A Boomer No More!

Shortly after the end of my seventh decade, I made a dramatic discovery.  One of my basic beliefs, one of my most treasured tenets, turned out to be untrue.  Indisputably incorrect.  Not founded upon fact.

Contrary to my lifelong assumption, I learned I was not a baby-boomer!

Perhaps this seems less than a momentous finding, given the plethora of problems and disappointments we face every day in our troubled world.  Nevertheless, it left me somewhat in limbo, wondering where I fit in, if not where I had always assumed.

Conventional wisdom in the western world, I learned, defines boomers as those born between 1946 and 1964.  Sadly, I came along, the firstborn of my generation, in early 1943, a full three years before my next oldest sibling.  Upon my birth, I became the seventh living person in my three-generation family, and the youngest. 

Today, I am the eldest of my own three-generation family, one of eleven people.  This diminutive dynasty of mine has increased in number by a meagre four souls across a span of more than seventy years.  We are not exactly a fecund family! 

My brother and three sisters, born between 1946 and 1954, are legitimate baby-boomers.  We’ve never talked about that, though, most likely because they take it for granted.  Just as I always did prior to learning the truth.  As I aged—reluctantly, grudgingly, but inevitably—it was comforting to know that I would never become irrelevant, inconsequential, or ineffectual.  By virtue of my inclusion in such a huge, influential, demographic cohort, I was hopeful of being ever important, pertinent, and significant.

“I am a boomer!” I would proudly declare to one and all.  Alas, that hope has been forever dashed. 

It was only in the last century, apparently, that people began to think in terms of generations, and to label them.  Prior to 1900, presumably no one had the time or inclination to pursue such frivolous thoughts.  After World War I, however, when almost sixteen million soldiers and civilians were killed, and after the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918, when perhaps fifty million people perished, the term lost generation sprang into use, denoting those born before the turn of the century.  It is generally credited to the writer and critic, Gertrude Stein, and it came to define the cohort of that era.

The people born between 1900 and 1924—who came of age during the great depression of the 1930’s, many of whom served or fought in World War II—are often referred to as the greatest generation, a phrase first coined by another writer, Tom Brokaw.  After the baby-boomers’ years, along came generations X, Y, and Z, roughly spanning the years between 1965 and the present.  My two daughters are gen X-ers.

Generation Y, or millennials—born roughly between 1980 and the late 1990s, the children of boomers—are sometimes referred to as echo-boomers.  One of my grandchildren falls into this cohort.  The other four are of the gen Z group, which means my family spans five generational cohorts.

Anyway, my place in this grand scheme appears, sadly and irrefutably, to be wedged ignominiously between the greatest generation and the boomers, born between 1925 and 1945, a span that encompassed a period of rapidly-declining birth-rates in the western world.  In the United States, for example, population fell by almost 1.8 million in the five years before 1945, whereas it grew by 19.4 million in the five years following.  My generational cohort, the waning product of that decline, was dubbed the silent generation in a 1951 Time magazine article.

Can you imagine how I feel?  I’m part of the silent generation?  I went from being a boomer, a member of that iconic group responsible for much of the economic, cultural, and technological growth in the western world, to being a nobody—the product of a flagging era, dwindling and diminishing in comparison to the years surrounding it.  It was disheartening, it was frustrating, and it was humbling to learn I was a member of a marginal, mute minority.

But, you may ask, why do I care?  Why is this of such import?

Well, in times past—from feudal fiefdoms to Victorian villas—younger sons were often banished from their noble fathers’ mansions, sent off to the army or the church where they would succeed or fail on their own.  The eldest son, however, was to the manor born, and was never treated in the manner of his younger siblings.  Not for him the shame of exile or exclusion from the elegant elites.  Male primogeniture reigned.

Therefore, when I eventually became old enough to understand my status as the eldest grandson in my somewhat-Victorian grandfather’s family, I more or less assumed I would benefit in a fashion similar to those earlier first-born scions of society’s finest families.  Not only that, but in addition to my favourable birth-rank, I stood poised (I thought) at the leading edge of the greatest population boom in modern times, the boomers.  The world would be there for our taking; none could stand against us.

[An aside: it occurs to me as I write this that perhaps, as a child, I was too steeped in Victorian delusions of grandeur.  Ah, well…]

In any case, here I sit today, silenced, stifled, and insignificant, gloomily appraising my paltry position on the generational flowchart—not riding the crest of a great wave as I had assumed, a triumphant shout upon my lips—but rather receding slowly and soundlessly into a forgotten fragment of twentieth-century demographic distribution, the silent generation.

