The Sorrows

The weekly prompt from my Florida writers’ group was to take a snatch of lyric from a song, or a phrase from a poem, and write a story around it. This piece of fiction is inspired by When You Are Old, by W. B. Yeats—and is in memory of my mother, whose birthday this is, and who first introduced me to the poet’s work.

The old man died sometime during the night, alone, peacefully.  His careworn face, wrinkled and wizened under the weight of so many years, seemed suddenly younger somehow, and his lips were curled in what might have been taken as a smile.

On the table by the near-side of the bed—the side long occupied by his recently-departed wife—lay a note lovingly penned by his frail hand, an aged quill beside it, the ink caked dry on its tip.  It was unmistakably a love-letter to her, intended not for anyone else, fated now to be his last word to all who had loved the two of them.

This is what he wrote—

And now you are gone, off to another adventure, but this time without me.  How I wish I had been ready in time to accompany you, as on every occasion in the past.

There have been so many wonderful journeys upon which we did embark, each more glorious than those before it.  How I remember the sparkle in your eyes, the flush of your cheeks, the lilt of your joyous laughter, as off we went each time, hand in hand, bound for who knows where, never knowing that which we would encounter, but secure in our belief that, together, we would meet and conquer all.

And so we did.  Eloping when there seemed no other way in the face of families opposed, living abroad, scratching an existence from the fruits of our creative gifts, buoyed by our love and our belief in one another.  We could not have known, both so young, that your brush and my pen would eventually find favour with the audiences who discovered us.  And yet, undaunted, off we had whisked on that first great adventure into the wide world, happy, confident, ready for whatever fate had in store for us, surpassingly serene in each other’s bosom.

Every new work on your easel, every new draft in my notebook, carried us on to more adventures as we painted and published our way to heights heretofore unimagined.  What happiness we found in talking over our creative endeavours as they unfolded, in offering critiques and suggestions—shyly at first, and then more confidently as we grew in each other’s esteem.  Heralded as artists by the world beyond, we found our muses within ourselves and shared them.  Together.

Later came the children—Patrick, who died too soon; Liam, an accomplished actor now with dreams of his own; and Maeve, a musician who reminds me so strongly of her mother with such grace and sweetness masking that steely courage I ever found in you. What an adventure they provided us as our troupe grew to five, and then, sadly, diminished again to four.  What heights of joy we experienced, what depths of despair!  And yet, throughout, we sallied forth, ever determined to pass through each gateway, to follow each new path, to crest each succeeding hill.  Always together.

Inevitably, we became two again as the children, not unexpectedly, began to pursue their own adventures.  The years continued ever on and on, of course, but we, never ones to be mindful of constraints that seemed to bind so many others, paid them scant heed.  Yet even we—we, with all our bravissimo and essenza—even we could not slow the relentless ravages of time, the toll it took upon our bodies.  Even as our spirits remained as strong and audacious as ever, our bodies, increasingly and annoyingly, slowed us.  But at least we were together.

Before I knew, I had become an old man, bent and slowed.  And I watched as the weight of years pressed down upon you, too—never enough to douse the fire that burned within your soul, but tamping its fierce flames to glowing embers.  Never enough to quell the desire within us to begin our next great adventure, but sufficient to forestall our getting underway. 

Nevertheless, even in our dotage, we found ourselves, blessedly, still together.  And I was ever the man who loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face.

But now, beloved Pilgrim, for the first time, you have started a new adventure without me, alas.  And I am bereft, forsaken and left here in this too-much-travelled, mortal confine.  Would you have waited for me if you could, I wonder?  I think so.  Perchance, are you waiting still, there on that other side somewhere, knowing assuredly I shall be along when I can?

I write this now in hope it is so, that we shall reunite in glory to resume our way across the universe, amid a crowd of stars.….

Fathers, Fathers Everywhere

There’s going to be a gathering of three clans at the home of my eldest daughter and son-in-law this coming Father’s Day—Burt, Cherry, and Whittington.  With a combined age of 233 years, the three patriarchs (of whom I am one) boast of seven children (four of whom are themselves fathers) and nine grandchildren in total (some of whom are shared).

Those grandchildren, in addition to their patriarchal lineages, share ancestry from six families on the distaff side—Arnold, Eaton, Romig, Rowsell, Sakeris, and Wrigglesworth.  We are a discrete gathering, to be sure, but one big family, and it will be a happy coming-together.

Father’s Day has changed for me since I was a child, the eldest of five siblings.  In the beginning, I suspect I didn’t truly know what we were celebrating, given that all of us loved our father every day.  It was simply a party-day for some reason, and we all joyfully joined in to present Dad with our homemade gifts and cards.  He appreciated those more, I think, than the presents we purchased for him as we grew older—although he always had a softness for candy.

