A Father's Day

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
The aging author tries to remember moments or events of bonding with his father 50 years earlier

Submitted: September 16, 2007

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Submitted: September 16, 2007

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Father's Day

I stopped in at Gray's Pharmacy to-day to pick up my new supply of all those drug store ointments and pills and lotions that one seems to need more and more with the onset of the "twilight years", as they're euphemistically called these days, and happened to notice the displays set up for fast approaching Father's Day.

I paused for a moment to peruse the banners and signs, each touting their particular product as being the ideal gift for Dad this year. They all claimed to be what Dad really wants and needs, whether he's aware of it or not. In reality, they're what you get Dad when you:

a.) have little money and no imagination.

b.) have waited 'til Sunday morning, The Big Day, and realize you've forgotten about him altogether.

c.) couldn't care less, and are just going through the motions.

 

d.) all of the above.

They haven't changed the products much in the last forty-five years or so, just the packaging. Instead of soap-on-a-rope that has a musk scent, it now smells a lot like Mr. Clean. Hai Karate was de rigeur when I was a kid, now it's Stetson. It all sends the same message though, "We don't care, dad."

I thought about my father who died a young man at age fifty four back in 1961, when I was sixteen. I wondered what I would get him for Father's day if he were still alive to-day. I tried to recall special moments of father-son bonding, and what they had taught me about life and our place in the scheme of things. The memories were not only few and far between, but faded and dimmed with the passing of time.

I decided to work backwards, beginning with my last memories of him forty-five years ago, and then, as the memories began to flow, choose the moments that had the greatest effect in my formative years as a youngster.

My strongest and most recent memory was of the time when I was fifteen, not long before he died, that we passed each other walking on Greene Avenue in Westmount. That's an upscale urban enclave in the heart of Montreal where we lived at the time. We (my mother and the four kids ) had recently, after nine years of trying, managed to get a legal separation from my father. Quebec up until then had still been under the old French civil law. Wives and children were considered chattels, and as such, had no rights as individuals until 1960 when the Liberals under Jean LeSage brought Quebec kicking and screaming into the twentieth century. Let's just say he wasn't adjusting well, and leave it at that.

I was walking south on Greene looking in the shop windows, he was walking north on the opposite side of the street. He saw me before I noticed him, and he crossed over. He was only a few feet from me, stepping up onto the sidewalk when I saw him and stopped. Without a word, he spit in my face, and continued on his way, having delivered whatever message he had for me with as few words as possible. An elderly couple, who had been walking behind me down the street witnessed the entire episode, and were appalled. They were looking for a way to get the police there on the double, but I allayed their fears by saying, "Oh, it's okay, that was my father."

Okay, so maybe that's not exactly bonding. I'll go back a year earlier in time. How about when I was fourteen, and getting ready to go to summer camp in the Eastern Townships. Camp Arrowhead, on Lake Memphremagog was an idyllic setting and the best place for a city kid in the summer. It was pretty expensive, and we sure didn't have any money, but the owner who happened to be our school psychologist, figured I'd be better off at camp than learning hatred at my father's knee. He overlooked the thousand dollar a month fee for me and a couple of kids from other dysfunctional families, and we paid only for the extras. The only way I could pay for the trips to Vermont and stuff from the tuck shop that every kid needs though, was to work in the tuck shop all week while the my friends played and did the summer camp things.

I was shocked to hear the day before I was leaving for camp that my father wanted to see me. He had some money for me for the summer. I just had to stop at his place (about a block from our house) and pick it up. I hurried over there when I figured he was home from work. He was waiting for me and handed me a two dollar bill. I don't recall any conversation or exchange of any kind. Except for that two dollar bill. Okay no bonding there, either. Hang on a minute, I'll find something.

Oh, yeah. When I was ten or eleven, and wondering who this man really was and what he was all about as a father, I decided to make an effort to get to know him better. I made occasional forays into the bottom drawer of his dresser, which was verboten, when I was sure I was alone in the house. This only produced a raft of important looking documents, all in German, which I couldn't read, and a handful of Swastika bedecked medals. Most of the letters, from the early thirties, were on the letter head of the nascent Nazi Party. Later papers bore the stamps and seals of a variety of party officials, but written on the letterhead of the Third Reich. The signature common to most of the letters was that of Hitler's Mephistophelian Minister of Propaganda, Dr. Joseph Goebbels. A few short hand written notes, I learned in later years, bore the scrawled signature of Adolph Hitler. Having only succeeded in raising questions, rather than answers, with my secret rifling of his dresser, I chose another tactic to get close to my father.

He was always distant, and sat in the living room reading the papers front to back when he got home every night, without saying a word. We weren't allowed to disturb him, or otherwise intrude. I don't recall ever having what you'd call a conversation with him. On weekends, he allowed us to read the paper when he was finished with it, but only after making sure he had removed the comic and picture sections. Kids should read, but real books; the printed word only, and no TV in the house. Mindless pollution. There was one occasion though, when he passed me a magazine opened to a page with a large photograph of a family, at least three generations, sitting around the dinner table eating a huge Christmas turkey.

