Learning the Game

As young parents so many years ago, my wife and I loved to watch our daughters play soccer with their local house-league teammates.  It was their first involvement with team sports of any sort, except for pickup-games at school, and we hoped they’d like it because the concepts of teamwork and sportsmanship are so important in later life.

Now, all this time later, it’s our grandchildren we get to watch—wondering how on earth the time passed so quickly.  Soccer and volleyball are their sports of choice, and they’ve embraced the team approach essential to both.

Having been involved with children’s sports in the past—not just as parents, but as teachers and coaches—my wife and I are still keen to see the atmosphere in which they play.  How competitive is it?  How do their coaches approach the playing of the sport—as games to win at all costs, or as opportunities for the kids to learn the skills of the games?  How encouraging or critical are the parents (and grandparents) on the sidelines?

Well, as it turns out, we’ve had no cause for worry.  The kids are playing for coaches who believe it’s as important to treat opponents with respect as it is to show them how to kick the ball accurately with either foot.  It’s just as important to teach them to shake hands with opposing players at the end of a match as it is to spike a ball past them.  For that we’re very grateful.

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However, we were witnesses recently to two situations that point out the difference between how it should be, and how it all-too-often is.

After a soccer game on an adjoining pitch, two parents were walking their son, perhaps seven years old, toward the parking lot.  The father was particularly vocal as he verbally assailed the boy, and we, watching our granddaughters play, couldn’t help but overhear him.

“What’re you supposed to do when the whistle blows, eh?” was the first question.

The boy’s reply was delivered with head down, inaudible to us.

“You know?” the father said next.  “You know?  Well, it sure didn’t look like you know.  You’re supposed to stop when the whistle blows!”

The boy plodded on, chin on his chest.

“And why were you chasing the ball all over the field, anyway?  What is it about staying in position that you don’t get?  You ever heard of passing the ball?”

By then, they were adjacent to the field where the girls were playing.

“Look!” the father directed his son.  “Look there.  These kids know what to do when the ball goes out of play.  They don’t need their coaches yelling at them to get in position.  And they’re only girls!”

The boy didn’t look, of course.  He just kept going—trailed by his irate father and embarrassed mother—head down, a picture of dejection and simmering shame.

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A number of us on the sidelines glanced at each other, eyebrows raised, silently shaking our heads.

On another occasion, by way of contrast, a friend of our daughter—out to watch her seven-year-old play volleyball—was shocked to see him refuse to shake hands at the end of a losing effort.  Rather than lining up at the net, he stomped to the bench, sulking at the score, and refused to mingle.  Despite her chagrin, she refrained from forcing him into the line-up, and she didn’t chastise him in front of the other boys.  But, as she later told our daughter, she spoke to him about his behaviour after they arrived home.

She asked him a number of questions, including, “How do you think the other kids felt when you wouldn’t shake hands with them?  How would you feel if they didn’t congratulate you if your team won?”

He resisted at first, naturally enough.  But she encouraged him, helping him to place himself in their shoes, a difficult task for a youngster that age.  He eventually acknowledged that being a good sport was important, whether his team won or lost the game.

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Together, they agreed—he somewhat more reluctantly than she, as she reflected later with a rueful smile—that if he couldn’t lose gracefully, he shouldn’t be playing at all.  Next, she had him talk to his coach on the phone, to tell him he must miss the upcoming game because of what he’d done.  The coach commended him for owning up to his mistake.

When that next game was played, the boy was sitting in uniform with his parents on the bleachers, watching and learning.  He didn’t play, but at game’s end, he joined his teammates in the line at the net.  Since then, there’s been no problem with his attitude, and he’s played in every game.  He’s often first in line now, I’m told, to shake hands with the other side, win or lose.

When I think about these two episodes, there seems no doubt as to which boy learned the most—the one who was accosted out of anger and frustration, or the one who was encouraged to talk about, and face, the consequences of his actions.  The one who was humiliated, or the one who was left with his dignity intact.