There is a painting, The Scream, completed in 1893 by Edvard Munch, himself the eldest son in his family.  Famously considered to represent the universal angst of modern man, it portrays the artist at a particularly anxious time in his life.  Since my banishment from the boomer ranks, I have looked at it closely and repeatedly, wondering what it sounded like, that scream.  In similar torment, I have tried to copy it, tried to unveil my own scream of protest at the unfairness of it all.

“Let me in!” I open my mouth to cry, but no sound emerges.  Oblivious to my silent suffering, the boomers tramp on, adhering to their own imperatives, a wholly-engrossed horde of humanity resolutely heading who knows where.  Without me.

And so, ‘tis true.  I am a boomer no more.

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 Great Pur-tenders

I see them reading in bed when I come in to say good night.

“Let’s play the pur-tend game, Gramps!” Jacob suggests, burrowing down under the covers, brown curls framing his sweet face, his book cast aside.

“It’s pre-tend,” I say.  “And sure, we can play one game before you guys go to sleep.  Three turns each.”

“You go first, Gramps,” Travis says, snuggling into his own bed, a smaller replica of his older brother, his book also forgotten.

“Okay,” I say, screwing my face into what I hope resembles a fearsome snarl.  “I’ll huff an’ I’ll puff ‘an’ I’ll blow your house down!”

“The big, bad wolf!” Travis shouts immediately.  At six years old, he is ever competitive and eager to beat Jacob, older by a year, to the answer.

“Right,” I smile.  “Your turn.”

“Okay…hmmm…”  After a moment, using his deepest voice, he says, “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood…”

“The giant!” Jacob cries before he can finish.  “The giant at the top of Jack’s beanstalk.”

“You hafta let me finish, Jake,” Travis complains, indignant at being cut off.

“Don’t worry, Trav,” I say soothingly.  “If Jake can guess them early, it means you’re doing a good job, right?”

Travis smiles triumphantly, pleased by this revelation.  “Right!” he says.  “I’m a good pur-tender.”

“Pre-tender,” I say patiently.  “And now it’s Jake’s turn.”

Jacob has his riddle all ready.  “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

Travis doesn’t reply right away, furrowing his brow as he tries to come up with the answer, so I say, “Sleeping Beauty.”

“Wrong!” Jacob crows.  “I get another turn.”

“Wait, wait, I know it now,” Travis argues.  “It’s the wicked, old queen who gave Sleeping Beauty the poison apple. She turned into an old hag!”

“Not fair!” Jacob pouts.  “Gramps gave it away!  He pur-tended to know the answer so you could get it.”

“Hey,” I protest, “that was my best guess.  And it’s pre-tended…which I didn’t do, by the way.”

“Okay, my turn,” Travis says, oblivious to my persistent corrections.  “You won’t get this one!   Wah…wah…what’s up, Doc?”

“Bugs Bunny!” Jacob says.  “That was easy!”

Crestfallen, Travis says, “Yeah, but only ‘cause I can’t stutter!”

“Bugs Bunny doesn’t stutter,” Jacob says.  “That’s Porky Pig.”

“Okay your turn, Jake,” I intercede quickly, heading off a potential squabble.  “This is your third round.  Make it a good one.”

“Okay, here it is.”  In a harsh, threatening rasp, he bellows, “Who’s that clip-clopping across my bridge?”

“Billy Goats Gruff!” Travis exclaims.  “That’s the troll under the bridge!”

“Very good, Trav,” I say.  “Now it’s your third turn.  Can you stump us?”

Adopting a lilting, sing-song tone, he says, “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go!”

“The seven dwarfs,” Jacob shouts, eager to beat me, even though he’s used his last turn.

“Which one?” Travis says, wanting to stump his brother.

“All of ‘em, right, Gramps?”

“I think so,” I say.  “They all went to work, unless Sleepy slept in.”  My intended joke falls on deaf ears.

“Okay, that’s three for me an’ Trav,” Jacob says.  “But you got two pur-tends left, Gramps.”

This is the standard pattern when we play, which usually allows me to end the game without complaints from them about having to go to sleep.

“I have two pre-tends left,“ I say, “so here’s my second one.”  In my best attempt at a high-pitched cackle, I croak, “Who’s that out there, eating my house?”

“The witch, the witch!” the boys yell in unison.  “Hansel an’ Gretel!”

“Right,” I smile.  “You guys are great at this game!”

“Yeah,” Travis agrees.  “We’re the great pur-tenders!”

Pre-tenders!” I say, for what feels like the umpteenth time.  “You guys are great pre-tenders.  You remind me of an old song, and I’m going to use it for my final riddle.  Then it’s bedtime.”

“Sing it, Gramps,” Jacob urges.  “Sing it for us.”

