I took an epic journey over the last week. It covered 4,787 miles, spanned four time zones, and tapped into more than five decades of memories. It took me from the small Pacific island of Kauai to my hometown of Rochester, NY and back again. It took me back to my roots; to the city I will always call home, where the air smells like my childhood. It took me through the deepest and most difficult emotions that have lived safely tucked away down deep in my soul for 23 years, since the death of my father.
I traveled home to celebrate him being inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame with his band, The Rustix. Bob D’Andrea (my dad) was the original guitarist of the band. I can say with utter confidence that music was his first love. He was a natural performer, and when you were around him you could feel his energy, full of humor and joy, just emanating from him. My very first memories of my father are of him playing his guitar and singing the Sesame Street theme song with me in our tiny living room, his 6’3” frame folded up cross-legged on the floor. He always had a full beard, as black as his hair, and dark Aviator sunglasses on his face. His guitar was never far away, and if he wasn’t singing he was telling jokes, making up lyrics, or doing impressions and voices. He brought the joy of music to my life from the day I was born, a day on which he promptly wrote a song about my birth. Music inhabited his soul.
My dad was my best friend. I think this is the first time I am acknowledging this, to myself and in print. When I think back on all of the people in my life, he was the one I had the most fun with, trusted more than anyone, and wanted to spend my time with. There are images in my brain, some etched there from experience, others that I have been reminded of by photographs that now sit quiet in a photo box: My father and I first thing in the morning when I was four, me bright-eyed and excited to feed my goldfish Bert and Ernie, my father not so awake but smiling just the same as we gazed into a small, rectangular glass fish tank. His hair was everywhere and his eyes were bleary, but he smiled with me. A couple of years later, hitting whiffle balls in the front yard of our two-bedroom house on the dead end street, the sounds of the local zoo animals in the background. He would pitch to me endlessly if I wanted him to, and he never thought baseball wasn’t for girls. Watching old vampire movies on Sunday afternoons, both of us sprawled out on the living room floor, me burying my face in his shoulder at the scariest parts. I remember a man who loved to fish, teaching his daughter how to bait her own hook with a squirming, juicy worm, while fishing off the Irondequoit Pier. I remember some early mornings in rowboats, sitting in silence, the water like glass as he and I waited to catch a fish, not really caring if we did, just happy to be there. My father never turned me away and was always happy to be with me. This was a gift I am only now beginning to fully appreciate.
My dad was very ill. Kidney failure as a young man led to years of dialysis, the resulting exhaustion forcing him to leave his beloved band. What a shame because my father was meant for greatness, a rare talent who could engage a crowd of people in any situation, with music, jokes, banter, and friendly conversation. But his illness took the wind out of his sails for a while and he had to put on the brakes. Regardless, he made everyone feel good, and even chronic illness never got him down. I never knew he was sick until I was almost a teen, old enough to see the signs of wear and tear on a body plagued by transplant surgery and years of immunosuppressant medications. I have no memories of him ever complaining about his life, ever. The man was a marvel.
Over the past few days, back in the city where my father was raised and where he raised me, I met many people who knew him way back when. Every one of them had stories to tell about how kind, generous, and funny my father was. A former roadie of the band told me, “As a roadie you take a lot of stuff from the band members, but Bobby never treated me that way.” The keyboard player of the band told me of his first performance with them, after only rehearsing for a few days. He was nervous, not knowing all the songs, and my father stood by him on stage and fed him the chords as they played. “I loved that man,” is a phrase I heard more times than I can count this weekend.
I know. I loved him too.
Music was always a huge part of his life, and mine as well. When I was a young girl of 12 or 13, my father would bring me to his bar on Wednesdays and let me stay late into the night and watch him jam with a local blues band, a secret I never told my mother until I was an adult. He lit up the small stage in the back room of the club. It was the pure joy he felt when playing music. It was something I was familiar with, having witnessed it my whole life. I had no idea how lucky I was to be experiencing his talent. This is a memory not common for 13-year-old girls. Growing up with a musician father was a unique and utterly wonderful experience that has influenced me more than I realized until this weekend. Thanks to my father, music is in my bones. Thanks to him, following passions and dreams always seemed important.
On this trip back home, I rediscovered my father. 23 years has a way of muting memories, making them a little harder to retrieve, a little less vibrant. It takes an experience like the one I just had to remind us of details, and the little things, and the significance of the impression a person has had on your life. When I was just eight years old I went to a picnic with my father and we sang songs together in the backyard, him strumming his acoustic Yamaha guitar, dark glasses on, long legs crossed, and me standing next to him gripping the collar of his beige windbreaker. My windbreaker was blue and yellow, my blonde hair a messy mop, bangs in my eyes, as we sang “You Are My Sunshine.” I only know this because this weekend, my father’s widow handed me a DVD she had made of footage from this picnic. It was sitting forgotten on someone’s video recorded since 1982 and she recently had it transferred to a disc for me. It was ten minutes of my life that I had not remembered, but now will never forget.
She gave me ten minutes in time, recorded in a back yard in 1982. Ten minutes in time of me and my dad and music.
Watching that disc I didn’t cry. I smiled, and remembered the joy that my father brought to me, to his family and friends, and to those who loved his music. I was thankful for this glimpse that I didn’t know existed, a snapshot in time that so perfectly summed up our relationship. The little daddy’s girl clinging to his collar as he smiled and sang the songs she begged him to sing. “She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain Daddy, I know lots of verses,” that little girl said to him as he asked her what they should sing next.
And he obliged. With a smile and a laugh, he obliged.
Eleven years after that video was taken, he died in a hospital bed after a long battle with cancer. He got 21 years from his transplanted kidney, which was 16 more than the doctors had predicted. He beat the odds and lived a life anyone could be proud of, owning three successful businesses, playing music, and being a wonderful father, husband, and friend. In the 19 years that I got to spend with my dad I never remember him yelling at me, rolling his eyes at me, or refusing an opportunity to spend time with me. Whether he was healthy or sick, happy or sad, all I ever felt from him was joy and love. How does someone do that? I don’t know, but what a gift.
Remembering his death, which came way too soon, is the hardest thing I ever do. I have cried, cursed God, and wondered why anyone as pure of heart as he was could be denied growing old with his family. I look at my young sons and mourn that they will never know this man who was such a significant part of who I am today. But mostly I try to think about what a lucky woman I am to have had such a gentle man as my first male role model.
I think about the joy. He lived with joy. He played music with joy.
And even though he died too young, and lived with the knowledge that he would likely not see his only child get married and have children, he would want me to live with joy. He would want me to laugh and joke and experience music and impart that joy to my children.
I can feel him telling me that each and every day. That is his legacy.