What was it that each boy learned from the exchanges?  And which boy has the best chance to grow into a mature, respectful young man?  A devoted husband?  A nurturing father?

Next to caring teachers and coaches, good parents are every child’s best friends.  Good parents lift their children high, hug them close, then let them go.

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Of course, I have to add that wise grandparents are pretty awesome, too!

 

On Etiquette

A decade or so ago, after almost forty years of marriage, my wife left me.  Oh, it was nothing permanent, thank goodness—just a weekend excursion she took with one of our daughters, who was visiting us in Florida with her two girls.  They left me to look after our grandchildren.

I was delighted, of course, not only because I love the girls, but because I knew it would give me an opportunity to put into practice all those theories about dealing with children that I’m forever espousing to my wife.

 Hah!  So much for that plan!

It wasn’t that my theories were without merit.  They were based on an assumption that children—and adults, for that matter—are responsible for their own behaviour, and should be held accountable for the consequences of that behaviour.  Pretty simple, really.  Our world might well be a better place if more people subscribed to that thinking.

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Now, before I go any further, please don’t get the impression that I ever told my wife how to raise our own two daughters.  Far from it!  She always brought her own common-sense approach into play during the many hours she spent with them.

But I couldn’t resist the opportunity—after I’d been away from fatherhood for so long—to put my theories into practice, dispassionately and all-knowingly, with my granddaughters.

However, I didn’t reckon on the fact that my daughter had learned the lessons of effective parenting only-too-well from my wife.  And the extent to which she’d been successful was brought home to me that weekend.

Right from the get-go, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find any fault with my grandchildren.  On both mornings, they got up and made their beds, got themselves washed and dressed, and then wakened me.  Gently, with a kiss.

After breakfast, which they helped me make, they cleaned off the table without being reminded.  Then off they went, outside to play until it was time to walk to the pool—their favourite pastime.  The closest we got to a confrontation was when they asked if they could go barefoot.  I told them about fire-ants, and they readily dropped the subject.

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It was quite frustrating, because I wasn’t getting any opportunities to practice my pet theories.  Finally, however, I figured my chance had come.  We went out for dinner that first night, to a local place offering bbq ribs as the house specialty, and that’s what we ordered.  It was the perfect moment to direct the girls in the proper etiquette for dining out.

I tried to begin when the salads arrived, but I wasn’t fast enough.

“Use the small fork for your salad, Gramps,” offered the youngest before I could tell her the same thing.  I nodded obediently.

When I tried to say something else a few moments later, the oldest said, “Gramps, you shouldn’t talk with food in your mouth, remember?”  I nodded again, in guilty agreement.

Then, a minute or so later, while I was still watching for some breach of etiquette from them, the youngest piped up again.  “Please don’t let the fork scrape against your teeth, Gramps.  And your napkin should be on your lap in case you drop something.”  I hastily complied.

When the platter of ribs arrived, I received more advice from the oldest—even before I had done anything wrong.  “It’s okay to pick up the ribs in your hands, Gramps, but don’t lick your fingers.  Just wipe them on your napkin.”

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“Gramps, don’t eat so fast,” said the youngest a few minutes later, “or you’ll get a tummy-ache.”

This went on through the entire meal.  I was lectured to, scolded, and encouraged, all at the same time, by my own grandchildren.  Worst of all, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  Probably because, eating so fast, my mouth was always full.

But then, at long last, I found a way to seize the upper hand.  It was time to pay the bill, and I was the only one with money!  Confidently, I marched with the kids up to the cashier, flashing a broad smile at her as I pulled out my wallet with a flourish.  Rather than returning my smile, she merely looked at me—somewhat curiously, I thought.

Nevertheless, I paid the bill masterfully, adding just the right amount for a gratuity.  As we left, I bestowed one final, beaming smile on the cashier.  And again, she didn’t return it.

After we climbed back into our car, I turned to the two girls.

“There!” I said.  “That’s how you settle up after a good meal.”  I just knew they’d be impressed, and I smiled condescendingly at the two of them.