They’ll endure anything to avoid having to go to sleep, I figure, but I sing the song anyway, tailored just for them.

Oh-oh-oh, yes, you’re the great pre-te-en-ders,

All cozy and ready to sleep,

You’ve played your games and you’ve guessed the names,

And now you must lay down your heads,

Pre-tending you’ll start counting sheep!

“That’s Little Bo-Peep!” Jacob yells, excited to have an answer for the last one.  “She lost her sheep, right?”

“You got it,” I laugh, hugging him, feeling his fleeting kiss on my cheek.

When I bend to hug Travis, he whispers, “I love you, Gramps.  We don’t have to pur-tend ‘bout that.”

Softie that I am, I feel my eyes filling up.  And this time, I don’t attempt a correction.

Privilege and Reward

I remember a glib put-down I overheard a few years back, referring to a casual acquaintance, a self-important scion of a wealthy family, whose attitude conveyed to everyone that he deserved everything he had.

The jerk was born on third base and grew up thinking he’d hit a triple!

The speaker wasn’t so much resentful of the person’s privileged position in life as she was of the fact that he didn’t seem to appreciate the tremendous head-start he’d enjoyed.  Had he at least acknowledged the advantages he’d been born with, she might have been more forgiving.

Over the years, I’ve lost track of both of them, have no idea to what extent they may have succeeded or failed in their respective life-journeys.  But I’ve been reflecting on the comment itself during these troubled times of pandemic, economic woe, and racial upheaval.

In our society, wealth or the lack of it is not the only factor that bestows or denies advantage.  Other dynamic influences include quality of family-life, level of education, type of employment, housing, race/ethnicity, gender-identity, and age.

diversity1

Other than that last one (I am past my mid-seventies), I score among the most fortunate in those categories, in that my status lies solidly within the traditionally-accepted norms.

The key phrase in the previous sentence is traditionally-accepted.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

If you doubt that, consider the following hypothetical scenario.  I am arranging a footrace for fifteen young people, mid-twenties, all of whom will compete against me for the prize.  The course is the staircase of my condo building; the starting-line is at the first-floor level; the winner is she or he who arrives on the twenty-fourth floor first.  Given the width of the staircase, the runners will begin in five ranks of three, arrayed behind me, the septuagenarian.

As in many races and competitions, however, handicapping will be a factor.  When everyone is ready and in place, I issue a series of statements to sort the field prior to the gun.

If your parents are both alive and still married, walk up one floor.

Almost everyone obliges, putting them one flight ahead of me.

If you graduated from college or university, walk up one floor.

Perhaps half the group does so, including me.  Several racers are now on the third floor, but a few are still back on the first-floor.

If you are employed full-time, or retired on a pension, walk up one floor.

Although I can’t see them as I climb to the third-floor, I hear some people climbing to the fourth floor.

If you own your own home, walk up one floor.

I am almost the only one who moves, given the age of the group overall.

If you have never been racially-profiled or discriminated against because of skin-colour or religion, walk up one floor.

Those of the fifteen who are not persons of colour advance, including me.  I am now on the fifth-floor landing with two other racers.

If you have never been discriminated against because your gender-identity is straight-male or straight-female, walk up one floor.

Below me, I hear people moving, and I now find myself on the sixth-floor with only one other person.

If you are over the age of thirty, walk up one floor.

This is a sneaky one, because I am the only one able to benefit, of course (age discrimination-in-reverse?), and I happily trudge to the seventh-floor—alone.  After gathering my breath for a few moments, I lean over the railing and call down.

How many people on the first-floor landing?

Five.

How many on the second?

Three.

I quickly learn there are two people on the third-floor, two on the fourth-floor, two on the fifth-floor, and one on the sixth-floor.  The staggered-start to the race is complete, and I have a six-floor advantage over one-third of the field.  That’s equivalent to a one-lap advantage around a 400m track in a 1500m race!

track1

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Remember, though, this race was merely hypothetical; it never took place.  But had it been run, it’s likely that some of the fifteen racers would have overcome my advantage over them, my age being too crippling a factor.  I’m sure I would not have finished first—or maybe at all, alas!

But the unfortunate racers who started on the lower levels would have faced an insurmountable obstacle against whomever did win, someone who started perhaps from the fifth- or sixth-floor.  The disadvantages pressed on them by their life-experiences (as represented by my seven handicapping-statements) would have allowed them no chance against their more-advantaged competitors.

One of those racers starting at the first-floor might have been able to climb twenty-two levels in the same time-period the racer who started on the sixth-floor climbed eighteen levels to the finish-line, yet that person would still have failed to win.  Better effort is not always enough to surmount inborn advantage.

