On the State of My Parents’ Marriage

As the 107th anniversary of my father’s birth approaches, I’ve been reflecting on the state of his marriage to my mother.  Their union was ended after sixty-one years when he passed away in 2003.  They had been temporarily separated several times during their life together, mostly during business trips my dad undertook, but never for more than a few days.  His last trip, at age ninety-two, is the only one from which he never returned.

My mother lived another seven years, until ninety-four, the longest period of her life without him since they married in 1942.

As I look back, they seem to me to have been an unlikely couple.  He was the only boy in his almost-Victorian family, coddled (if not spoiled) by his parents and sisters.  He wasn’t arrogant by any means, but he possessed a certain sense of entitlement, a sense that he was born to live at the centre of his universe.  Understandable, I guess, given that he lived at home until he married, looked after by doting parents.

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My mother, who had three sisters and a brother, was raised by a Presbyterian mother and a Roman Catholic father—themselves an unlikely match—who taught her you had to earn what you wanted.  Nobody was about to give you anything for nothing.  Taking the lesson to heart, she became determined to succeed at whatever she did.  My mother had the strongest will of anyone I’ve ever known.

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I’m still not sure how two such different people—she a high-powered woman, he a less highly-driven man—could find each other, wed each other, and remain with each other for so many years.

During their marriage, she left him on very few occasions, mostly on excursions with family or friends, and never for long.  She was fearful, I suppose, of leaving him alone to cope with five children.  After all, we could eat only so much oatmeal porridge, grilled-cheese sandwiches, canned spaghetti, and jello.

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Not that my father couldn’t cook; he could.  He could also house-clean, do the laundry and ironing, shop for groceries, help with homework, perform small repairs around the house, or do any other chore necessary to sustain a family of seven.  But he preferred not to—not if someone else would.  I was a grown man before I realized he had mastered the art of feigned incompetence.

Mind you, that might have been a reflexive defence-mechanism.  My mother didn’t make it easy for him, being something of a perfectionist.  Although she believed in the adage that it was better to teach people to fish, rather than giving them a fish—trusting they would therefore become self-sufficient and proficient—she also had the annoying habit of checking everything my father did after he did it, to ensure it was done to her exacting standard.  I think he figured it was better most of the time to let her do the various tasks herself, rather than suffering through her re-doing of his attempts.

They were loving parents, although their parenting style evolved over the years between my birth and that of my youngest sister, eleven years later.  My mother never lost her sense of high hopes for all of us, but she became more tolerant, more forgiving of our shortcomings as we, and she, grew older.  It wasn’t easy for her, though, because her expectations of herself never lessened.  I loved her for that.

My father, on the other hand, entered parenthood with a blissful belief that everything would work out fine.  And I think, despite the contrary evidence we five children provided from time to time, he maintained that belief throughout his life.  Of course, he became exasperated on occasion—on dozens, even scores, of occasions, actually.  To this day, I can hear his favourite expression of frustration when I had somehow messed up again.

Crooked cats!” he’d say, shaking his head dolefully.  But he was ever quick to forgive.  I loved him for that.

He usually called my mother Dorothy—never Dote, as her sisters did, and never Dot.  His favourite pet-name for her was just that, Pet.  She called him Bill; if she ever used another form of address, I can’t recall it.  I never heard endearments for each other, such as Sweetheart, Darling, or Honey, from either of them.  Yet I never doubted their love for one another.

Perhaps it was their sense of humour that sustained them through difficult times and enriched the many joyful times.  I remember overhearing my mother’s admonition to my father, whispered from a hospital bed where she was recuperating from a near-fatal heart attack at age eighty-five.

“I guess this means no more wild sex for awhile,” she teased.

Crooked cats, Dorothy!” was all my ninety-year-old father could say, shocked that she would say such a thing in front of me.

Even at the end of his life it was there, that shared, loving camaraderie.  As my father lay moments from death, my mother leaned close to him and said, “Would you like me to sing to you?”

Without opening his eyes—which would have been twinkling if he had—he muttered, “Not particularly!”

It was their final secret joke.

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So that’s how I remember them and their life with one another.  And I choose to believe they’re together again, forever, their separation ended.