Ewww, Gramps!” they chorused in unison.  “You’ve got a big piece of meat stuck between your front teeth!”

Alas, being a grandpa isn’t always easy!

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Lying? No, Storytelling!

“What’s the most interesting thing that happened to you today?” he’d ask.  My grandpa, puffing on his pipe.

Pleased to have his attention, and anxious to keep it, I’d rack my brain for a response.  Growing up in the suburbs in the 1950’s was pretty mundane.  Nothing of great interest ever seemed to happen to me.

So, I’d make things up.  Not lying, exactly.  Storytelling.

“I fell in the creek today,” I might tell him.  “Tried to walk across the log, but my foot slipped off .”

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“How’d you get out?” he’d ask, wisps of smoke curling around his head.

“Wasn’t deep,” I’d say.  “But don’t tell my Mum.”

“Nope,” he’d say.  “Be best not to go near the creek anymore, though.”  And he’d give me a broad wink.

On another occasion, I might tell him that my bike got stolen, but I managed to get it back.  Heroically.

“Wasn’t it locked” he’d ask.

“Yeah, the lock was across the forks of the back wheel.  But the guys who took it just picked it up and carried it.  That’s how I caught up to ‘em.”

“What did you say to them?”

“Nothin’ Grandpa.  When they heard me comin’, they dropped the bike and ran away.  I guess I scared ‘em off.”

“Sounds like,” he’d say.  “Maybe you should fasten your wheel to the bike rack from now on.  Be hard to take that.”  His blue eyes would sparkle, and I’d love that I made that happen.

He never tired of asking the same question, and I never got tired of answering.  I might have told him how I won the game for our team when I made the game-ending catch of a long fly-ball in centrefield.

“Jus’ like Willie Mays!” I’d say, omitting the fact that I had actually stumbled and fallen, slid to an ignominious stop, only to have the ball land on my stomach, where I frantically clutched it.

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“Mays is one of the greats,” he’d say.  “You caught it over your shoulder, like he did?  Wish I could have seen it.  Next time, though, try to keep the ball in front of you.  Those over-the-shoulder catches are pretty rare.”  And he’d flash me a knowing smile.

As a grandfather myself now, I know he knew I was padding the truth.  But I didn’t know back then.  I thought it was okay, because it brought us closer together.

He lived to a ripe old age, and in the last few years before he died, he was slowed considerably.  When I’d visit with him, it seemed our roles were reversed.  Now it was I asking the questions, and he searching for answers that would keep me there longer.  I always asked the old chestnut.

“So, what’s the most interesting thing that happened to you today, Grandpa?”

He no longer smoked his pipe, but he’d stroke his mouth as if still holding it, and I could almost hear the gears meshing inside his head.

“Nothing much today,” he’d say.  “But did I ever tell you about the time I saved your father from drowning?  Fell off the dock while we were fishing at the lodge up near Bala, no life-preserver.  I reached down, grabbed his collar, and hauled him straight out of the water.  Poor little guy cried like a baby.  That was pretty interesting, I’ll tell you.”

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I’d heard the story many times, of course, and my father had debunked it every time.  “The water was shallow,” he told me.  “I jumped in, and waded ashore.  And I did have a life-preserver on.  Dad loves to tell the story, though.”

Of course, I never let on that I didn’t believe what my grandpa was telling me.  I remember hearing how he met the King, back in 1939, when he and the Queen, on their tour of Canada, visited the hospital where my grandpa was recuperating from surgery.

“I had a picture of the two of us,” he’d say.  “Don’t know what ever happened to it.  Your grandma must’ve thrown it out.  But that was really interesting!”

Grandma would only smile when I asked about that picture.  “Grandpa was in the hospital in 1937,” was all she’d say.

I heard about the lawn-bowling championship he won, the skip of a Dominion championship team in 1909.  According to him, the mantel clock that still sits in my home was the prize awarded for the victory.

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“There’s no plaque on it, Grandpa,” I once told him.  “How come they didn’t put your name on it?”  The wistful look he gave me made me wish I hadn’t asked.

