5 August 2010

Lessons of my father

Today is the fourteenth anniversary of my father's death.

My father. Born in Hamilton in 1922, died in Mississauga in 1996. In the almost three quarters of a century that he lived, he saw the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Post War Boom, the Cold War, the end of the Cold War. At the beginning of his life, cars were a luxury, and carts pulled by horses still rumbled regularly through the streets of Hamilton. The sound of an aeroplane flying overhead was enough to make people run out of their houses and look up. He went to movie palaces, listened to music and sat in rapt attention in front of a radio shaped like a cathedral, and saw the invasion of television into the average home. He learned to do math in his head, and expressed disgust at people who used a calculator. He’d heard about the internet, but had no idea what it was, beyond the fact that it involved computers, somehow.

In his time he owned at least five Chevy’s, one of which, his ‘57, later became a classic, although he had sold it by that time. He fathered four children, lived to see one grandchild celebrate her first birthday. He met and married a woman he loved and feared all of the thirty-seven years they were together.

As a child, I all but worshipped my father. No one could hit a golf ball as far, bowl as well, or caught bigger fish. His stories of work at the oil refinery seemed filled with wonder at the magic of making gasoline out of sludge. He could talk with authority on a wide range of topics, and he had an opinion on almost everything. As a teenager, I grew bigger and stronger than he. I could hit the ball farther, and bowl as well as he. I haven’t caught bigger fish than the ones he caught, but I have time to work on that. I began to differ in opinion from him, and suffered the disappointment of knowing he could be wrong. In my twenties, we both learned to accept our differences, and I began to understand a little. When I married and became a father myself, I sorely needed his advice, but he was gone before I could really ask.

Often he was quiet, just wanted to be left in peace for a while. He could be cantankerous, and sometimes had a hot temper. But sometimes, when the mood struck him, he would regale us with tales from his younger days, and tell us stories of a young, hard headed, hard drinking, hell bent for leather man, who could find trouble if there was any trouble to be found, and who was more than capable of making trouble of his own if there was none to be found. He told tales of a soldier, thief, wanderer, prankster whom I never met, except that he sat beside me at the dinner table. It was always hard, even now, to understand the difference between that young man and my father.

Understanding my father is not an easy task, or even a possible one. Not for myself, anyway. Between us there was a gulf, we grew up in times that the other found incomprehensible. He was a member of what some historians have referred to as the greatest generation that ever lived. I belong to generation X, the generation that was nothing special, had no definition, and was set to mind the store until the next big thing showed up. Our paths show this. When I was nineteen, I went to university, and picked up some pointless degrees. When he was nineteen, Dad went to war. He never had any doubts about going off to the war. To him it was the right, perhaps even the natural thing to do, go like his father before him.

From him I learned many things.
It’s all about the stories

Dad was a gifted, natural storyteller, who polished his gifts many a time over, perhaps stretching and embellishing the truth a little. There was no catastrophe in his life so bad that he could not make a good story out of it, and make people laugh later. It was a gift he shared with his four brothers, and at every family reunion people would gather round the table where the four of them sat to listen to them reminisce about growing up in the Depression, and going off to fight World War II- you know, the good old days- and we would laugh until our sides ached. Trouble, near misses, narrow escapes, his time at a fireworks facility, where their idea of job safety was to build fireworks in isolated shacks so only one man was blown up at a time, -it must have been lousy to live through, but he could make us laugh even as he told us how bad it was. In telling us his stories, he made us want to live in a way that would make us the heroes in our own stories.

Laugh, even at yourself.

Many of the disasters he recounted were his own fault and at his own expense, and he wasn’t always the undisputed champion in every story he told, yet he didn’t shy away from these tales, or downplay his fault. While he often portrayed himself as a hero, he also let us know he was a hero who sometimes made mistakes, and in so doing, he taught that mistakes were not the worst thing that could happen. One was wrong, dusted oneself off, and kept on going, and found a way to learn from mistakes, and, as a bonus, have a good story to tell at the end of the day.

Don’t just be a character, have character

Although Dad loved a good story, and could tell a stretcher, he hated lies and liars. His word was his bond, and he could never respect a man who failed to keep his word. He taught us to be truthful, and to keep our own words.