Someone starting on the sixth-floor—if they resist the urge to think they deserved it through their own efforts, if they apply themselves—will almost surely attain the prize over those starting on the lower levels.

track2

That’s life in a nutshell, as we know it.

That’s privilege and reward.

As we read in Ecclesiastes 9:11, …the fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time.

Still, for those fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, it behooves us to listen, to try to understand, and to support the cries of those who would seek to change the imbalance of the status quo.

That’s equity.

 

Five Cousins

Longer ago than I care to think, the final one of our five grandchildren made her entrance into the family.  She joined an older sister and brother, and two cousins, both girls.  Because the five of them live close to each other in the same town, they’ve spent a lot of time together and have grown quite close.

Ranging in age from seventeen to eleven, Ainsley, David, Alana, Naomi, and Abbey were the subjects of a book I published some years ago, a collection of poetry for and about them.  Titled Five Cousins, the book spun tales of their adventures at the various stages of life they had by then attained.

3 Cousins cover

Each of them received a copy from me one long-ago Christmas—signed, of course, with a suitable inscription.  At the time, the younger ones enjoyed having the poems read to them more than reading them themselves, but either way, their peals of laughter warmed the author’s heart.

Each of them had a section of the book, titled with their name, containing half-a-dozen or so poems with such titles as:  Ainsley Starting School; It’s David’s Day; Alana’s in Florida; Oh, Naomi, You’re the One; and Little Abbey’s Walking Now.

Over the years, these five cousins have seen a good deal of us, their Nana and Grandpa, often at our retirement home in Florida.  In one of life’s everlasting mysteries, they have grown older by leaps and bounds each year, while we elders have hardly aged at all!

[pause for muffled snickers of disbelief from amused grandchildren]

Regardless, it is a fact that three of them are now taller than we are; the eldest is off to university this fall; the second one will join her next year; the next two are halfway through high school; the youngest will soon enter junior high; and every one of them eats gobs more than we do!

As they have grown, their lives have gravitated less toward us and more to their friends; their interests have shifted away from us to their myriad interests and activities; the time we spend with them now is less than it used to be.  They face their futures now, rather than focusing back on what has been.

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Happily for us, they visited us in Florida this year—perhaps for the last time all together, as their lives will increasingly take them along paths diverging from ours.

That is natural, of course, and as it should be.  But their inexorable journey to their own destiny has me thinking I must write another collection of poems about them, and for them, before they leave the sanctuary of childhood for the last time.

I could do it for each of them separately, beginning with the eldest, and follow up for each succeeding one as they reach the age she is now.  Or I could do it as I did the first time, with poems about all of them, suitable to the stage each finds her- or himself at right now.

I think I favour the second option, given my own age.  Time, I increasingly find, is not to be taken for granted.

Anyway, here are five short pieces I have already written about them, collectively rather than individually, in haiku form.  The poems attempt to express my love for these five cousins, my hopes for them, and my unabashed pride in them.

smiling photographs

on the refrigerator—

loving grandchildren

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

grandchildren, our hope

for the future—as we were

once upon a time

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

free your grandchildren,

hug them close, then let them go—

they’ll e’er be with you

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

more yesterdays now

than tomorrows, but it’s the

tomorrows that count

grandchildren

Five Cousins e-book – http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/precept

A Panhandler’s Christmas

[first posted December 2016]

After we retired to Florida some years ago, we discovered that Christmas there is as jolly a season as any we enjoyed up north, enveloped by snow.  It was especially joyous when our grandchildren came to visit.

Merry_Christmas_on_the_Beach

One evening during our last Christmas season in the sunny south, we all went out to dinner—my wife, our daughter and her husband, and three of our grandchildren.  We’d spent the afternoon shopping at a large, regional mall, and were looking forward to enjoying the cheer of the season and the pleasure of each other’s company.

During dinner, we talked of our plans for their holiday with us.  Unlike the north, where tobogganing, skating, snowball fights, and warm fires were the order of the day, in Florida the beach, the pool, and the golf course were all on the agenda.  We were looking forward to an old-fashioned holiday with lots of singing, plenty of fresh air and exercise, good food, and family to enjoy being around the tree with.

By the time we finished dinner, sharing our happy plans, we were all feeling very fine—warm, full, comfortable.  We left the restaurant, chatting amiably, and began the walk back to the parking lot where we had left the car.

As we waited to cross the intersection, guided by flashing green and red traffic lights that added to the festive Christmas air, we were accosted by a stranger.  He meant us no harm, but his sudden approach startled us out of our contented state.