“Ah, they gave us all a letter,” he said.  “Signed by the prime minister, Mr. Borden.  That’s why your father’s middle name is Borden.  No idea where that letter is now.  But that’s pretty interesting, don’t you think?”

I nodded in agreement, and was circumspect enough not to mention that the prime minister in 1909 was Wilfrid Laurier.  My father was born in 1911, right after Robert Borden’s election.

By then, my grandpa’s eyes no longer sparkled as in days of yore.  But he’d still wink at me while telling his stories, and smile whimsically.  Kind of like my smile now, when I listen to my own grandchildren telling me about the momentous events in their lives.

And when they ask me about the interesting things in my day, I try not to lie to them.  Elaborating is not the same as lying.

“Nothing much today,” I tell them.  “But did I ever tell you about the time I saved my brother from the big kid across the road who was beating him up?  I ended up with a bloody nose and a black eye, but that kid never picked on my brother again.  That was pretty interesting.”

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“Really, Gramps?” they marvel.  Or pretend to.

Of course, I don’t tell them the real reason my brother was safe afterwards; the kid’s family moved away.

To this day, I have a warm feeling inside when I remember my grandpa, and those conversations we used to have.  And I love the exchanges now with my grandchildren, swapping tales about our lives.

Not lying, exactly.  Storytelling.

Which is what I do.

Honk If You Love Jesus!

As my grandchildren grew from infancy into young childhood, we enjoyed playing word games together.  Challenging them to spell different words, come up with rhyming words, find words with opposite meanings, and other such contests have always been a source of pleasure for me.  And for them, too, I think.

One of the great places to play such games was while travelling in the car.  Classics—such as spotting out-of-province license plates, finding misspelled words on billboards, and watching for funny bumper stickers—were some of our favourites.

Sometimes, though, the games had unintended consequences.  For example, on a rush-hour street one afternoon, we were behind a car with a bumper sticker exhorting all who might read it to Honk If You Love Jesus.  My first reaction was to scoff, wondering who would be crazy enough to start bearing witness on the horn of an automobile.

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“Grandpa,” exclaimed my eldest granddaughter, “we love Jesus, right?  You should honk your horn.”

I demurred, but her sister insisted.  And their sincerity made me wonder what harm there could be in responding to such a simple invitation to show my beliefs.  In fact, if I chose not to respond, could that be construed as a subconscious rejection of my religious convictions?  In front of impressionable little ones?

So, somewhat abashedly, and in order not to jeopardize my granddaughters’ faith, I did honk—a long and loud affirmation of Jesus.  The reaction of the driver in front was immediate, and rather unexpected.  His car jumped ahead momentarily in the clogged traffic, quickly followed by the flash of his brake lights.  His arm jacked out of his window, and he began to gesture in what I hoped my granddaughters would think was an attempt to point out the direction of heaven…with his middle finger.  Luckily, they appeared not to notice.

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On another occasion, while driving to my grandson’s soccer game one Saturday morning, we overtook a car with a brightly-coloured bumper sticker asking us to Buy From a Breeder.

“What’s a breeder, Gramps?” my grandson asked.

“Well, that’s someone who brings animals together so they can have babies,” I answered carefully.  “Those people want us to buy babies from someone who breeds them.”

A few minutes later, we passed a car whose bumper sticker advised, Caution. Baby On Board.  My grandson craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the baby as we flashed by.

“Those people are breeders, right?” he asked.

I confess I nodded in the affirmative.

One of the funniest bumper stickers I ever saw was on the back of a black hearse, but my grandchildren didn’t really understand the humour.  In flowing, black script, it proclaimed, Yours Eventually.

One I admit I wasn’t too fond of, but which my grandson thought might apply to me, was stuck on the back of an old, copper-coloured Nash Rambler, driven by a white-haired codger:  I Used to be Cool!

That was a bad day because, a short while later, we saw another that declared, Watch Out for the Idiot Behind Me!

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“That’s you, Gramps, right?” my grandson asked.  Innocently, I choose to believe.