That’s just how it was with the state of their marriage.

Diddle

“I used to diddle myself,” he said, slurping a spoonful of soup.

“Uncle Fred!” I hissed, trying to shush him, afraid diners at other tables would overhear.  “You can’t say stuff like that out loud.”

“Why not?” he said.  “I did it all the time, sometimes in front of people.  They all knew right away it was me.”

“You didn’t!” I said, horrifying visions of men’s-room madness running rampant through my brain.

“Used a scribbler,” he said.  “And a pencil.  No mo-beel phones back then, no selfers.  People used to say I should’ve been a cartoonist.”

“A scribbler?” I said.  “And a pencil?  You mean you used to doodle yourself?”

That’s what I said,” he said, sipping more soup.  “Characterchers.”

“Uncle Fred, you mean caricatures,” I said, relief washing over me.

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He spoke like that all the time, so I should have been prepared.  Ask him what he had for breakfast, for instance, and he might reply, “Broached eggs, toast, and piecemeal bacon.”

When my siblings and I visited him on a Saturday, he would cook drilled cheese sandwiches for us at lunchtime.  For dinner we might have macaretti and meatballs.

He was a master, unknowingly, of the malapropism, the substitution of an incorrect word for one sounding similar—its origin from the French mal a propos, meaning not appropriate.  The English playwright, Richard Sheridan, named one of his characters Mrs. Malaprop, and imbued her speech with countless examples.

I’m not sure my uncle ever read Sheridan, but he would probably not have recognized the errors—illegible for eligible, reprehend for comprehend, malevolence for benevolence, and so many others.

Not that he was unintelligent.  It was always a pleasure to hear him hold forth on topics of interest, never ranting or railing, simply expressing well-reasoned opinions.  He loved classical music, as do I, especially the nine tympanies of Beethoven.  He was a great baseball lover, a fan initially of the New York Yankers, and then latterly of the Toronto Blue Jades.  And he was a political junkie, always eager to discuss the follies of our elected reprehensibles.

A lifelong Tory, my uncle fondly referred to two of his favourite prime ministers as Chiefenbaker and Moroney, and praised their performance in the federal parlourment.  He called the bicameral bodies the Synod and House of Commoners (although that last one might have been intentional).

Talking with and listening to him was ever an enjoyable experience, and unintentionally hilarious.  “Those are two beautiful, wee girls,” he told me one time, referring to my daughters.  “I hope they’ll grow up depreciating the simple things in life.  Like their mother.”  Even my wife laughed at that attempt at a compliment.

“Invest your money wisely,” he would admonish me on occasion.  “Plan for your future, which is all ahead of you.  Frugality and persimmony are virtues.”

He had a host of other gems, too, all of which made sense once the chuckling stopped.

“Fresh fruit and veggies will keep you regular.  You’ll never be dissipated.”

“Be respectful and polite with people you meet.  Most of ‘em are well-indentured.

“Don’t be boastful.  Self-defecation is a good thing.”

“Get some exercise every day.  Don’t let yourself become sedimentary.”

Aunt Helen was used to it, of course, rarely raising an eyebrow.  I suspect she was never quite sure if he was naturally inclined to err, or slyly having everyone on.  But either way, she wasn’t above giving it right back to him every now and then.

“What’s for dinner?” he asked one night.

“Steak and kiddley pie,” she said, deadpan.

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“You mean kidney pie, Helen,” he corrected.

And without so much as a pause, she replied, “I said kiddley, diddle I?”

I miss them both.

 

And the Beat Goes On

Away back when, wiggling in my mother’s womb, I listened to her loving heartbeat.  In that steady, reassuring cadence, I heard the most intimate murmurings of her soul—the fears and doubts she harboured, the hopes and aspirations she nurtured.

Many of those, of course, were focused on me, her firstborn child.

Will I deliver a healthy baby?  Will I be a good mother?  Will I give him a happy, successful start to his life?  Will I make him proud of me?