"What's wrong with that picture?", he asked, and walked away to let me figure it out without bothering him for hints. I studied the photo for about ten minutes. I could only think that the extended family portrayed in it looked happy, and they were all talking to each other in what seemed to be a friendly fashion. That couldn't be it. Or could it? He returned to see if I had figured out what to him was the obvious, or if I was going to confirm his opinion that I was the idiot son of some itinerant my mother had dallied with when he, my father, was at work. Something at which he hinted on more than one occasion to me when I was old enough to understand what itinerant meant. Or dallied.

"Well, what's wrong with the photograph?", cutting straight to the chase, as was his habit.

"I haven't noticed anything yet. I'm still looking at it."

"Idiot! They're all holding their forks in their right hands, and their knives in the left. The chances of eight people at the table all being left handed are non-existent. That means the printer of this magazine reversed the celluloid of the photo when he put it on the print roller. Don't you ever pay attention to anything? Anyone else would have noticed that right away."

That I didn't believe. I cut the photograph out of the magazine, and passed it around the schoolyard for two days, until it became tattered and began to disintegrate with all the grubby little hands pulling at it. No one was able to detect the printing flaw, including my teacher, Miss Rose, (who was to die for). I even offered a reward to anyone who could see the error. There weren't any takers.

Another tactic I opted for in my flagging efforts to get a little closer, if not outright accepted by my father, involved his passion for writing and books. We didn't have a whole lot of common ground to start with, but I thought I'd ask him if I could read a book of his choosing from his huge library. When I was finished reading it, maybe we would be able to talk about it, and whatever message the author was attempting to disseminate. Even at that age, I knew the power of words and the ability to use them was the one thing he respected. He put his paper down, peered over the top of his big tortoise shell glasses and stared at me, as though seeing me for the first time. Actually, he was probably wondering why I didn't go away and stop pestering him. At any rate, he got up, went over to one of his book cases, and handed down what for me at that tender age was a heavy tome.

"Read this." was all he said gruffly, and went back to The Financial Times, probably thinking that he had chosen a book that would keep me occupied for a week or so, and out of his way. Either that, or perhaps he felt that I would quickly lose interest in whatever he had selected, quietly return the book to the shelf when he wasn't around, and go back to being out of sight, out of mind.

I tucked the book under my arm, and headed for the back yard to begin reading. I read the title and wondered why he would give me a book in German to read when I was still trying to master English, and all the punctuation marks and irregular verbs that still bedevil me to-day. "Mein Kampf" was pretty heavy reading for a ten year old, I felt, and couldn't compare to The Hardy Boys. But in fact he had given me a book with the second half being a complete English translation of the first . I began the long and torturous exercise of trying to understand what the Madman of Europe's dream was. It took a while to finish, and was tough slogging. About a week later, I saw the opportunity to return the book and maybe talk with my father about Hitler and his ideas, and who he really was. I passed the book to my father as he stood in front of his bookcase, selecting something to read, and he replaced it on the shelf.

"Well, what did you think of him?"

I was only ten, and not the sharpest knife in the kitchen drawer, but I knew "Arse-hole, maniac" was not the description he was looking for, and one I shouldn't be familiar with anyway.

"Ah, actually, he seemed like a pretty rotten guy."

"It all depends on what side of the fence you're on." That was it. All that struggling to read and understand something that was beyond my years, and all I garnered for the effort was less than a dozen words, and a curt dismissal. I wasn't invited to stick around and discuss anything or argue my point of view. He sat down, and picked up a newspaper that he could hold in front of his face. His way of letting me know that we wouldn't be talking any more. I decided to forget about bonding and left to finish my latest edition of The Hardy Boys. Boy that guy, Fenton, I think his name was, could sure churn them out. A new book every two months or so.

Alright, I think I can find one more memory somewhere if I try. I'll go back a little further. Yes, That's it. I can't remember my age exactly. I recall being in the kitchen, and having to stand on my toes to see if there was anything worthwhile picking at on the counter to properly ruin my appetite for supper. I must have been pretty young. I was still having the darndest time learning how to tie my shoe laces. I just couldn't seem to be able to co-ordinate my fingers enough to come up with anything other than a Gordian knot that required a pair of scissors or a knife to dis-assemble.

And then it just happened. One minute I was fumbling clumsily with my laces while Mike the cat did his best to help me, and then, Presto! Perfectly done. I untied the laces and did them again two or three times to make sure it hadn't been a fluke. When I was sure I had the art mastered, I ran proudly into the living room to show my father my new accomplishment.

"So what. You should have been able to do that two years ago." Newspaper back in its customary position, in front of his face.

I could go back further, but I think this is becoming an exercise in futility. Pretty soon, I'll be back to the diaper changing years, and anything I recall will probably be painful, and a pain in the butt. Literally as well as figuratively. I'm beginning to accept that we weren't as close as we could have been. There’s not much point in digging any further.

Needless to say, I didn't make much of an effort on Father's Day back then. After all this reminiscing, I think it's safe to say I wouldn't put myself out to do anything special now, if he were still around.

I did notice something at Gray's that I think I'll buy though. For me. The latest complete edition of all The Hardy Boys books in paperback. I'm going to pick up a set and do a little bonding with them again. On Father's Day.

sv ertl 2405


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