The coldness of the room had nothing to do with the temperature. My father and I had avoided each other for several years. Ever since I found out he had another life for most of my childhood, I couldn’t look at him the same way. He missed many of my events because he “had to work,” and it was clear those really were just excuses for him to spend time with Justina. Her name was ironic because everything about her was not justified. She spent time with a man who was already married with three kids and a life that needed him. However, together they drove wedges into our family for years and had no intention of stopping.
I glanced up at the walls around me at the family pictures. Every year at Christmas, we all sat together to mark the passage of time. The five of us changed positions, but the smiles and intent stayed the same. We were the Dorseys. My brothers never held the contempt I still had for our father. They saw his hidden life as casual and nonthreatening. It never affected them, and mom never complained even though it was clear that she knew. So, I was the only one to stand ground. Now, she was gone. I would never forgive this man or forget what he put mom through.
As I raised my fork to eat another bite of my salad, I noticed for the first time how hunched over my father had become. His posture had always commanded attention during my childhood. All he had to do was look over at us during church on Sunday mornings to make us stop our “shenanigans” as he called them later in the car. Usually, it was Miles and Duke’s fault. I was caught in their crossfire, because my mother sat me between them to discourage their behavior. However, that did not stop them both from trying to knock my elbows off the pew while we were kneeling or turning to the wrong pages in the hymnals so I couldn’t sing along. My parents both believed that their children should be active members of every mass. We were expected to sing, respond, and respectfully pay attention to the priest for the entire hour or more if necessary. I was a reader for our school’s masses and a sacristan, because in my day girls couldn’t be servers for the priests. My brothers were both servers and often served together while the rest of the Dorseys sat in the same pew every week.
Dad kept his head down and slowly ate one forkful after another. He was three bites in when my heart began to ache for this man. I hated the feeling; he didn’t deserve the sympathy. Also, mom was now gone.
I also knew Justine had passed away several years ago. My mother sat with me and a bottle of wine while dad went to the funeral. She wasn’t angry. She seemed sad for them. I wanted to ask her about everything as she sat there, but she was rarely so contemplative or drank wine that I just decided to sit and be there with her instead of intruding in on her thoughts.
She would occasionally pause or sigh. Then she would start a story, but abruptly she would stop and return to her current glass of wine. Her focus was both direct and absent at the same time. Her eyes drifted away from the room we were in and then suddenly would come back with intense emotion. Sometimes I saw rage as she poured a new glass. Sometimes there were huge tears in her eyes that never fell. They simply retreated back behind her eyes from where they came as if they did not approve of falling at this time. It was a quiet evening and while we did talk, mostly I just observed mom watching for some sort of clue to the past she was contemplating now.
I sat now and looked at the man I spent my life looking up to realizing that I knew very little about him or my mom. They both had lives I had never been a part of because I never saw them on their own. I only knew them as my parents. They were young once. They had dreams. They knew struggles and joys they never spoke of, and I had never asked. They were my parents, but he and mom made choices to live during their lifetimes that suited them.
“It must seem strange to you,” my father said staring directly at me.
His gaze indicated that he had been looking at me for some time. I must have been staring off for a while too because his plate was now empty. I still had a section of salad left.
“What do you mean, dad?” I said as I blinked away my thoughts.
“Your mom and I.” He said with no expression whatsoever.
“Did you love her?” I asked without hesitation. The question had been brewing in my heart for years and erupted from my lips like a volcano blast.
“Yes,” he replied rather surprised, “She was the most incredible woman I ever knew, and she was my best friend.”
“Then why was there another woman?”
A few moments passed as my father considered his response.
“Justine and her musicians were my escape. Being able to get onstage and play jazz again was the only part of my life missing.”
“Playing jazz?” I said confounded.
“Yea,” my dad shrugged, “I played trumpet. That was how I met your mom.”
“Mom liked jazz music?” I sounded more surprised than I intended. Mom loved all kinds of music and often created mix tapes when we were kids that included everything from Puccini to Boys To Men. The idea of her liking jazz wasn’t unbelievable. It was just unexpected. There were never jazz songs on her tapes, and she never listened to jazz at home or at concerts.
“She walked into a club in downtown Minneapolis where I was moonlighting with Justine. She was there with another guy who did not like the music and clearly did not want to stay. I watched her gently argue with him to stay. At one point when she rose to use the bathroom, I offered to share a taxi after our set. She smiled and told her date he could leave whenever he wanted. She was staying until the bar closed. We were hardly apart after that. Your mom started singing with us shortly after that night too.
“Mom sang jazz?” My question floated around over our heads as dad left it unnoticed. He was still filled with remembering their past.
“Your mother could fill a room with her voice, and Justine loved having us both together with her band. Her husband, Elvin, played drums and traveling with them was exciting. We saw so many cities, played so many songs…” His voice trailed off for a second before he continued.
“Your mother made people from outside on the street just stop what they were doing and come in to be a part of the music. We toured around the Midwest for about two years…until the accident.”
“What accident?” I asked absorbing the wonder of my parents’ jazz music passion.
“We were travelling to Memphis when our car was hit by a bus without its lights on. Your mom suffered lacerations on her neck from the seat belt and shattered glass cut her throat too.” A tear slid down my father’s cheek as he talked, “She was never able to sing again. We found out she was pregnant about a month later and then life continued.”
“So, you would leave to go play jazz music on the road?”
“Yea. Your mom said she wanted at least one of us onstage as long as possible and since she knew it couldn’t be her…”
His voice trailed off again as he sniffed back a small lump that had been building in his throat.
“Oh dad,” I said as I started to feel the weight of my guilt settling, “I thought…”
“I know. Your brothers knew, but your mother asked me not to tell you. She wanted to, but she never could. She thought you would be disappointed in her, because she quit singing.”
“She didn’t quit. She couldn’t continue singing.”
“That is exactly what I told her a hundred times. However, she never saw it that way. She was angry with her body for not living up to her standards of operation.”
A small smile had crept up as he wiped a tear from his left cheek.
“I would have loved to hear her sing,” I said quietly as my own tears had started slowly streaming down.
“Here,” my dad said and slid a picture across the table to me.
The picture was badly folded on the top two corners and was dully faded. It was mom. There was a vitality in her that I never could have imagined. She was singing in the microphone as elegantly as Billie Holiday but with the force of Tina Turner. The intensity made me smile and thinking of that woman tucking me in at night made me cry.
“She was gorgeous,” was all I could manage to say as I stared at the old photograph.
“Please keep it. I have more. I always carried her with me. I used to attach a picture to my music stand, so she was with me onstage every time.”
He pulled out several other photos and passed them to me. We sat in silence looking at mom in her glory. She was fierce, serious, stunning, and alive.
“I’m so sorry, dad.”
“I’m sorry, Nina.”
I moved my chair next to my dad’s chair and placed the pictures in front of us, so we see them together. He put his arm around me. I leaned into his shoulder.
“When was the last time you played your trumpet, dad?”
A few minutes passed before he answered.
“A while…” he said honestly with no details.
“Would you play for me?”
“I never thought you’d ask,” dad said honestly and hugged me closer, “Maybe we could hit a club and I could introduce you to your mom’s and my friends.”
“I’d love that dad…and I love you.”
The room felt warmer and lighter now as I sat with my dad, the jazz musician. He truly loved my mother, the jazz singer. Their lives were filled with unexpected solos but together these two made beautiful music both onstage and offstage.