My dad, who died a couple months ago, was not much of a music fan. He had the same small stack of vinyl LPs that could be found in millions of suburban American households in the 1960s: Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Herb Alpert, Ferrante & Teicher and, thanks to me, Simon & Garfunkel.
Like most sons, I had an ambivalent relationship with my father. I
loved him. He drove me crazy. Sometimes I admired him. Sometimes I
wanted to be nothing like him. But he instilled in me a love of
baseball, and some of my fondest childhood memories involve sitting
with my old man in rust-corroded Cleveland Stadium, watching the
Indians battle the New York Yankees. My dad was a Yankees fan, and
extolled the wonders of the Great Yankees Teams of Yore: Ruth and
Gehrig, DiMaggio and Berra. And with the contemptuous dismissal of
impatient youth, I didn’t give a rip about old ballplayers, viewed the
Yankees as the Evil Empire, and cheered vigorously for the local
Through the decades, baseball remained the glue that
united us, the common obsession that provided a shared space in our
lives when other issues divided us. He hated the designated-hitter
rule, bemoaned the disappearance of the doubleheader, and believed
expansion had watered down the talent in the major leagues. He remained
a staunch Yankees fan until the end. And the Yanks provided a musical
meeting point when, like his hero Sinatra, my dad decried the evils of
my cherished rock ’n’ roll, and pontificated that only the beloved
standards of Cole Porter and George Gershwin could measure up to true
“Yeah?” I said. “Listen to this.”
I played him
Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.” I snuck one in on him, like a
Whitey Ford fastball, high and hard, and it hit him right where he
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you
(Ooo ooo ooo).
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
“Joltin’ Joe” has left and gone away
(Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey).
“That’s pretty good,” he admitted. “It’s catchy. And I miss DiMaggio, too.”
“I knew you did,” I told him.
My dad never really warmed up to rock ’n’ roll. But Simon &
Garfunkel weren’t rock ’n’ roll, and occasionally I’d catch him at the
old console stereo, my copy of Bookends in hand, ready to cue up “Mrs.
Robinson.” He always had a weakness for DiMaggio.
Dad spent the
last week of his life in a hospice room, surrounded by heart monitors
and morphine drips and the smell of disinfectant. He drifted in and out
of consciousness. He couldn’t speak, and it was hard to determine what
he understood. My father, who had spent countless summer evenings with
me tossing a baseball back and forth, the picture of middle-aged health
and vitality, was now a helpless, shriveled old man. I sat by his
bedside and flipped through TV channels. It was October, an upstart
expansion team called the Tampa Bay Rays had made the playoffs, and the
perennially great Yankees were nowhere to be found. The whole world had
turned upside down.
A couple days before Dad died, I brought in
a boombox, set it on his bedside stand, and pointed it at his
unresponsive head. “Listen to this,” I said. I played “Mrs. Robinson,”
of course. I kept the volume down low so I wouldn’t disturb anyone, but
I cranked it up, just a little, before the verse about Joe DiMaggio. He
ever admit that George Gershwin and Paul Simon could both be great? Why
couldn’t I let any of it go and just love you in your cussed obstinacy?
I laid them all out in my head, all the old, unanswerable,
life-haunting questions. He never spoke another word. I packed up the
boombox and drove back home.