She couldn’t know the answers to those questions, of course.  Not then, not yet.  But she was an extraordinary woman, my mother, and she turned her formidable mind and powerful will to the shaping of our lives together.  To make it so.

mother-and-childIn time, four more children followed, my siblings, and I hope they, too, were attuned to the musings and melodies she would have had for them.  I heard her refrains for me, echoing and resonating in that remembered, rhythmic beating of her heart, until the day she died.  Even now, whenever I’m confronted with challenges and doubts, a quiet, firm voice speaks to me from deep inside, offering care, counsel, and courage.  Her voice.

So the beat goes on.

When my two daughters were born, I strove from the beginning to insinuate myself into their wee hearts, yearning to know the singing of their souls.  I imagined I could hear it, modulated by their intrepid heartbeats, and my own soul sang back to them, every chance I got, conveying my doubts and fears, my hopes and aspirations.

Will I be here for you when you need me?  Will I make you proud of me?  Will you love me unconditionally, as I already love you?

I proudly watched as they grew from infancy to adulthood, strong, independent, and loving.  And I was humbled time and time again, realizing I was the nexus between these remarkable women, my mother and my daughters.  A biological bond, and more, I hoped—a protector, a guide, and ultimately an unabashed admirer.

My wife—a fiercely-loving mother in her own right—had as great an influence as I, perhaps greater, on our girls.  But it is I who connects them with my mother.

And now our daughters are themselves mothers—five wonderful grandchildren for Nana and me.  Their hearts beat now in harmony with the hearts of their children, their souls connect with the same passion we once shared.  I cannot know for certain, but I imagine these young mothers sing the same heart-songs, straight from the soul, that I first heard from my mother.

Will I always be your friend?  Will I live up to what you expect of me?  Will I be the mother you would have me be?

Knowing my daughters as I do, I believe they will answer those eternal questions affirmatively and beyond doubt, just as I witnessed with my mother.  For they possess the very same hearts—beating the very same rhythms for those same good reasons—forever crooning the songs of the soul I first heard in the womb.

And the beat goes on.

Trusty Sidekick

As a young boy, I loved the Saturday afternoon matinees at our neighbourhood movie theatre.  Whenever I could earn or scrounge the twenty-five cents needed for admission, popcorn, and a soft drink, I’d be there, wide-eyed in the dark, lost for a couple of hours in the fantasies played out before me.

The matinees usually consisted of a serialized short, with a cliff-hanger at the end of every episode, a cartoon, and a main feature.  At some point along the way, all but the serials began to appear in colour.  Imagine!

My favourites were westerns—cowboys and Indians, as we thought of them in those innocent, bygone days—and I quickly developed a fondness for the rugged heroes who rode the purple sage.

In the early fifties, my parents acquired a television, black and white, of course, and Saturday mornings after breakfast became prime viewing time.  With a lineup of westerns and cartoons, it was almost as good as being at the movies.  I still remember my parents turning the TV off if I was still in my pyjamas, or if my bed wasn’t made, when I settled on the carpet to watch.

It wasn’t long ‘til I realized that every cowboy hero had a trusty sidekick.  And years before I became aware of such concepts as racism or ageism, those sidekicks were men of diverse ethnicity, many of them old enough to be grandfathers.  With perhaps one exception, there were no women.

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The Lone Ranger, my ultimate hero, had Tonto, an American Indian.  Hopalong Cassidy had ‘California’ Carlson, a bewhiskered, bowlegged geezer.  And the Cisco Kid had Pancho, both Hispanics with huge sombreros.

There were others, as well.  Gene Autry, with ‘Smiley’ Burnett, and later Pat Buttram; ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok, with ‘Jingles’ P. Jones; and Roy Rogers, with ‘Gabby’ Hayes, and later Pat Brady.  Rogers, the self-styled ‘King of the Cowboys’, also had the only female sidekick, Dale Evans (who, off-screen, was his wife).

The heroes were always the stars of their movies and TV shows, of course, while the sidekicks played supporting roles.  And for a long time, I—being impressionable and loving attention—imagined I was the star in a real-life ‘movie’ of my own, assuming all around me were my supporting actors.  Parents, siblings, friends—all trusty sidekicks, playing out their backup roles.

It never occurred to me back then that others might not feel the same way.  For a long time, I didn’t perceive myself as a supporting actor in someone else’s story.  Egocentricity, I learned years later, is one of the stages children pass through on their way to maturity; but apparently, I took my own sweet time on that journey.  I was blessed, I now realize, with family and friends who either didn’t care about my delusions of greatness, or simply tolerated my selfish illusions out of the goodness of their hearts.