You are more than your job.

Our identity is often very much tied to our occupations. People often identify themselves as their jobs in the way they speak: “I am a lawyer,” “I am a garbage man,” “I am a plumber” and so on. Dad taught us all to look beyond that and live for the times outside of work. He was process supervisor at an oil refinery, but he was also an avid golfer, fisherman, bowler, skater, hockey coach, and more.

Respect is earned.

When I was going through university, Dad got me a job at his old refinery so I could pay my way through school. There I met his old co-workers, and I discovered something amazing: Dad was highly respected by his peers. In particular, the members of racial minorities liked and respected my father. This wasn’t bestowed upon him, it was something he had earned. He treated everyone the same, (that is, like crap) and his only concern at work was whether or not the men could do their jobs. The men appreciated that, and respected him for his abilities in turn.

He also would never allow anyone to berate any of the men under him. Any time any of dad’s bosses had a problem with one of the men under him, Dad would take the heat from the Boss, and then personally chew out the man below. The men knew Dad would take a stand for them, and they appreciated that deeply.

If you have no other choice, stand and fight, and teach others to do the same.

One day and young cousin who lived nearby came to our house crying. He was being tormented by a bully, and didn’t know what to do. His own parents gave him little advice, beyond “ignore him and he’ll go away,” but that advice was not working. He told my parents over and over that he tried to ignore the bully, but all it ever got him was another beating.

“To hell with that noise,” my father told him, “noise” being Dad’s word for that particularly useless advice. “Next time he bugs you, you make a fist as hard as you can, and punch that bully right in the nose, with all your might. He may beat you up for it, but I guarantee you he’ll never bother you again.” Dad then spent part of the afternoon teaching the cousin the proper way of making a fist.

A week later the cousin was back, all smiles. “I did it, Uncle! I did it!” Dad’s rather brutal advice, though not acceptable to many in today’s time, did the trick: The bully never bothered my cousin again. The cousin went on to study the martial arts and teach others how to defend themselves, and for as long as my father lived, he was that cousin’s favourite of all his many uncles.

Learn what’s important, or, fear no man and only one woman.

When he was finally ready to marry my mother, he was pretty much at the height of his wild days. She told him, in no uncertain terms, that she would not marry him unless he cut back on his drinking. One of her sisters had married a drunk, and mother was not about to fall into that fate. Dad told her: “I don’t know if I can,” but he promised to try and do his best. He moved into her parents house, where she, her father, her brother and sister who still lived there, and a few other sisters who lived nearby with their families, could keep an eye on him and make sure he kept his promise. Dad was stuck sleeping in her brother’s room, and both of them were epic snorers. It was hard at first, but one morning Mom came down and saw Dad cooking in the kitchen, and he was singing as he did so. He turned to Mom, offered her a cheery good morning, and told her: “I forgot how good it felt to wake up without a hangover.”

He became a light social drinker after that. Thanks to this, I had good father who was sober, coherent, and most importantly, there for me as I grew up.

Seize the day.

Unfortunately, this was as much a negative lesson from Dad as a positive one. He was often saying things like: “We ought to do this, one day,” or “We ought to go there, one day.” Sometimes one day came. Often it didn’t. When he died, he left a lot of things undone, left for some distant, unnamed someday.

Leave only good memories.

His final sickness revealed his last true measure. Though in great pain from his cancer, he never tried to bring anyone down, never complained. He tried to make us laugh until the pain took away his voice and his stories were silenced, but by then he had said enough.

My mother will forever treasure one of the last things he had said to her. She was worried that she had made a wrong decision when he had retired years earlier. He had wanted to sell the house and buy a house or cottage up north, where he could fish and golf his way through the twilight years. But she wanted to stay put. This was where her friends were, where her family was, where her doctors were, where her church was, everything. Dad reluctantly agreed and found other golf courses, other things to do, and other ways to pass his time. As he lay dying, mother was worried that perhaps she should have sold the house so he could have had his retirement the way he wanted, but out of the blue, as though he could read her thoughts, Dad took her hand and told her: “I just want you to know, I had a wonderful retirement.” Though suffering and in pain, he eased her mind and kept her from wasting herself in regret.