It wasn’t until I became a father myself that I began to appreciate what it meant to be somebody’s Daddy.  The enormous responsibility that entails was never lost on me, but it paled in comparison to the happiness and sense of fulfilment it brought.  And so, as my own daughters grew into young women, so too grew my appreciation of my own father and his role in shaping my life.

He lived into his 92nd year, mentally sharp to the end, and never lost his sense of humour.  Near the end, my mother asked him in a gentle whisper if he’d like her to sing to him.  “Not particularly!” he whispered back, the ghost of a smile gracing his face.

She sang him out, anyway, as he must have known she would.

Until I became one, fathers were always older men than I.  With remarkably few exceptions, I remember the fathers of my childhood friends being much like my own father—distant at times, there when it mattered, working-men dedicated to providing for their families.  They embarrassed us on some occasions, swelled our hearts with pride on others, and we never doubted their love for us—except maybe occasionally when they wouldn’t let us borrow the car.

I felt the same about the man who became my father-in-law—whom we lost way too soon—and I consciously tried to model my own behaviour as a father on those two men who were most prominent in my life.

It seems to me, even now, that it took a whole lot longer for me to grow up and move out from under my father’s purview than it did for my daughters to do the same.  My childhood lasted forever, or so I remember it.  But my girls were there—those precious, sweet babies—for such a short time, and then, in the blink of an eye, they were gone to men of their own.  To this day, I have a picture of the two of them, aged four and two, on my dresser.

“You’re not children anymore,” I tell them now.  “But I’ll never stop being your father.”  And I cling to that certainty.

I suspect the same sentiment is true for the other two patriarchs who’ll be joining me this coming Sunday.  One of them has three sons, the other a son and daughter.  All of those sons are themselves fathers now, which has led us to the startling realization (at least to me) that fathers are no longer the older men in our lives.  With the passing of our own fathers, it is younger men who now fill the role.

And in that reality, we old men are blessed.  The four sons, as fathers, are all loving husbands, dedicated to their families.  Hard as it is to believe, two of them are already retired from their life’s work, and branching out into other pursuits.  And without exception, they have loved and honoured their fathers and fathers-in-law from the beginning.

Over the next few years—years I trust I will be around to enjoy—I suspect there will be even younger fathers joining our combined families.  Grandsons and the young men who will marry our granddaughters may, with their partners, bring more children into our midst, great-grandchildren who will grace our lives.  At this point, I find it a happy circumstance that the number of fathers in our families is likely to increase.

By a matter of mere weeks in one case, and by a few years in the other, I am the eldest of the three patriarchs—the seniorem patrem familia, I suppose—but there is no doubt that such a distinction matters little.  All three of us are held in equal esteem by our respective children and grandchildren.

This coming Sunday, if everyone were able to attend, including sons- and daughters-in-law (and perhaps boyfriends), we would number twenty-five in all—seven of whom would be fathers, three of those, grandfathers.  Alas, some are too far distant, some grandchildren will be working, some in-laws may be with their own fathers at similar gatherings.  But whether with us or not, all will be there in spirit, and we shall raise a glass to the fathers among us.

There may come a few moments on Sunday when we three old men will find ourselves sitting off to the side, watching and listening to the antics of the younger ones, no longer as integral a part of the hubbub as once we were—a few moments when we may look at one another, smile knowingly, and silently acknowledge our shared status, a status none of us, perhaps, ever imagined we would occupy.

In so many ways now, I believe I have become my father.  And that accomplishment makes me happy.  I think Dad would be happy, too.

Happy Father’s Day to all of us who are blessed to be fathers and sons.

The Thin, Dark Veil

My Florida writers’ group prompt for this week is to write about a thin veil or veneer, and this is what I have come up with…not wishful thinking, but a fanciful, funereal tale—

* * * * * * *

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face…

I hear the mighty pipe organ, that King of instruments, pealing the melody I know so well—my favourite hymn, its words engraved on my heart—rolling majestically through the cavernous cathedral where so many times I have gathered with my family in this congregation.

Oh Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made…

I see the people who have come to mourn or celebrate, to lament or rejoice, depending on their view of me, I suppose.  I know all of them, the well-meaning grievers and the disbelieving voyeurs—though they seem distant despite their disconcerting closeness as they lean over my casket.  I cannot see them clearly, for it is as if a thin, dark veil lies across my eyes. 

I hardly recognize long-ago colleagues, much-aged now, and almost-forgotten neighbours from homes I have lived in over the years.  There are acquaintances and friends from bygone times, most of whom I have not seen in many a day.  Some whisper a few words as they pause over me, but I cannot hear them on account of the glorious music enveloping me—

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed…

Some of these folks, I believe, have come in sadness, while others, less charitably, are here to assure themselves that I have, indeed, crossed the bar.  Some will miss me, of that I am sure; others, not so much.  But really, how could it be otherwise?  Are there any among us who will be universally mourned at their time of passing?

