Singing to the Birds
By Lara Shelton
When I was a girl my father was my hero. I think for a lot of little girls it’s the same. He was smart, funny, and handsome. He was the model from which I drew future boyfriends, and none of them measured up.
He worked for the GM plant in the Van Nuys, California, in a job which I now recognize as “middle management,” but which at the time seemed to be connected with the magical alchemy of creating cars. He went to work, and cars came out. And that seemed incredible.
There were other ways in which he was incredible. That gay couple down the street? He was friends with them. He invited them over for barbecue while the other neighbors whispered behind their backs. He regularly shopped at the Iranian-owned market, because they had the best prices on beer. He once gave a ride to a homeless man who was sitting, barefoot, on the curb near the Alpha-Beta supermarket.
These things were just not done by white men in middle management in the early eighties, a period whose rampant, solipsistic selfishness left traces all over its culture. But they were done by my father.
When the GM plant downsized, my father lost his job, like a lot of people. He ended up getting another one, but somehow some elasticity went out of his character. My parents split up. Mr father went through a number of girlfriends, a couple more job changes, and two more marriages. After a while I began to realize that something fundamental about him had changed. I don’t know if it was the loss of the job, or the divorces, or other factors that he didn’t tell me about. He had been stretched out of shape, and would never be the same again.
We remained close, but the closeness became more painful than reassuring. I was at sea. I made a lot of poor choices (see “Hotel California”, on this blog for an example). My father had failed me, and whatever plans I had made, who I was, it was all based on a lie.
Around this time, I discovered this song by Lisa Germano, whose opening line goes:
So what if your heroes change their minds?
And all you thought was right flew out the window?
And all you based your life on wasn’t real?
I listened to this song over and over again–I think it was 1994 or 1995. I used to drive around the city in a beat-up, dirt-brown Toyota Tercel and cry my eyes out. No one could see me except for Lisa, who knew my pain. The song seemed to crystallize everything I had been feeling for the past few years, and bring it to an excruciating, needle-sharp point.
If it sounds agonizing, it was. But I stuck with it, listening to the song over and over again. I did this mostly because Germano offers a kind of hope:
What you gonna do now, so all alone here?
Singing to the birds, singing to the birds.
What was left but to sing to the birds? There was still life out there, even if I felt dead inside. A small kindness to a small creature was still possible. And maybe a small kindness to myself, and a small kindness to the people outside myself as well.
This period in my life is very much on my mind these days, because the political rhetoric my father has been spouting lately makes him unrecognizable to me as the man I grew up with, the man who was my hero. When I’m feeling especially bitter I think about him as the man whose vote in this recent election canceled out my own, in the same way that his period of wandering in the wilderness seemed to cancel out my childhood. When I’m feeling a bit more generous I remember how old he is, or I remember that he’s still living in a house filled with memories of his third wife, or that his only companion most nights is Fox News. When I’m feeling particularly desperate I listen to “Singing to the Birds” again:
And what if your hero fades away?
And all the things you thought were orange are gray, now?
Who is it who brings you some new colors?
Singing to the birds….
I had lunch with my father just the other day. If I’m honest with myself, I think I wanted him to say, “I’m sorry.” I’ve wanted him to say “I’m sorry” for a very long time. But what is there to be sorry for, really? Should he be sorry that life has disappointed him? That he couldn’t live up to the enormous expectations I set up for him? So we talked about our lives. I heard about his alimony payments, he heard about my boring job. We avoided the topic of politics.
Just two adults, no hero-worship involved. I suppose it’s much kinder that way.