I've got a pretty good ear for voices. Ten seconds into a recording, I can usually tell you that we’re listening to Faron Young or Carla Thomas or Jimmy Witherspoon or Shirley Horn.
In fact, just by typing those names, I can instantly conjure up the sounds of their singing (and, in some cases, speaking) voices.
But I realized today that I'm having a hard time remembering what my dad's voice sounded like.
Carla Thomas? I last heard her voice -- on record, mind you -- probably a month ago. My dad's voice? I haven't heard it since the morning of September 25, 1978.
Unlike Carla, my dad wasn't a recording artist, so I can't pull a CD off my shelf when I want to hear his baritone. And YouTube is no help because my dad died before we became a nation that videotaped everything.
I can't remember what we said to each other on that warm September morning, but I'm sure we had some rushed conversation while he got ready for work and I got ready for school. Had you told me then that it was going to be the last time I got to talk with him, rest assured I'd remember our exchange 35 years later.
I am still able to revisit many of the conversations that we had over the years; it's just the distinct tonal qualities of his voice I'm struggling to recall.
Johnny Hartman? I can hear his voice in my head in a split second. My own dad? That's a different story.
Luckily, though, I still remember tooling around Alsip, Illinois with him on a Saturday morning back in 1972. We were listening to the AM radio in our white 1965 Ford Galaxie 500. I was in the front seat (no seat belt) singing along with Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now." When the song ended, my dad gently told me, "Matt, it's 'I can see all obstacles in my way.' It’s not 'all popsicles in my way.'" That, of course, launched him into an entertaining talk on oft-misunderstood lyrics in pop music.
I remember being 9 or 10 years old and sitting with him on a Saturday morning in a booth at a diner in Burlington, Iowa. He explained the pick-and-roll to me using salt and pepper shakers and a ketchup bottle. Our waitress walked by the table several times and seemed to have no idea what my dad was doing.
I also remember talking to him a year or so later while we drove home from a Hy-Vee grocery store in Burlington. My then-unemployed dad explained to me why he had just paid for our family's groceries using something called "food stamps."
That stuck with me -- the same way I hope a similar conversation I had 7 or 8 years ago with my now 21-year-old daughter sticks with her. She and I were discussing the need for certain government programs that had recently been in the headlines. Until that particular conversation, she'd had no idea that she was a public aid baby. Neither her mother nor I had health insurance -- or even incomes -- when she was born. I wanted to provide my teenage daughter (by then, the child of two practicing lawyers) with some perspective. Did it sink in? Time will tell.
Back to my dad. I remember sitting with him at our kitchen table in Villa Park, Illinois in 1977 or early 1978. We were eating breakfast and somehow we started talking about death. (This was just a random conversation. My dad wasn't sick, and his fatal heart attack months later at age 39 came out of the blue.) During our conversation he mentioned two books that I eventually got around to reading years after his death. One was Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One"; the other was Jessica Mitford's "The American Way of Death."
What I remember most about that conversation was my dad telling me that the funeral industry was a racket. Salesmen, he said, pushed people into making the third biggest purchase of their lives (behind houses and cars) at a point when buyers were least able to make rational consumer decisions.
He told me he wanted no part of that. "Put me in a pine box," he said.
Fast-forward to September 26 or 27, 1978. While my newly-widowed 37-year-old mom scrambled to find matching white shirts for each of her five boys to wear to the funeral later that week, I babbled to her about Jessica Mitford, pine boxes, and that relatively recent breakfast conversation I'd had with my dad.
I must have been a pain in the ass at 14.
Back when I could still remember the sound of my dad's voice.