Be yourself to the end.

Dad did his best to not bring people down in his final illness, but the old cantankerous man still lay beneath, and showed itself one last time in his final words.

The family gathered by his hospital bed, waiting for the end. He wasn’t moving, and his breathing was shallow and ragged. To manage the pain the hospital had put him on a morphine drip. His tongue had been silenced, it seemed, his stories living only in our memories now. I went around to my brother and sisters and mother, and tried to remind them of good times, sometimes even causing a laugh or two, and I hoped he could hear that. But my eldest sister, who was trying to do her best, and who had also gone New Age on us. had bent over Dad and kept repeating over and over and over: “It’s Okay, Dad. We’re all here and we love you. You can go now. It’s okay. You can go now.” Endlessly she repeated it, for hours. It seemed wrong to hear that. It wasn’t his nature to let anyone else tell him where or when to go, or how. Being touchy feely was never his way, either. It was getting on everyone’s nerves, including his.

He roused himself one last time and strove to speak: “Sh… Sh…” he began.

Someone said: “Quiet! He wants to speak.”

“Sh… Sh…”

“We’re here. We’re listening,” my sister said.

“Shu… Shu… Shut up!” he said at last.

Though it wasn’t until several hours later that the end came, and he still reacted to us, showing us he was aware of our presence, those were his final words, and though I feel sorry for my sister, I could only think: How appropriate. He was true to himself to the very end.

Faith

Dad raised us all in the faith. He had known it well as a child, and had even been one of the first altar boys at Hamilton's new Cathedral, Christ the King.  But over the years he had lapsed in the faith somewhat, and it was mother who brought him back. 

Dad's path back to the faith took a rather unusual route, at least by today's standards.  Back during their very long courtship- it lasted about ten years, more or less the fifties- Dad used to take one weekend off a month to come and visit Mom.  They would go out on Saturday night, but before they went out for a date, Mom would insist on Dad taking her to church so she could go to confession.  Dad would wait outside while she went in to confess.

What Dad did not seem to know at the time was that the priest was a very close friend of Mom's family, practically a second father, and mother, who was the youngest in a family of seven children, was his favourite.  Mom would confess, and then she would stay in the confessional and chat with father for a little while.  Dad, not knowing how fond the two were of each other, only saw the woman he was dating go into the confessional for twenty minutes to half an hour.

"Holy cow," he thought.  "What kind of woman am I dating?"

However, the frequent trips to church for confession eventually stirred some latent Catholic guilt within father, and he eventually resolved to go into confession himself.  He went in, knelt down, waited for the grill to open, and began the rite.

"Bless me father..." he began.

"None of that," the priest interrupted. "Are you the young man dating M.?"

"I...What?" Dad stammered.

"Are you the young man who is dating M.?" the priest repeated.

"I...uh.., yes, I am."  Dad said,

"What are your intentions towards her?" the priest demanded.

"Huh?" Dad said, or words to that effect.

"What are your intentions towards her?" the priest repeated.

"What do you mean?"  Dad asked.

"Are you planning on marrying her?" the priest said.

"I...  uh.... I don't know," Dad said.  "I haven't thought about it."

"Well you kneel there and think about it," the priest said.

Dad thought about it.  "Yes," he said at last.  "I guess I am."

The priest waved a bony finger at him from behind the grill.  "You be good to her, understand?" he said threateningly.  Dad nodded.  "Good,"  said the priest, satisfied.  "Your sins are forgiven."  And with that, the priest slid the grill closed.

Dad eventually became a regular attendent of Mass after that, and he was good to his wife all their days together.  That doesn't mean there weren't days when she could have strangled him, but he did his best.  Of course, if I understand the way the confession went, being good to her for the rest of his life was his penance. 

For me, when I was young, I wanted to be like my father, and because of this rather interesting turn of events, on top of Sportsman, fisherman, worker, storyteller, coach and more, Dad was a regular churchgoer.

Not a day goes by when I don't think about him, but I have good memories of the man, and it is good to think of him. I shall think of him often for years to come, and continue telling his stories to my children.

1 comment:

LarryD said...

What an awesome tribute. The confession story is priceless!

Oh - and you've been tagged!