There are those who are genuinely saddened by my leaving, however, and I see them, too—dimly, darkly—as they linger over me.  I recognize the two old men whom I have loved since we were ragamuffin boys, and their wives, tears gracing their faces, hands lovingly touching my cheek, though I cannot feel them.  One of them crosses herself as she hovers there, an angelic apparition, an ephemeral chimera, and although I have never been one to embrace obvious signs of piety, I am comforted by her simple gesture as the mighty organ swells—

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art…

And then at last there appear the people whom I love the most.  My vision is blurred and hazy through the veil, but I recognize my grandchildren—the adults they are now (strangely shape-shifting with the babies they were).  And I see my middle-aged daughters (inexplicably intermingling with the lovely little girls who graced my life once upon a time, and for all time).  Their eyes are smiling down at me, their grandpa, their daddy, even as their tears flow forth.

Coming at the very last, of course, is the stooped and wrinkled wife who has been there since the very beginning—mother and grandmother, boon companion—and she, too, is metamorphosing back and forth from the lissome lass she was to the weathered woman she has become.  And I understand, perhaps for the first time, the devotion expressed in Yeats’s poetic words: …one man…loved the sorrows of your changing face.

She stands above me for the longest time, my very life, yet not long enough before she is gone, leaving behind one final, sad smile.  And still I hear the magnificent music, its o’erarching crescendo anointing me, before fading to an other-worldly silence—

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee,
How great Thou ar-r-r-t, how grea-ea-t Thou art…

And when the music stops, the thin, dark veil is lifted.  And as the hoped-for, everlasting light bursts forth, I do as the old man in Yeats’s poem did before me—I hide my face amid a cloud of stars.

The Best In These Worst of Times

Almost no one during the past several months of pandemic restrictions would consider these the best of times.  Indeed, for many people these are the worst times they have ever experienced.  Lockdown, loss of employment, illness, even death are the unfortunate lot of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens.

Nevertheless, a gentleman of my acquaintance is managing to cope with the current hardships fairly well.  He has been retired for almost one-third of his life and—thanks to prudent financial decisions made during his earning years—lives, not extravagantly, but comfortably on his investment income.  His children are grown and gone, raising families of their own, and he visits with them a couple of times a week on social media.  Never an overly-gregarious sort, though not a hermit by any means, he has always enjoyed time alone, so the isolation wrought by stay-at-home orders has not unduly affected him.

He has a relationship with a younger woman, some fifteen years his junior.  She, too, has grown children, all of whom live in far-distant cities, and it’s been more than two years since she’s seen them, or her grandchildren, in person.  Unlike the gentleman, however, she is not retired; she continues to ply her trade as a housecleaner, the very occupation that brought the two of them together.  She spends three hours in his home every Thursday afternoon, vacuuming floors, dusting furniture, polishing silver, cleaning bathtubs, and doing whatever other chores are required.

The gentleman cares about her, treats her respectfully, but never allows his fondness to cross bounds of propriety.  She, although mindful of the employer/employee relationship they have, is fond of him, too.  They generally spend five or ten minutes chatting when she first arrives, not just about the chores he has lined up, but a general catching-up on each other’s news.  While she’s working, he stays out of her way, then moves to one of the rooms she’s finished cleaning when asked.  Occasionally they call back-and-forth, each comfortable in the presence of the other.  Before she leaves, they chat again for a few minutes and wish each other good health until next time.

All in all, the gentleman and the woman enjoy a pleasant relationship.  But deep down, they both know it is an unequal relationship.  He engages her services for reasons both pragmatic and personal, not because he has to, but because he wants to.  On the practical side, he can afford to pay the cost, and he does not want to do the work himself.  As a personal matter, he understands the woman must earn a living, and is more than happy to contribute to that in return for her labour.

To that end, he is generous, paying the woman more than double the minimum wage, but not as an act of charity he fears she might construe as condescending.  He truly values the work she does and the care with which she does it.  More importantly, he is not prepared to lose her services to a higher bidder; consequently, he is happy to reward her work commensurately.

The woman, for her part, is happy to accept the wage he pays.  She is proud of her work, looking after his home as if it were her own—as she does for all clients—and believes she gives full value for the money she earns.  She gazes pridefully around each room as she finishes—looking for anything she might have missed, yes—but also basking for a moment in the glow of a job well-done. 

Still and all, she doesn’t do this work because she wants to; she does it because she has to.  Retirement for her will not be early or voluntary, as it was for the gentleman; rather, it will be begrudging and financially unwelcome, even if ultimately necessary when age and health will have rendered her no longer able.  She appreciates the gentleman’s obvious satisfaction with the work she does, of course, and loves that he tells her so every week.  He enables her to look upon herself as not just a paid employee, but a valued one.

