Jeff and Dad, Etc.

I’m spending the day listening to Jeff Tweedy and thinking about my dad. They both have birthdays today. Jeff is 53 today and very much still with us. My dad died many years ago; he would have been 95 today, but no one ever expected that. Jeff writes and sings songs that slap you in the face with their poetic power and take hold of your heart. My dad never slapped me in the face or anywhere else, but he’s still here in my heart.

George Saunders calls Jeff “our great, wry, American consolation poet,” and while I can’t hope to rhapsodize Jeff the way Saunders can, I can attest to the consolation Jeff gives me, and many others. Just last night, he and Susie and Spencer and Sammy lifted me up with the latest episode of the Tweedy Show. That’s their regular Instagram Live at-home performance series, where Susie hosts and runs the camera (and says vagina way too much), Spencer provides percussion (on drums and on his own body) and angelic harmonies, and Sammy stuns us all with the purity of his voice and natural talent. And of course, there’s Jeff, strumming his guitar and performing a wide range of songs. Last night alone the Tweedys did songs by Galaxie 500, Skip Spence, The Beatles, and of course, Wilco (with a little Teenage Werewolf and Cher thrown in for fun).

Some nights the Tweedy family talks more than they sing, and absolutely no one minds. They’re a family so close that it can seem as if they’re reading each other’s minds, and I struggle to keep up with their inside jokes and catchphrases. “What the crunk, Jeff?!” Susie will exclaim, from behind the camera (she never wants to be seen). “I litchurally just said that. Oh my god.” Jeff smirks and demurs. Spencer starts a philosophical rant, and Sammy is right there with him. Then suddenly they’re all singing a Lennon song, or something amazing by someone I’ve never heard of.

When I watch Jeff’s interaction with his two sons—musical and otherwise—I think of my father. Jeff is clearly so happy and proud to be connecting with his sons. My father would have loved that closeness with his children. I think I would have too, with him. When I think of my father’s best qualities, some of them line up with what I see and hear in Jeff and his music. At heart, there’s a loving heart, a deeply caring soul, a curiosity about everything, and a confidence in the power of words.

My father loved to ask us kids, “Meet anybody you liked better than yourself today?” He loved to hear people’s stories, and when he began his career as a social worker, I imagine he had big dreams of doing all kinds of good. He used to tell us stories about cases he worked (most of which I’ve forgotten), but they were tales of tracking down deadbeat husbands, and saving families in desperate times. He consumed hundreds of books and could hold forth on any topic you cared to discuss. I remember the joy on his face when he’d get to meet one of our friends, when we were older, and have a long sit-down with them in his den. And when my sisters started bringing boyfriends around, and then fiancés who became husbands, he was eager to get to know each of them, and learn through long talks if these suitors measured up.

I avoided those long talks with Dad. For years I blamed him for that: his questions made me uncomfortable, he was always judging me, he expected too much. I’d clam up in the car, and I’d make myself scarce at home. But things weren’t that simple. Yes, his dominant, self-centered personality put me off, and yes, he drank too much. Yes, he could be mean to my mother and some of my sisters. He was a complicated, flawed human, just like me. But I couldn’t open up to him mostly because of my pride, my resistance to being vulnerable. He was interested, so interested in me and my siblings. He was devoted to our education, and to making sure that we could build extraordinary lives. Who wouldn’t want a dad who cares so much? But that attention from him turned me off. He’d encourage me to “come out of my shell” and I’d go deeper into it.

Thinking about my dad today, and the weight of a father’s attention, I realize this post is a bit of a ramble. I guess we don’t get nice neat packages—except maybe on our birthdays. Happy birthday, Jeff Tweedy! Thank you for the joy you’ve given me. And happy birthday, Dad! Thank you for believing in me, and always asking hard questions.

Dad on his wedding day. (Sorry, Mom; cropped you right out.)