Daddy’s song

Photo by Jim Walsh

A few weeks ago in this space I told you about the death of our beloved family dog Zero, encouraging all concerned to walk the dog and in turn spend time with loved ones, and, so, as ‘tis the season for all such reminders, this week I want to lay out a banquet of gratitude for a little big miracle I was gifted with at the beginning of the month, when I had a moment with my father I want to hold here and forever.

It starts and ends with one of my all-time favorite songs, Leonard Cohen and Jennifer Warnes’s “Song of Bernadette.” The singer and the late great poet wrote it about the faith of a child, Bernadette Soubirous, who grew up asthmatic and dirt poor in the village of Lourdes, France, and who saw visions of the Virgin Mary in 1858. It’s a song about faith, mysticism and unconditional love in a cold, cruel world, which is why I’ve sung it at a handful of gigs in recent years.

So many hearts I find

Broke like yours and mine

Torn by what we’ve done and can’t undo

I just wanna hold you, c’mon let me hold you

Like Bernadette would do

My dad is 90 years old. His memory is not what it once was, but he’s still a sharp observer and very present. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of his company one-on-one for a few hours while my mother took a defensive driving course. The week before, we’d watched a couple episodes of “The Waltons,” including the one where John Boy, editor of the town newspaper, gets blowback from the local news-loving townies for writing editorials warning about the encroachment of Hitler and the Nazis.

We had some laughs and were amazed at the timeliness of the show and of the calm on Walton Mountain, but no such luck this week. Neither one of us was in the mood for more TV, so after perusing a couple of photo history books I’m lucky enough to be part of (via the Minnesota Historical Society Press: Allen Beaulieu’s “Prince: Before The Rain” and Kristal Leebrick‘s “Thank You for Shopping: The Golden Age of Minnesota Department Stores”) that I correctly figured would be fun for him to gaze at, we turned the sound down on “Crocodile Dundee” and I tuned up my guitar.

It’s a beautiful Gibson J-45 that my fellow singer-songwriter John Louis gifted me with a few years ago, and Dad loved touching it. He still plays a mean piano, and he gave all six of his kids his passion for music, but when I asked him if he wanted to hold my guitar and strum, he said, “No, you play.” I’d just had it set up with new strings and TLC from Twin Town Guitars, so the tuning pegs were especially shiny, and the strings sounded positively radiant.

A couple of old men in recliners, I took a deep breath and started to play. As I did and I could feel Dad settling into a patient calm, I was reminded of something I’d just read by the late, great Oliver Sacks: “When I’ve worked with people with Alzheimer’s and various forms of dementia, some of them are confused, some are agitated, some lethargic, some have lost language. But all of them, without exception, respond to music.”

That much has been true of our big band-loving dad, and so, right then and there, I decided to sing for him — son-singing-to-father nerves be damned. I had a benefit gig for Texas senate hopeful Beto O’Rourke later that night at the Acadia Cafe, whose owners, Juliana Bryarly and Ted Lowell, hail from Texas. Couching the emotion of wanting to connect with him, I told Dad I needed to rehearse and that he was my perfect captive audience.

For about an hour I sang him some of my songs, but the one I’ll remember most is the first, “Song of Bernadette,” and how our eyes locked in wonder as I sang, and we both realized that here we were, one fallen-away Catholic boy singing to another, this song about a miracle in miracle-free times. His mouth was wide open, awestruck by the moment, just like me. When I was done I reminded him of the 1943 film “The Song of Bernadette” and that Our Lady of Lourdes, the Northeast Minneapolis church he went to when he attended DeLaSalle High School, was the first American church named for Saint Bernadette.

I’ve sung for my father and my mother at gigs over the years, but this one was different for its intimacy, and it’s a one-on-one ritual I can’t recommend highly enough to anyone in the same boat. The world is brutal, with hourly horrific tales of inhumanity, but that quiet moment was supremely gentle and instructive, and I feel lucky that we both lived long enough to have it happen, that I got to tell him one more time how much I love him.

That night, I drove to the club in wonder as it dawned on me that growing up, I was peripherally aware of the film title “I Never Sang for My Father.” As a kid I always thought about how sad that would be, to have a song in your heart but to not sing it for your father. Now here I was a father myself and, well, mission accomplished — all thanks to a poor little French girl who, like the song says, saw the queen of heaven once and kept the vision in her soul; to think that we could not forget that child, that song of Bernadette.


Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].