Saturday, August 30, 2008

My Dad

I’m reading through The Wounded Heart by Dan Allender and making my way through the accompanying workbook. Today’s questions made me think of my dad. He died when I was nine and we didn’t live with him for the last year and a half of his life so my memories of him are limited.

My first solid memories of life are when we lived in Starbuck with my dad’s parents. We lived across the river from the main part of town, in the middle of a bay (street, not body of water) so that we could drive into the yard on one side and exit from the other. The property and house seemed enormous to me as a preschooler, though now, as an adult, I can see neither are all that large and in fact, the house is quite small.

The yard was filled with large oak trees, cars in various states of disrepair, unused lumber and a gazillion other things set aside because they might be needed. Well, not quite full. Grandma ruled the front yard and her flower garden there. Our only reason to be in the front was to use the outhouse in the far corner by the stand of trees or to walk down the driveway to the street to play with our friends. The flowers were forbidden. Grandma also had a piece of the side yard for a vegetable garden, a separate potato garden and the clothesline strung between two trees, propped up by a forked branch stuck in the ground.

But Grandma’s doings didn’t interest me nearly as much as the men’s—my dad, my grandfather, and any uncles that might be around. They loved cars and were constantly playing with them. I loved to watch. I remember the engines hoisted above cars below, swinging by a rope from a sturdy oak. I remember the old, two-car garage with added carpentry/metal-working shop and the beautiful windows (I think it might have been a house at one time): curls of freshly shaved wood heaped on the dirt floor; the pit in the ground from which the men could work on the undersides of cars; the forge where Grandpa (and probably Dad) could make whatever piece or tool needed (after Grandpa died, we found square, homemade nails tucked away). I wasn’t allowed in there often but I loved it when I could be. I remember the day Dad found a large bee hive inside the upholstery of the back seat of the car we always used but I wasn’t afraid because I knew my dad could fix anything.

I remember sleeping on the floor in what we called our kitchen until Dad built bunk beds into the space that a decade or two later became a small, indoor washroom. The studs of the walls had no coverings so I could lie in the top bunk and look out into the living room/dining room to observe the adults. I remember Mom packing a briefcase for Dad and her sadness because he was going away again. He worked for the railway. I remember when he, Grandpa and maybe Uncle Peter began to make and pour concrete for the basement floor. That was fascinating! They had a small concrete mixer turned by hand and added a lot of small stones to the mix. That machine made such a racket! I was allowed to sit on the basement steps to watch.

I remember deciding to walk to Winnipeg to meet my dad coming home from work. I must have been three at the time, and my sister Susan two. We stood near the door to the house contemplating what we would need for such a journey and decided upon a broken tricycle with two wheels, a wooden fruit box and an empty, two-quart apple juice can. I knew the way to the city because we went every week to church. It was easy: walk the short distance up the bay to the main road that drove across the bridge and into town; take that road over the tracks on the other side of town and then turn left at the highway. I knew I didn’t need to know more than this because the highway was long and we’d meet up with Dad before we got to where the highway dead-ended with the next highway. I was full of three-year-old confidence. Alas! The first farmer who lived on the highway saw us, scooped us up into his car and drove us home to a frantic mother who promptly sat us each on a wooden chair, facing each other, where we stayed for an interminable length of time.

Our next home was in Headingly—a town much closer to the city. We moved there the summer I was five and lived in a one-room house with no running water. I loved it! I can’t imagine how my mom coped though, with two little ones and the new baby that arrived that winter. I remember driving with my dad to the public tap in Charleswood, a few miles away, and filling up a couple of pails of water to bring home. My sister and I slept in a little alcove on mattresses on the floor but one day we woke up to find ourselves in beds Dad had made in the night. I was impressed that my dad could do such a thing but annoyed that now I wasn’t at the right position to poke my finger through the holes of the underside of the little table between our beds. The morning Mom was at the hospital having her third daughter, Kathy, Dad made breakfast. I didn’t know he could cook but he made the best sunny-side-up eggs that day and taught us his secret—which I use to this day.

Did I mention that my dad loved cars? I can remember driving on country highways, watching Mom steer a car behind us, towed by a strong chain. I remember the time Dad very slowly approached a major highway intersection with traffic lights. For some reason, he couldn’t allow the car to stop or it would die. But he wasn’t slow enough because when he finally arrived at the intersection the light was still red. There was no one around, so he made his left turn. That’s when the police pulled us over and we had to stop. After we had lived in Headingly for a year, it was time to move again. I remember going to look at potential places to live. The one that most appealed to my dad was a small shack buried near the back of a very large and full auto-wreck yard. I did say he liked his cars, did I not? My mom was horrified but for the longest time we were sure that would be the place. I was looking forward to having such an interesting playground.

Instead, we moved to the city, to a first-floor apartment in a very nice-looking stone building on Langside. It seemed like we had struck gold! Instead of the unfinished pine boards on my grandparents’ floor, we had shiny, polished, hardwood with a long hallway on which Susan and I could run and then see how far we could slide. There were actual bedrooms in this house, a bathroom with running water, a kitchen and a large living room. Wow!

This was the last place we lived with our dad. We moved there the summer I was six and left two springs later. It was here my dad taught us how to walk to music (dancing was forbidden by the church), using the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Franz List. He took us to the free, weekly pop concerts by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra at the old Winnipeg Auditorium and allowed me to go onto the stage one time to get a closer look at the harp. My mind was fixed on learning to play it—though I never did.

I remember our trips to A&W, where the serving girl came to the car to take our order when Dad turned the headlights on, the meal coming on a tray that attached to Dad’s window, drinking from the baby root beer mugs, and the girl returning when once again the headlights were turned on, to remove the tray and glass mugs.

I remember how I loved listening to my dad sing. His songs were those from the late thirties and forties and he loved Mitch Miller: “I’ve been working on the Railroad,” “Bill Bailey won’t you please come home?” “There is a Tavern in the Town” (Mom would chastise him for singing this one in front of us but he did it anyway), “Sentimental Journey,” and more.

I never questioned the need to leave my dad late one night while he was out. I never questioned why Susan and I had to walk alone about a mile (maybe more) down a busy street from our new home to the park where we met him. I remember the day he took us to the roof of the Hotel Fort Garry. At the time it was the tallest building in the city. He pointed east and told us we could see all the way to Headingly. I remember when he took us to the bank and gave us each a silver dollar. I remember him giving us each a teacup and saucer as a gift. Those are the only things I can remember him ever giving us and, as an adult, I wonder at the teacup, because we were little girls whose parents didn’t even drink tea. All I have left is the saucer, which sits on a stand in my china cabinet.

I don’t remember ever sitting on his lap or being hugged by him. I think I was somewhat afraid of him because when we lived on Langside, he often sent Susan and me to stand in the “corner” (it was really just a stretch of flat wall) during meal times (we learned how to make shadow puppets there, while he wasn’t looking) and he had special foods we weren’t allowed, like Clover Crest honey, gooseberry jam and butter.

I came in from playing one day and found my mom sitting on the couch sobbing, with a friend holding her and comforting her. I knew then, without being told, that my dad had died. It wasn’t until several years later I realized he had killed himself.

I still cry, 43 years later, when I think of my dad. I cry when someone talks about how handy their father is with tools, cars or wood. I cry when I think of how his grandsons never learned his skills. I am crying now.

I wish I had known him as an adult. I have so many questions for him. I’ve asked everyone I’ve met who knew him what he was like, but the reports differ. He was the black sheep of the family, a loveable rascal, irresponsible, a favourite uncle who lavished gifts, a poor provider. I wish I knew for myself.

I miss you, Dad.

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