He was tall and quite thin, and his face jutted out from under a worn cap.  His beard was unkempt, his eyes red and rheumy.  He wore faded jeans, tattered and patched, and an old, plaid shirt with the collar turned up.  The children huddled behind their parents, afraid of being so close to such an apparition.

panhandler

When he spoke to me, I could hardly hear him in the hum of the passing traffic.  He mumbled through that scraggly beard, through missing teeth, his words coming in disjointed phrases.

“Hey, can you….you got anything….any change?  A bus ticket, maybe….got any…?”

He was clutching a sign on a scrap of corrugated cardboard that read:

Out of work   Homeless   Anything helps   Thank you

“No, sorry,” I muttered, watching for the green light that would allow us to escape.  And we walked away, slightly embarrassed, but relieved to leave him behind.

“Who was that guy, Daddy?” one of the kids asked.

“Did he wanna hurt us?” another chimed in.

Their parents reassured them that he had meant no harm.  He was just a man asking for money.

“Is he sick, Mummy?  Will he be alright?”

None of us could really answer.

When we reached the car, we clambered in silently, each of us lost in our own thoughts.  The kids soon put the episode behind them, immersing themselves in their gaming devices.  As I drove back through the intersection, heading home, the stranger was still on the corner, huddling around himself, approaching passers-by.  He looked pathetic, and utterly alone.  I hoped he didn’t see me staring at him.

xmas panhandler

Later that night, after everyone was in bed, I thought of him again.  At first, I chastised myself for not giving him something to help him out.  From somewhere, the scrap of a Bible verse teased a corner of my mind—Whatsoever ye do unto the least of these, ye do also to me—something close to that, I think.

But then I rationalized that a token from me would not likely have helped him anyway.  He was obviously past the point where a solitary handout was going to make much of a difference in his life.  He’d probably have wasted whatever we might have given him on booze or drugs, I told myself self-righteously.  At one point, I got angry that he had put me in such an uncomfortable position.

Still, underneath it all, I felt a nagging guilt.  ‘Tis the season to care for one’s fellow-creatures; yet we, so full of the Christmas spirit, had kept on walking.  Because we were fearful, because we hadn’t known how to respond…or because we didn’t care.

Was it best to have ignored him and walked on, I wondered?  Or would it have been better to have given him something, in the spirit of Christmas and with the hope that it would have helped him?  I didn’t know.

As I think about it even now, almost a year later—sitting warm and safe at home at the onset of another Christmas season, surrounded by people who love me—I wonder where that stranger is and whether he’s okay.

And I wish I knew what I should have done.

 

She Married Her Father-in-Law!

Around the community where we live, I am known to most of our neighbours as Donna’s husband.  This, I think, is due more to my wife’s friendly, caring nature with everyone she meets, than it is to my somewhat more reserved approach.

I don’t mind, of course, because it garners me automatic entry into the circle of regard in which she is held.  I benefit from instant credibility, instant relevance, instant acceptance.

“Oh, you’re Donna’s husband!” is an exclamation I often hear, followed quickly by a wide smile from the speaker, sometimes even a hug.

hugging

Among my own family, however, my identity has morphed into something I never quite anticipated.  Increasingly now, whenever I encounter sisters, nieces and nephews, or other extended family members, I am told I look like my father.

“You’re just like him,” they declare.  “You even sound like him.”

They’ve heard me sneeze, you see, which reincarnates my father every time.

Although I loved him very much while he was with us, I confess I never aspired to be exactly like him.  I wanted to be my own man—not so unusual a desire, I suppose, for sons of successful, admired fathers.

As a young man encountering people who knew him, I would often hear, “Ahh, you’re Bill Burt’s boy.”

And I would struggle to suppress the haughty reply, “Actually, he’s my father.”

But now, happily entrenched in my mid-seventies, I am no longer possessed by that same hubris.  Just as I am inordinately proud to be both a father and grandfather in my own right, I am more than happy to be recognized as my father’s son.

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My beautiful picture

 

 

 

 

Still, it comes as something of a shock to be reminded by those who knew him that, more and more, I behave just like he used to.  In photographs, I gaze at the camera with the same bemused expression he always had.  I remember thinking he was trying for a mix of casual and noble at the same time; I don’t know what I’m attempting to do, but I somehow attain the same inane facial expression.

My mouth, at rest, turns downward at the corners, making me appear grouchy, when I am anything but.  I try to smile broadly for the camera, as he did, if for no other reason than to dispel that impression.

In many pictures, I’m sitting the way he did, or standing with the same posture.  As my jowls begin to droop, as my hair turns white, my profile shots are becoming eerily similar to his.

In videos, I walk the way he used to, shoulders hitched slightly high, strong chin tucked in, eyes peering out from under raised eyebrows.

