that we go to the tent that was advertising female mud wrestling. I shrugged, ok.
It was an open-air tent, probably much smaller than I remember it being. In my mind it was huge, arena-like. But in reality, we were at a local New Jersey fair. There probably weren’t more than fifty spectators, if that. The crowd was drunk, rowdy. Mostly men, mostly bikers, a few of their girlfriends. And me. An eleven-year old kid with an ice cream cone and a recent invitation to take an early SAT test that was being administered by some New Jersey council for talented youth. While the rest of my friends were listening to Vivaldi with their grandparents in Queens that summer, I was watching desperately too-skinny high school dropouts wrestle in their bikinis in a makeshift mud pit for a cash prize, while men hooted and screamed for them to shake it. To take it all off.
I was very tall for my age, one of those kids who grows fast and unexpectedly, and then just peters out. I was probably 5’5” by the time I was eleven. Slight, but adult-sized. I had just gotten my first period and was just starting to grow boobs and pubic hair and hips. My hair was sun bleached, and my body tan and athletic. All summer I had been pitching for my little league team, riding my bike for hours, and swimming at the Jersey shore. I was gorgeous, a child, straddling the uncertain border between kid dreams and big reality, hearing a distant shout from across the stands, aimed in my direction. A man, pointing at me asking, girl, why don’t you get in there? My father, always in his own world, the guy who took his daughter to watch female mud wrestling, never noticed. I was eleven.
I hadn’t thought of this story in years until I found myself suddenly telling it to a friend while we were in the car driving to Washington DC together to attend the Women’s March after the last presidential election. Something about that must have brought it up out of the dark pools of repressed memories. Jesus, Amy, she said. That’s fucked up. Was it, I wondered? It was, right?
I’m writing about my father, but I’m also writing about my divorce. Because of all the disappointing men in my life, my father is the one I can’t quite shake off. I have never hated him. I have never even harbored any real anger towards him, even though eventually he took off and I never heard from him again. Because for every confounding and inexplicable and inexcusable thing he did, he countered it with a fierce loyalty, an obsessive sentimentality, and a devoted love that I never actually questioned despite it all. I hadn’t seen my father in over twenty years when he died, but after he passed away I spent some time with his brother whom I had never known before. He was so shockingly alike my father in his weirdness, in his deep nostalgia, his mannerisms, the Appalachian drawl he applied to my name while he drove me around in his pickup truck, it was like coming home. I was forty years old when I met him, but he insisted on pushing a twenty-dollar bill into my hand when I said goodbye, his eyes watering, saying “I like this little one of Larry’s. Now you can’t say I never gave you anything.” It was exactly the kind of thing my dad would have done.
Anyway, my ex-husband is dark, but otherwise nothing like my father. He’s boring, he’s obvious, what you see is what you get. I chose him because I thought he was an antidote, a person without mystery. There was nothing beneath the surface except his own terrible self. But the thing is, I realize now, we would have never lasted. My ex, with his boring, steady childhood could never really grasp what it was I was trying to say. You see, I’m a lot like my father in many ways. My stories are long and rambling, and they never end up the way I planned. My ex is simple. He’s uncomplicated. He never even tried to follow along.
And in the sixteen years we were together, not once did the man ask me about my father.
Stay safe everyone.
Listen to The D-Train, The Playlist, a soundtrack to a shitshow.