I met my Father when I was 24 years old. Most of what I ‘knew’ about him I had made up. One of the ‘benefits’ of having a Father you know nothing about is that you can make up the details; you can create him in your mind in a way that suits the life you are living. Perhaps you are angry so you create a ‘villain’? Perhaps you are idealistic or romantic so you create a ‘hero’? Or maybe, like most made up characters (or in fact most of us) you create a character that is a bit of both. The guy in this picture was always a bit of both.
All I really knew was that his name was Joe, he was Italian, and that back then he rode a motorcycle. For the longest time that was enough. I invented the rest and I didn’t need to look much further than this epic picture for inspiration. It’s easy to see how a young boy might romanticize this guy with his thick black hair blowing in the wind, straddling a motorcycle perfectly composed to look more thunderous than perhaps it was, all set against a dark, ominous sky. Like the previous image it was taken by my Uncle Henry – messing around at Melbourne International Airport in 1971. The year I was born. I have had it either on my wall or packed away and travelling with me my whole life. I’ve never spent more money framing a picture than when I finally had a home of my own and framed this one to look like an artifact you might find in a museum. An exotic lost treasure - found and preserved.
Living on a farm in the last place you can visit before you hit Antarctica his being Italian was the detail I was fixated on. To me Italy was about romance, class and sophistication. I loved the food, the fashion, the cars, the football team and of course, Mafia movies. He became the swashbuckling Mafioso that was going to buy me a Ferrari for my 21st birthday. That’s what I told my high school friends and some of them actually believed me. I didn’t have the thick hair and olive skin; the ‘sexy’ accent or the romantic expertise but… I did my best to be that guy. I believed he was in me; in the blood coursing through my veins connecting me to the guy in the picture – who happened to be my Father. I would have this picture on my wall even if he wasn’t my Father, because it’s just that good, but he was and when I needed to escape my less exotic life, times that were a bit hard, or just imagine there was someone out there that might help me make sense of myself this picture was a window to another world.
I remember every detail of the day I flew to Australia to meet him. He still lived in Melbourne (or at least close by in a place called Emu Bottom – which didn’t sound like a place for a glamorous Mafioso but you never know) and he had an Italian wife and two young children. I tried to look as ‘Italian’ as I could: I wore a suit and had my hair slicked back. The whole flight I remember feeling like I should move as little as possible to remain as ‘fresh’, unwrinkled and unspoiled as I could for full dramatic impact when they all first saw me but the anxiety made me anything but. I don’t know what I really looked like when I arrived but the minute I walked through customs and saw him waiting there for me none of that mattered. There he was. The guy in the picture.
Except, of course, he wasn’t the guy in the picture. He wasn’t wearing an Armani suit and bearing a box of cannoli. His hair wasn’t slicked back and he wasn’t driving a Ferrari. He was a guy just like me; as anxious as I was. He was very nervous – sweetly so - and spoke quickly. He helped me with my bag and we headed to the car. I don’t remember what we talked about on the ride home but it may as well have been gibberish. When the occasion is so overwhelmingly big, the talk has to start off very, very small. Words really just fill the space while your brain tries to catch up on what is actually happening: This man was my father. He should have been in a room waiting for me to pop out and start crying the first time we met… but he wasn’t. I didn’t know him. He didn’t know me and suddenly here I was; his son but not a child. Two men trying to match their expectations with a hard reality and wondering how they should feel about each other. Whatever we spoke about words were just noise: a porous cocoon of swirling distractions while we caught our breath and wondered what might happen next.
We got to his beautiful home. I met his beautiful family. And I wondered where would I fit in to all of this. I'm still not entirely sure.
That evening he toke me into his sanctuary – the large room where he listened to his music, watched his movies and his Formula One and invited me to sit down on the enormous couch while he put on some music. He didn’t say anything else, just turned the system up loud, pushed play and sat down beside me. The first sound was somebody exhaling into a microphone as if they were about to do something that would take all their effort; as if they were setting the stage for something epic. The speakers were crystal clear and just that breath filled the room from the floor to the high ceiling. The two seconds before the first note on the guitar seemed to last forever – and did as I feel that moment now writing about it. It was beautiful and haunting. Then the voice – even more beautiful, even more haunting: “ Well I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased The Lord but you don’t really care for music do ya?’* Without saying a word this was the first time my Father spoke to me. And there he was. For six minutes and fifty four seconds. The guy in the picture. Still full of drama and dreaming. Still the character in a story we had both been telling.
The story we are both still trying to tell.
Pictures are more than proof.
* Hallelujah - Leonard Cohen