And (somewhat depressingly, I must admit), I feel awkward now as I clamber from my easy chair to my feet, as I try to step into my trousers without falling over, as I walk slowly upstairs one-step-at-a-time—just as I remember my father doing at my age!

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I must confess, however, that I do like it when the comparison is reversed; for example, when my grandchildren see a picture of my father (whom none of them remember), and say, “Wow, Grandpa, he sure looks like you!”  That turns the corners of my mouth up every time.

And I appreciate the truth now in the lines from William Wordsworth—

…So was it when my life began,

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old…

The Child is father of the Man.

No one in our community ever knew my father; but if they were ever to see a picture of him, I’m sure I’d no longer be known as Donna’s husband.

Instead, the whispers would be, “Can you believe it?  She married her father-in-law!”

The Reach of a Father’s Love

Friends of ours lost their only child several years ago, the victim of a relentless disease.  He left behind a grieving wife, two young children, and a sparkling future.

In the years since, our friends have doted on their grandchildren, taking great delight in watching them grow from infants to toddlers, and onward to adolescence.  They’ve invested time with them, knowing they can never make up for the loss of a father, but determined to keep his memory alive.

A while after their son’s death, I wrote a piece to commemorate his life and the legacy he left behind.  I post it here now, adapted somewhat, to mark the advent of another Fathers’ Day

The little boy is eight-years-old, and loves to visit his grandparents at the family cottage.  For him, every day is an adventure, a surprise, a delight, as he wanders the woods, swims in the lake, and fishes the waters in the old, wooden skiff.

For the older folks, these activities hearken to an earlier time with another fair-haired lad, and they treasure the memories, even as they create new ones.

A while back, the little boy was in the musty basement of the cottage with his grandpa, when he made a great discovery.  “Grampy, what’s this?” he cried, pointing to a bright-yellow model boat.

Sitting astride its pedestal on top of an old workbench, the craft was almost three feet long—a racing boat, bred for speed, its tall sails still unfurled.  Three small passengers huddled in the cockpit, as if awaiting the starting gun for an impending race.

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“Oh, that?” his grandpa replied.  “That’s a boat your daddy built a long time ago.  He used to race her on the lake with his remote control.”  He lifted a dusty metal box down from an overhead shelf.  Two toggle switches protruded from the top, and a long antenna jiggled slightly as he set it down.  “This is how you make the boat go where you want it to.”

“Can I make it go, Grampy?”

“Mmm, I don’t think so, l’il guy.  I don’t think she works anymore.”  Together they lifted the cowling off the boat, behind the drivers, and peered at the mysteries of the small motor inside.

“It smells funny,” the little boy said.

“That’s oil you smell,” his grandpa replied.  “Your daddy always made sure he kept her cleaned and oiled.  He really liked this boat.”

“What’s her name?”

“Your daddy called her The Yellow Flash.  Here’s her name on the back, just the way he painted it.”

“Can I make her go, Grampy?” the little boy asked again.

The old man shook his head.  “The batteries are probably dead,” he said, “and look at these wires.  They’re corroded at the junction plates.  The sails are pretty ratty, too.”

“Well, can we fix her?” the little boy said.

His grandpa stared at him for a few moments, a faraway look in his eye.  “Y’know,” he said finally, “maybe we can.  Shall we give it a try?”

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Over the next couple of weeks, the two of them dismantled the boat in order to clean every part, separating the batteries and wires that would need replacing.  They opened the remote box and cleaned it out as best they could, removed the sails for a gentle cleaning.  On his next trip to the city, the old man took the hull and box to a hobby-shop, where the owner walked him through the steps needed to restore the boat to operation.

On the little boy’s next visit to the cottage, they began the rebuilding process.  As they soldered new wires in place, the little boy was fascinated.  His grandpa let him set the new batteries in their proper slots, showing him how to ensure the contacts were touching.  He watched as the little boy lovingly polished the hull, restoring it to its original gleaming glory.

Together, they replaced the sails, and tested the remote box, working the toggles to control the boat’s tiny propeller and rudder while it still sat on its dry-dock pedestal.

“She works, Grampy!  She works!”

“I think she does, l’il guy.  Shall we put her in the water?”

And so they did.  Carrying her gingerly down the slope to the dock, they lowered her carefully into the lake.  From a silent vantage point on the rocks, I watched them—a grandfather and his son’s son, with his son’s boat, launching their labour of love.

“Which one is the driver?” the little boy asked, pointing to the three small figures in the cockpit.

“Well, this one is you,” his grandpa said, indicating the figure in the middle.  “You’re the skipper.”

