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Thursday, June 10, 2010

The secret life of my father...



I couldn’t believe my ears.

The jubilant sounds of honky tonk music filled the house. It wasn’t the telly. I went to check our piano. There was my father, who I had never even seen sit at a piano, playing with gusto. He looked up. Along with the usual twinkle, there was a slight wariness in his eyes.

‘Don’t tell your mother.’

I nodded, pleased to be part of his conspiracy. If Mum knew he could play the piano, there would be no end to the nagging and pleading for him to play in public. There would be words of ‘duty and wasted talent’. The likely thrust of her arguments would be to push Dad in the direction of playing in church. Dad’s shy nature would shrink from the glare of the spotlight. Why, he only ever stood at the front of the church to adjust the sound system, or occasionally go to the microphone and say, ‘Testing, one, two, three.’ He seemed uncomfortable even doing that.

I zipped my fingers across my lips. His secret was safe with me.

‘Good girl.’

‘Play some more please, Dad,’ I begged. ‘Just for me?’

Dad lost himself in the joyous rhythms of honky tonk music, the soulful sounds of the blues and then swung effortlessly into the famous hymn, ‘Abide with Me’.

‘Wow! How can you play without sheet music, Dad?’ I asked in bewilderment.

This was confusing indeed, as I had been studying the piano for a couple of years and my stubborn fingers laboriously struggled over each note. I was always curved anxiously over the piano, looking from page to keyboard, note for note, then back again, never quite connecting the two. And there sat Dad, playing as if music was his mother tongue, working the piano pedals effortlessly, as his hands glided over the keys.

Dad answered my question about the lack of sheet music with a vague, glib statement, muttering about ‘playing by ear’. I was not convinced. He made it look so easy.
I knew of his passion for Broadway musicals. Every Sunday would find the two of us happily ensconced in front of the TV for the midday movie. We watched Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, Frank Sinatra—pretty much any musical that was on offer.

‘How come Mum doesn’t know you can play like that? Weren’t you at College together?’

‘Oh, your mother doesn’t have to know everything. I never played the piano at College.’

‘How long have you been able to play like this?’
‘Ages, I guess.’

I gave up prying and just let me music lift me, up and away. Then, suddenly it was over.

‘Ah, duty calls,’ said Dad, closing the piano lid and springing from the piano stool, leaving me in a land of magic, hungry for more.

These special times were infrequent and random, but they never coincided with Mum’s presence at home. Dad made a Hawaiian guitar and he played that quite often at home for us all. Mum didn’t pressure him about playing the guitar in public, deeming it ‘unsuitable for church’, but she made no secret of her pride in him.

‘Your father can do anything,’ was her proud pronouncement.

For myself, I just wished that I could play something…anything. After four struggling years, even Mum had to agree that my musical talent was non-existent, but she persisted with my brother. She bought him a cornet. Mum believed in giving her children Every Opportunity.

‘Oh Mum, couldn’t you buy Peter something quieter,’ I moaned whenever Peter practised. It was my opinion that my brother’s musical ability matched mine—he had none. ‘Buy him a flute, Mum, they’re really quiet.’

‘Stop picking on your brother, Linda. He’ll get better with practise.’
He didn’t, although he must have improved his breathing capacity, because he got louder.


‘Your father doesn’t have to know everything,’ said Mum as we sat quietly in her blue Mini Minor™ outside our house.

We had indulged in our shared passion of buying fabric for sewing. Mum’s friends, Max and Clare Roberts, owned a fabric store, a place I dreamed about at night. I had learned to sew quite early in life as it provided me not only a creative outlet, but also with freedom of choice with clothing. I no longer had to endure the navy shirt-dresses that Mum declared made me look slim and elegant.

‘What rubbish, Mum,’ I would protest. ‘I look like I’m in the Navy. And with this hair, I’m never getting remotely near ‘elegant’. You want me to wear shirtdresses because you like them.’

‘We better go in I guess,’ I muttered, looking down at our pile of fabric bolts, all neatly wrapped in brown paper. There were yards and yards of fabric. We had really over indulged. Mum sighed. I knew she was thinking the same thing. Mum’s mind was ticking over.

‘Go and see where your father is,’ she suggested. ‘Then come and tell me.’

I was more than happy to comply. Most of the fabric was for me, because Mum still hadn’t moved on from the one dress she’d made me when she went to ‘tech’. I knew what was expected of me. With the stealth of a spy I slipped into the house. When I knew Dad was well and truly busy in the shed, whistling while he worked, I ran out the front door and beckoned furiously to Mum. She leapt out of the car. I was ‘lookout’ while she stacked the fabric bolts in the huge wardrobe in the spare room.

This trickery was also repeated on other occasions when Mum bought dresses or shoes for herself. It was a great piece of farce as Mum had her own money and so did Dad. Thus, there was more pretence than actual deception going on. Once, when I was on ‘lookout’, Dad sauntered past and winked at me. I flushed bright red until I realised that he was enjoying the game. I thought it was really funny after that. They both had secrets that were pretty tame.

‘Why don’t you just tell Dad when you buy clothes, Mum? He wouldn’t mind.’

Mum paused, a cloud crossing her face. Maybe she was remembering her lectures to Dad on the ‘exorbitant’ cost of his tools.

‘Ah, he doesn’t need to know.’

‘But what about when you come out in a new dress? What then? He’d have to know then!’

‘Nonsense. Your father wouldn’t notice if I was wearing a hessian sack.’

Mum nearly jumped out of her skin early one morning on our way to church, when Dad blithely commented on how lovely she looked.

‘That’s no hessian sack, Else,’ he said with a wicked grin.

‘Hummph,’ muttered Mum, frustrated at being caught out.

Dad, however, was never caught out. I later learned that while he was a student he played honky tonk music for the dances at the community hall on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. I found a photo of him in elegant flares, posing like a professional, with a three piece suit and carefully arranged tie pin. He stood confidently; hand on hip, casually leaning on some nearby railing, looking very sharp indeed. His eyes were full of whimsy and intelligence. There was no sign of the reticent, retiring man I knew as the public image of my father.

So much for shy.

1 comment:

Jo Mulholland said...

I'm divorced. My ex and I are good friends. Recently she decided to redecorate but did not want to 'lose' the piano which was bought to help our daughter with her studies (HSC- main instrument: flute).
So now I am 'minding' the piano, at my place. We're both hoping that ~ perhaps ~ one day, grand-children might like to play it.
I play the piano-accordion and have always explained that I miss the buttons, on the left-hand side and that I just cannot play.
But I'm discovering that it's not as hard as I thought and during the last few weeks I have been 'bashing the piano' and that's where I saw the connection with your Dad. I hit the bass notes a bit like an accordion-player, but am enjoying playing.
Jo (Ozcloggie).