Dad played Fernando Ortega at daybreak, as we’d pull away toward vacation– usually Colorado. Now, I can’t listen to his songs without craving a Voss Market breakfast sandwich and a trip West. When I hear “Old Girl” or “Traveler,” I think of the sunrise out the van window and our heads lolling on pillows. Fernando’s was the music always humming in the back of the car– the kind you don’t notice, but that’s singing into your subconscious until you wonder how you learned every lyric.
I had the poetic idea last fall to write an essay about Fernando’s “seizing, shaping” music in my life. I wrote about his “deep, lyrical heart” and his “fondness for the early hours that he couldn’t help but paint.” I wrote it in the throes of seventy-six days, between my family’s ticket purchase and the concert.
November fifteenth dawned at last, and it burned the skyline red. We drove three hours to a church in the middle of a corn field.
A hefty man spent too long on an introduction, and then Fernando crossed the stage to fill the sanctuary with that back-of-the-van-at-sunrise voice. Between “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and “Breaking of the Dawn” he told us how much he loves veggie chips, and that he isn’t a morning person. Between “Traveler” and “Creation Song” he said he mixed up his newborn daughter with another baby in the hospital and prayed over her for half an hour before he realized it.
The concert ended and we found ourselves filing through a door at the back of the stage. There, on a stool beside an old piano, sat Fernando.
“Hello, wonderful family.”
We’ve been fans for years, Dad said.
“You didn’t expect me to be old and fat, did you? Well, here I am.” He patted his stomach. When he smiled, only half his mouth went up. “Do you all play music?”
“Sing for me! I’d love to hear you sing!” He spread his arms wide.
We did sing, as if he wasn’t a song-maker himself– as if he wasn’t the Fernando Ortega of car trips and sunrises and our childhoods.
As if he wasn’t a legend.