Sunday mornings belonged to my dad. My mom cooked every meal in our house, with the exception of Sunday breakfast. My dad would fry a heap of onions until they were black, then add potatoes, eggs, ham and whatever else he could find. He would meld it all together with a dollop of grease, and slap it on a plate. He called the concoction “slum gully,” which was completely accurate. Say slum gully, imagine what those words would look like on a fork, and you will know exactly what that breakfast tasted like. It is one of those dishes I hated as a kid, and now crave all the time. My husband has taken over the slum gully duty in our house, so I still eat it about once a week.
When my dad was cooking, he’d be cracking terrible jokes or singing songs. I loved when it was my birthday. My mom would call the oldies station and suggest a song. She would request something like “Rock Around the Clock” for me. On my brothers’ birthdays, she’d ask for “I Don’t Like Spiders and Snakes.” Before the song would play, the DJ would say my name and wish me a happy birthday. My dad would cackle “it’s Kathy Jo from Borneo” before singing along with the song and dancing in the kitchen.
I associate my dad with music. Some of my earliest memories are of him playing his guitar and singing to me. He would let me pick the animals as he sang “Old McDonald,” and would encourage me to clap along to “Bingo.” But my absolute favorite was when he would sing Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right.”
I have no idea how he picked up this song. My dad listened to country and western music- not Billy Joel. I think he would have been hard pressed to even name another Billy Joel song. Most likely, his friend, Mike taught it to him. About once a month, Mike’s family would come over on a Saturday night. The adults would play card games, and the children would run around like maniacs in the basement. I loved those nights. I would stand next to my mom or dad as they played, counting the pennies they used to bet with.
When there was a break in the game, Mike and my dad would play their guitars and sing. My dad never got the words right. Instead of singing “you may be right, I may be crazy, but it just might be a lunatic you’re looking for,” my dad would sing “you may be right, you may be wrong, you may be right but for all I know you may be wrong.” It is so embedded in my memory that I have a hard time singing it any other way.
A couple of years before my father passed away, I went to a party with him. Which probably sounds a bit strange, and it was. But it was also amazing. It is one of those memories that I’m probably not supposed to like, but I do.
My father battled drinking for much of his life. His father drank. I’m sure his father’s father drank. It was just something they did. He also came of age during tumultuous times in our country. My father was a medic in Vietnam. I won’t recount his story, because he was very private about it. I will say he saw terrible things. He was shot in the leg and received the Purple Heart. When he returned home, he turned to drinking as a means to cope with the complex emotions of a person who was barely an adult when he was drafted to see some of the worst acts humans can inflict on each other.
Because he struggled with drinking, he went for long periods of time where he did not drink. When he did partake, it was usually because events were not going well in his life. So I never associated him drinking with anything positive. Except on this one occasion.
My brother , Chris, throws a big party every year on his birthday called Sizzlefest. This particular year, Sizzlefest was held at my parents’ house. You are thinking “who parties at their parents’ house?” But my folks lived out in the country. There were not any neighbors for miles. The bands could play as loud as they wanted for as long as they wanted. We could engage in all the activities that occur at parties in the sticks- 4-wheeling, horseshoes, basketball, bon fires.
Late in the night, around the bon fire, our friend, Jameson, broke out a guitar. He is one of those guys who know how to play hundreds of songs. People began to shout out requests, and we all drunkenly sang along as he strummed the chords.
At one point, he started playing “Simple Man” by Lynard Skynard. I have never been one of those people that bellows “SKYNARD!” , but at that moment, it was the perfect song.
I looked across the fire and watched my dad’s face as the light of the flames played across his features. He had an arm around one of my brothers. His eyes were closed and he was smiling as he belted out the lyrics. Time moved backward. His face once lined with wrinkles looked flawless and young. I imagined this was the person he used to be- before the war, before the stresses of life, before drinking became a problem. Carefree. Reflecting light. Beautiful.
The day my father passed away, I played that song over and over, tears flowing into rivers down my cheeks. But my dad was not a man who would want anyone to stop their lives and cry over him. He would have told me to pick myself up, life goes on. I switched gears. I grabbed my copy of “Glass Houses” and put it on the turntable. I started frying onions until they were sufficiently black, before adding the eggs and bacon. When the chorus came on, I belted out “you may be right, you may be wrong,” just the way my dad would have. They may not be the lyrics that Joel had in mind, but to me, they are perfect.