“Okay,” said the little boy.  “Then this one on the right will be you, and this can be my daddy over here.”

The old man had to look away for a moment to collect himself.

“What if the waves tip her over?” the little boy asked, suddenly apprehensive.

“Well, it’s pretty calm right now, l’il guy.  I think she’ll be okay.”

“But what if she goes way out there and we can’t bring her back?”

“She’ll come back,” his grandpa said.  “She’ll come back.”

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As they perched on the dock, legs dangling over the water, the old man gave the boat a push away from shore.  The little boy, the remote box between his knees, began to steer her—hesitantly at first, with fitful starts and stops, over-correcting erratically.  But in moments he was sure, and the boat skimmed atop the surface, speeding and curving gracefully, immediately responsive to his commands.

I watched the boat for awhile, then turned my attention to the old man and the boy.  Their faces were split with grins, happily alight, as they raced The Yellow Flash to and fro along the shoreline.

“Take a turn, Grampy,” the little boy yelled, handing the remote box to his grandpa.  And he squealed with delight when the old man almost capsized her, righting her just in time.

“Grampy?” the little boy said after a while.

“Mmm?” his grandpa replied, seeming lost in reverie.

“I love my daddy’s boat!”

“I love her, too,” the old man said, leaning in close to his grandson.  “And I love you, l’il guy, very much.”

I left them on the dock, locked in silent communion.  And it may only have been my imagination, but when I stole a glance back, I could swear I saw a third person there—ephemeral but real, lovingly watching them both.

At once apart from, yet a part of, the old man and the boy.

And I marveled at the reach of a father’s love.

father-son-and-grandfather-fishing

Happy to Be Home

Having just returned from a wonderful trip to South Africa, I am struck, as ever, by how good it feels to be home again.

Our journey through that wonderful country constituted the trip of a lifetime, a celebration of our golden anniversary.  Readers of this blog have already shared in some of our adventures, although my scribblings are no substitute for being there.

Over the years, my family has always loved to go on trips.  Be it winter for skiing, or summer for camping, we really enjoyed going away.

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My wife and I worked in the school system, so our holidays tended to come in regularly-spaced chunks, which was especially nice when our daughters still attended elementary school.  We were able to get away several times during the year, usually for short spans of four or five days.  That made us more fortunate than many folks, and we appreciated that—one reason, perhaps, why we enjoyed the opportunities so much.

Due a combination of lack of interest and financial realities, I suppose, we didn’t make elaborate journeys to glamorous vacation spots.  Our most expensive holidays were of the weekend-at-a-ski-lodge variety.  Mostly, we just visited with family members who lived out of town, stayed with friends at their summer cottages, or set up our own digs at one of the myriad provincial campgrounds.

Vagabond vacationers—that’s what we were.

In spite of our love for going away, however, and regardless of the type of trip we’d been on, there was one element common to all our family meanderings.  We loved to come home.  No matter how long we’d been gone, it was a real joy to come in the door, drop our gear, and explore through the house.

This lovely memory of bygone days washed over my wife and me once more, upon our most recent return.

Each of us seemed to have one special thing we liked to do when we arrived back, a self-appointed task that served to herald our homecoming.  Among the several necessary jobs—turning up the temperature in the water heater, plugging in the water-softener, or opening windows to dispel the stuffiness—our special tasks stood out in their importance to each of us, respectively, as our way of saying, I’m home!

My wife would spend fifteen or twenty minutes visiting her plants, watering them, talking to them, grooming them lovingly.  My youngest daughter would head to her bedroom to check on whether everything was just as she left it (though, sometimes, given the disarray, I wasn’t sure how she could tell).  My older daughter would take Cinnamon, our dog, on an inspection tour of the house, the sunroom, and the back yard, generally in that order.

For all of them, it was a renewing of acquaintance with home.

My task was to wind the five clocks.  The time on each face had to be adjusted, the chimes and gongs checked to be sure they were synchronized, and the pendulums re-started.  It wasn’t a difficult job, or a lengthy one, but it could be stretched into a half-hour of time alone, savouring the feeling of being back home again.  And, when the next full hour rolled around, and the clocks began to sound, everything seemed normal once more.

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Perhaps you share my sentiment that, when I’m not in the place I love, I love the place I’m in.  My family certainly looked forward to every succeeding trip or vacation spot we planned to visit, and always seemed to enjoy ourselves wherever we happened to be.  But, when it came time to head for home, we were never unhappy with that prospect, either.

Our daughters have been gone for several years, of course, off raising families of their own.  But they’ve continued the tradition of holidays together as often as possible.

For my wife and me, however, holidays are different now—more sedate, more pampered, and to more exotic destinations than in our earlier years—places like South Africa.  Although we miss the girls, we still love to get away.

