I always know when Mother’s Day is approaching. I love thinking about the new vegan restaurant I might take my mom to, or any of the many awesome photos of her from my childhood that I’m going to post on Instagram. On the other hand, Father’s Day was never on my mental calendar. I usually learn it’s coming when I see an advertisement for a sturdy piece of luggage or golf equipment.
I hardly know my father, jazz player Roy Ayers – we’ve only met a few times. He and my mom weren’t really together. With his consent, I got pregnant on purpose, knowing that he would never be a part of our lives. I’ve always known that story, and for most of my life, I’ve been OK with it. I had a wonderful childhood thanks to my mother and many other role models. So I never felt the absence of my father. He didn’t make any promises. He did not leave. It wasn’t there in the first place.
In my mid-30s, I finally called. Roy was surprisingly open, and when we sat down to lunch our conversation seemed easy. But what I had hoped would become a semi-regular meeting turned out to be a shining light in his absence. When I tried to keep in touch with Roy after that lunch, he hurried over the phone calls or left them largely unanswered.
Even though we live in the same city, my dad and I haven’t had a meaningful conversation since that lunch years ago. It took an unexpected accident last summer for me to realize I could still celebrate Father’s Day without my father present.
In June 2021, I scored tickets for the show “Summer of the Soul (…or When the Revolution Can’t Be Broadcast on TV)” at Marcus Garvey Park, the actual site of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival performances documented at “Questloff” Thompson by Prince. Oscar winning movie. About 20 minutes into the ceremony’s documentary, prolific host Tony Lawrence exclaimed, “Ladies and gentlemen, from here in Harlem, soul time!”
Without warning at all, a picture of my father filled the two-story screen, framed by the shiny yellow, blue, and brown backdrop of the festival stage. He looked bemused in a white tuxedo shirt, her cuffs fluttering loosely, and the top few buttons sagging.
On screen that day, I watched my father play with emotions as if his life depended on them – with confident focus and control who showed tremendous commitment to his profession. It turns out that music is his life. Music took 100% of his energy, and there was no place for me in that equation.
I was 49 last summer, and this performance was filmed about two years before I was even conceived—before Roy’s solo career blossomed. In that moment on the show, I watched my dad in his element, and I saw a side I had never seen before. I saw an energetic and disciplined talent who was about to write and record some of his best songs – some The The best music of the golden age. And I saw a 28-year-old man who looked very similar to me at that age – a younger version of me, with all the passion and promise of youth.
My father was so good, and what he did was so important to him, that it became easier for me to understand why I was never–and never will be–a priority in his life. This 1969 performance helped me realize I had everything to get from him. It is time to stop hoping for more.
Most of us with absentee parents think, “What about me?” We rarely stop to ask, “What about him?” It took me 49 years to think about it. But when I finally did, it allowed me to let go of a few things.
I have felt in many ways about my father over the course of my life: ambivalent as a child he rarely thinks of; I was thrilled when I met him, as an adult, and had a real conversation; Angry when he didn’t answer my calls after that. I feel our bonding when I see our similarities – our high cheekbones and our bodily laughs. And I felt a bitter separation when I thought about our differences. But since I watched this performance over 50 years ago, I experienced a new feeling: pride.
My dad is now 81 years old, and he still tours the world playing music. I believe that music will occupy his energy until there is nothing left of it, and that belief makes me happy for him and for the many people who enrich their lives. I’m not close to my dad this Father’s Day, but I’ve come to terms with it.
I always felt uncomfortable talking about my parents, even with my close friends. But as I watched Roy perform in “Summer of Soul,” I turned to my friend, pointed at the screen, and said with my newly discovered ease, “This is my father.”