Nevertheless, the facts remain: the gentleman is the employer, the woman is the employee, and the relationship, no matter how personally pleasant, is unequal.  For him, the service she provides is beneficial; for her, the job is crucial.  The exchange of capital for labour is, for him, convenient; for her, it is critical.  Where he regards her as a respected employee, she sees herself as an essential worker.

The gentleman tells me he has no plans to alter the situation.  The woman, I suspect, also has no desire for a change.  Having found an optimal arrangement that addresses their respective needs, they have settled in for the long haul.  In this pandemic-assailed world, despite the baked-in inequalities of their situations, their relationship is estimable.

It marks the best in these worst of times.

My Old Friend

I have an old sweatshirt—very old—frayed at the collar, stretched at the waist, threadbare at the elbows.  Its original khaki colour, now faded, is spotted and spattered with stains, reminders of bygone games of a younger day—softball in the summer, flag football in the autumn.  Hardly discernible, though once printed boldly across the front, are the words Property of the Hockey Machine, a team I played for in my long-ago youth.

Despite the hundreds of launderings it’s endured over the years, brownish blotches—long-dried blood from one cut or another—speckle the sleeves.  Grass stains, acquired after multiple falls and spills, add their random pattern to the cloth.  A few holes, too small to stick my pinkie through, but growing, pock the fabric near the neck and waistband.

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These days, for eight months of the year, the sweatshirt lies forgotten in the bottom of a drawer in my closet.  But when fall begins to give way to another winter, when it’s too cold to be out and about in a summer-light shirt, I rummage around for it, knowing it will be there, just as it has always been.

There’s no ceremony when I find it, no ritual, no welcome for a long-absent boon companion.  I simply pull it out, slip it on, and go.  Although clean when stowed away each spring, it still surrounds me comfortingly with the faded, familiar smells of male sweat, grass, and liniment.  It’s comfortable, it’s warm, and it fits.  When I put it on for the first time each autumn, it’s as though I had never packed it away.

Some of my acquaintances stare a tad too long when they see me approach, proudly clad in my sweatshirt.  “You still wearin’ that rag?” one might say.

Another might add, “Why don’t you try wearin’ it inside out?”

“I think he already is!” the first might reply, cackling gleefully.

teasing

They probably wish the sweatshirt was theirs, so their raillery bothers me not one bit.

My wife, however, cringes visibly whenever she sees me wearing it outside the house.  Inside, I never leave it where she might get her hands on it.  I mean, why risk what she might do?

This old sweatshirt, this relic of my youth, has become a fond reminder of a time when I was younger, stronger, quicker—when everything seemed possible and within my reach.

I simply cannot let it go.

Similarly, I have an old friend of more than sixty years’ standing.  When we were young and single, still living at home with our parents, we spent uncounted hours in each others’ company.  We played, we went to school, we took summer jobs together.  We talked on the phone—offering advice to one another, confiding our innermost secrets, fears, and dreams to the one pal we knew would never let us down.  We passed from adolescence into young manhood together.

With adulthood, though, things began to change.  We chose different schools to attend after high school, and divergent careers to follow upon graduation.  In due course, we married our high school sweethearts and began to move in different circles.  Children took up a great deal of our time and energy, curtailing the social opportunities we once enjoyed.  We lived in homes far removed from each other.

Parting-Ways

And as a result, we stopped spending a lot of time together.

But faithfully, year after year after year, right after Christmas, we would join each other for a few days with our young families at my old friend’s cottage.  Tucked cosily in the snow-blanketed woods, nestled on the shore of an ice-covered lake, the cottage was warmed by a blazing fire, the laughter of children, and the comfort of a shared friendship with all its memories and love.

It was never the same as once it had been, not with our wives and children sharing the space and the good times with us.  It was only late at night, by the embers of the dying fire, that we seemed to have time to talk as we used to.  With the others abed, we’d hunker down as in days of yore and talk our hearts out.

Interestingly, there was never any emotion-charged greeting between us when we arrived—no boisterous welcome, no demonstrative renewing of the old relationship.  We seemed, simply, to resume an ongoing conversation that had been briefly—but only temporarily—interrupted.  The flow of friendship followed a familiar pattern every time we were reunited, a veritable rhythm of life.

rhythm

My old friend is warm, he’s time-honoured, he’s absolutely trustworthy.  He’s always been there, and he abides to this day.  I slip into his comfortable embrace as easily as into my old sweatshirt—and with the same joyfulness.

Eventually, I know, both will be lost to me, or me to them.  But until that time, I will rejoice each time we renew the bonds.

I love that old sweatshirt.

I treasure my old friend!

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.

cowboy pic

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!

Oscar pic

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.