Traveling with my dad can be frustrating. Over the last couple years, I’ve tried to ask him about some kind of dream trip that he’d like to go on. My treat. Let me give him a chance to visit anywhere in the world, in style; a gift of relaxation and sights unseen. Hawaii? Iceland? But it’s difficult to talk to my father in terms of what he wants to do in a way that’s separate from what he feels he needs to do, what he ought to do. Even just asking him what he wants for dinner is a long process, because I first have to untangle all the answers that defer to what other people might like. Eventually, I got an answer about the trip he wanted to take, post-booster shot.
“It would be good to go to North Carolina, so I can see my sister, Viju Atya. And that can be on the way to Georgia. Your cousin is married now and lives in Alpharetta.” Anywhere in the world! And he’s making plans to visit Alpharetta, Georgia! A place which, by the way, he’ll barely see. The vacation would consist of sitting in my auntie’s living room, having a cup of tea, and talking about all the family and friends who aren’t in that living room. He’ll hear about what’s going on with everyone else, and then take that bundle of information with him to the next living room, and the next cup of tea.
I’ve witnessed him make this kind of visit for decades. For a long time, it seemed to me like an endless string of obligation. But recently, my feelings have started to change.
People say that I look like my mom. I take after her in lots of ways: in temperament, in tone, in appreciation of the work of Cary Grant. My father and I were always more distant, emotionally, even though we’ve been in touch throughout my life. He’d call in college or when I first moved to Los Angeles, but our conversations would consist of him asking about the weather and if my “money situation” was okay. I thought, maybe, we weren’t similar at all. I’d try to end the calls politely. My dad’s way of caring for people often struck me as hokey – a little something from an airport gift shop, the endless Hallmark cards he mails to people, for every occasion. His insistence on picking people up from the airport. Obligation after obligation.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve been gathering my own collection of obligations. It’s a pile that grows larger with passing years – or rather, my ability to recognize what I ought to do has gotten sharper. What determines what I ought to do, what I need to do, on behalf of other people, is just a matter of being there for the people I love. Now, I can see there were unspoken lessons in the small gestures my father would make, in his attentiveness. I’ve come to recognize his constancy as an eloquent expression of love.
Call me up, still awake
We both know why, but we won’t say
Your voice is thick with memories
Trying to give yourself some peace
You send another photograph
From the past we used to have
I try to keep you on the phone,
I hate the thought of you alone when you
Can’t sleep, can’t sleep
There’s too much you can’t keep
The process of making this record, and even the idea that I would be making music again, started with the song that I put out last year, “Between There and Here,” which was about my mom, and losing her. I have some regrets that my years-long period of writer’s block didn’t end in time for me to write about her while she was alive. But it opened the door to what I wanted to write about: the people I love. It’s my attempt to hold them a little bit more tightly to me. Who they are now, my memories of who they have been, I’ve come to understand that these are the most precious things I possess, and these songs are a way for me to encase what I’m feeling in amber.
I understand that for my father, sitting in the homes of people he loves is a way of creating memories that he can hold on to: the light in the living room, the steam from the tea in a ceramic cup, the texture of the air that hangs between people while they fill in the gaps of life from the last time they sat like this. I have my own version of these memories, and they look different, but I can imagine that my dad and I might feel the same way about holding on to them.
My record is called Rooms I Used to Call My Own, and it’s streaming on all the digital music platforms. The wonderful part about having a digital release is that it’s easy for people to listen to. But in the absence of a physical record, without liner notes, or even a back cover, I don’t have a place to include a note of dedication. So instead, I’m writing it here:
For my father. I’m still learning to recognize everything I’ve learned from you.