Way back when, we had a nice little routine we’d go through as each journey neared its end.  One of us would start by remarking on the terrific time we’d all had, how much fun it was to be on holiday.  Someone else would comment on the wonderful weather, or the exciting activities we had shared.  Another might mention some of the memorable highlights of the trip now ending.

“Yeah, it was a great holiday,” somebody would eventually conclude, “but it sure is nice to be coming home.”

Later, perhaps at the supper table, or maybe when the girls were getting off to bed, one of us would look up and re-affirm it.

“Y’know, it’s good to be home!”

home

So, most recently, when all the plants were tended to, and all the clocks were wound, my wife and I settled in with a glass of wine.  No words were spoken, yet we understood how each other was feeling.  And by the time the clocks chimed ten, we were both fast asleep, exhilarated and exhausted by our wonderful adventures.

And most of all, happy to be home.

A Panhandler’s Christmas

After we retired to Florida some years ago, we discovered that Christmas there is as jolly a season as any we enjoyed up north, enveloped by snow.  It was especially joyous when our grandchildren come to visit.

One evening during our last Christmas season in the sunny south, we all went out to dinner—my wife, our daughter and her husband, and three of our grandchildren.  We’d spent the afternoon shopping at a large, regional mall, and were looking forward to enjoying the cheer of the season and the pleasure of each other’s company.

During dinner, we talked of our plans for their holiday with us.  Unlike the north, where tobogganing, skating, snowball fights, and warm fires were the order of the day, in Florida the beach, the pool, and the golf course were all on the agenda.  We were looking forward to an old-fashioned holiday with lots of singing, plenty of fresh air and exercise, good food, and family to enjoy being around the tree with.

By the time we finished dinner, sharing our happy plans, we were all feeling very fine—warm, full, comfortable.  We left the restaurant, chatting amiably, and began the walk back to the parking lot where we had left the car.

As we waited to cross the intersection, guided by flashing green and red traffic lights that added to the festive Christmas air, we were accosted by a stranger.  He meant us no harm, but his sudden approach startled us out of our contented state.

He was tall and quite thin, and his face jutted out from under a worn cap.  His beard was unkempt, his eyes red and rheumy.  He wore faded jeans, tattered and patched, and an old, plaid shirt with the collar turned up.  The children huddled behind their parents, afraid of being so close to such an apparition.

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When he spoke to me, I could hardly hear him in the hum of the passing traffic.  He mumbled through that scraggly beard, through missing teeth, his words coming in disjointed phrases.

“Hey, can you….you got anything….any change?  A bus ticket, maybe….got any…?”

He was clutching a misspelled sign on a scrap of corrugated cardboard that read:

Vetran  homeless everthing helps

“No, sorry,” I muttered, watching for the green light that would allow us to escape.  And we walked away, slightly embarrassed, but relieved to leave him behind.

“Who was that guy, Daddy?” one of the kids asked.

“Did he wanna hurt us?” another chimed in.

Their parents reassured them that he had meant no harm.  He was just a man asking for money.

“Is he sick, Mummy?  Will he be alright?”

None of us could really answer.

When we reached the car, we clambered in silently, each of us lost in our own thoughts.  The kids soon put the episode behind them, immersing themselves in their gaming devices.  As I drove back through the intersection, heading home, the stranger was still on the corner, huddling around himself, approaching passers-by.  He looked pathetic, and utterly alone.  I hoped he didn’t see me staring at him.

Later that night, after everyone was in bed, I thought of him again.  At first, I chastised myself for not giving him something to help him out.  From somewhere, the scrap of a Bible verse teased a corner of my mind—Whatsoever ye do unto the least of these, ye do also to me—something close to that, I think.

But then I rationalized that a token from me would not likely have helped him anyway.  He was obviously past the point where a solitary handout was going to make much of a difference in his life.  He’d probably have wasted whatever we might have given him on booze or drugs, I told myself self-righteously.  At one point, I got angry that he had put me in such an uncomfortable position.

Still, underneath it all, I felt a nagging guilt.  ‘Tis the season to care for one’s fellow-creatures; yet we, so full of the Christmas spirit, had kept on walking.  Because we were fearful, because we hadn’t known how to respond…or because we didn’t care.

Was it best to have ignored him and walked on, I wondered?  Or would it have been better to have given him something, in the spirit of Christmas and with the hope that it would have helped him?  I didn’t know.

As I think about it even now, almost a year later—sitting warm and safe at home at the onset of another Christmas season, surrounded by people who love me—I wonder where that stranger is and whether he’s okay.

And I wish I knew what I should have done.

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