Eventually, the truth dawned that it was a fallacy to suppose I was the lead actor in everyone else’s movies.  I came to realize that all of them were, legitimately, the stars of their own stories, and I, at best, a trusty sidekick—or, in some cases, merely a bit-player.

Getting married firmly cemented that truth for me, and becoming a father further reinforced it.  I came to know the importance of being there for those dear to me, in effect earning their support in return, rather than just expecting it.

My lingering love of movies has me glued every year to telecasts of the Academy Awards, when the year’s best performances and productions are honoured by the industry.  Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress seemed to me the most coveted prizes when I first began to tune in.  But my perception has shifted over the years.

My grandchildren, five in all, are leading rich, exciting lives as they move from childhood to adolescence, discovering all life has to offer.  They love me, and I them, but I’m hardly relevant anymore to their everyday experiences.

My daughters are mature, liberated women, pursuing rewarding careers alongside their husbands.  They love me, too, but I orbit their stars now, not the reverse.

And my wife?  Well, she remains the epitome of an autonomous woman—secure enough to keep seeking new adventures, caring enough to reach a hand back for me, her trusty sidekick.

That egocentric world I once carelessly inhabited is gone forever.  At a point now where I have more yesterdays than tomorrows, I find security and an abiding comfort in being part of the cast in my loved-ones’ life-movies.

And I wonder how different a world we might have if every person on the planet—regardless of race, gender, religious belief, sexual orientation, political leaning—could win an award as Best Supporting Actor, or Best Supporting Actress, in the lives of everyone around them.

That’s an Oscar I would happily accept!

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Fathers, Sons, and Trains

Again this year, I know I’ll receive warm hugs and kisses from my daughters in recognition of yet another Fathers’ Day, my forty-fifth such occasion.  It never grows old.

We dads grow old, however, despite our best efforts.  And in so doing, we lose our own fathers as they board the last train to glory, to borrow from Arlo Guthrie.  My dad departed the station more than a dozen years ago, but he remains with me almost daily in my thoughts.  And never more so than on Fathers’ Day.

When I was a young boy, he would often take me to local railroad crossings to watch the big steam locomotives and their endless caravans go storming by.  I treasured those occasions because I would have his undivided attention, a not-so-frequent circumstance in a family that eventually numbered five children.  He enjoyed the time with me, too, I’m sure; but he loved those trains even more than I, a boyhood fascination he never lost.  He was truly a railwayman, if only in his dreams.

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Not once did it occur to me as a lad to ask him if his own father had taken him to see the trains, so caught up with the spectacle was I.  I’ve often wondered since if he might have been fondly recalling such times with his dad, even as he was standing beside his son.

At the time of his passing, I wrote these lines to commemorate what he meant to me, and they comfort me still—

The Railwayman

You’d take me down beside the rails to watch the trains go storming by,

And tell me all those wond’rous tales of engineers who sat on high,

In cabs of steel, and steam, and smoke; of firemen in their floppy hats,

The coal they’d move, the fires they’d stoke, as o’er the hills and ‘cross the flats

The locomotives huffed and steamed, their whistles blowing long and loud.

And one small boy, he stood and dreamed beside his daddy, tall and proud.

Terrifying monsters were they, bearing down upon us two, who

Felt their force on that steel highway, hearts a-racing—loving, true.

I’d almost flinch as on they came toward us, with their dragon-face

A-belching, spewing, throwing flame and steam and smoke o’er ev’ry place.

But you’d stand fast beside the track, and, oh! the spectacle was grand.

So, unafraid, I’d not step back, ‘cause you were there holding my hand.

Oh, Railwayman, oh, Railwayman, I’m glad you knew when you grew old,

How much I loved you—Dad, my friend, who shared with me your dreams untold.

Oh, Railwayman, oh, Railwayman, if I, beside you once again,

Could only stand safe in your hand, awaiting with you our next train.

Now, all aboard, Dad…all aboard!

Happy Fathers’ Day to all who, like me, are both fathers and sons.  We are blessed.