We’ve occasionally had close calls in the car, trying to read bumper stickers with print so small that it’s impossible to decipher from a reasonable distance.  The first time we saw one, it took five minutes of white-knuckled bursts of speed to get close enough.

“What does it say, Gramps?  Get closer!”  Two little girls were peering avidly through the space between the front seats.

Grammatically incorrect, it nevertheless smugly stated, If You Can Read This, You’re Following Too Close!

You’re too close!” my wife was yelling by then, her arms locked rigidly on the dashboard to brace herself.  “Slow down, or we’ll be a bumper sticker!”

The girls giggled, but I didn’t dare.

I was much fonder of the message we saw another day, in living colour on the mud-flaps of a huge eighteen-wheeler we were following.  Impossible to miss.  My youngest granddaughter recognized the cartoon character immediately—a short, red-haired, moustachioed gunslinger with a huge sombrero and two smoking pistols pointing at us.

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BACK OFF! was all it said.  No ambiguity there.

But the most sensible bumper sticker we ever saw was plastered squarely in the middle of the rear bumper of a large recreational vehicle.  It sported two bright red arrows, one pointing left, the other right.

“The left arrow says Passing Side,” my granddaughter declared.

“And the right arrow says Suicide,” her brother replied worriedly.

We had come up on that camper in a great hurry, so, as my grandchildren spoke, I stole a glance at my wife, who was staring pointedly at me.

Smiling reassurance, I slowed right down and backed right off, heedless of the traffic piling up behind me.

And, with all the honking that began to blare behind me, I figured those drivers must really love Jesus.

So, I was glad for the sticker I had on my own rear bumper—

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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.

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My Old Man

In all the sixty years I knew him before he died, I never referred to my father as the old man.  Despite being acceptable in many households, that phrase always seemed a tad disrespectful to me.  And besides, my mother forbade me.

When I spoke directly with him, I called him Dad.  When referring to him in conversation, he was my father, or my dad.  He was never my old man.

I had no problem with others who used the phrase, though.  My friends always seemed to have a loving relationship with their fathers, regardless of how they referred to them.

But there was no denying one fact; during the last decade of his life, which ended in his 92nd year, my dad definitely became an old man—a state of being I am now coming to understand.

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We were different, he and I, in so many ways—temperamentally, emotionally, and physically.  From my perspective, he seemed a placid soul, tending to take life as it came (although often expressing frustration when it wasn’t to his liking).

I knew he loved me, but he wasn’t one to say, “I love you,”; in fact, when I would say that to him, his usual response was, “Thank you.”  Genuinely pleased to be loved, but unsure as to how to express it to his son.

He was a bigger man than I, and stronger, although he was not particularly active in his later years, save for a daily walk.  As I grew up in the family home, I never got big enough to wear his clothes or his shoes (although, given our discrepant styles, I probably wouldn’t have, anyway).  When I inherited his cherished Omega wristwatch, I had to have three links removed from the bracelet in order to wear it.

As a child, I think I mostly took him for granted.  He was always there, he was dependable, he was predictable—a benign, constant presence in our household.  Not until after I had become a father myself, dealing with adolescent children, did I begin to think more about our relationship.  Not until then did I begin to reflect more on our similarities, rather than our differences.

By then, he was in his seventies, the decade I now inhabit.  His hair was thinning and graying, his gait was slowing; and I’d often see him lost in apparent reverie, a thousand-yard stare in his vivid blue eyes.  I used to wonder what he was thinking about, but I never asked.  I wish now I had.

He’s been gone for fourteen years almost, and I still see him in my mind’s eye—but always as an old man.  For images of his younger self, I have to look at family albums, where I am always struck by how youthful he was.  I just don’t remember him like that.

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The clearest memories I have, however, are counterfeit, in the sense that they are channeled through me.  For example, I used to notice how graceless he looked when he bent over to pick his newspaper off the floor—bowed legs canted outward, fanny pointed skyward, gnarled hand struggling to reach low enough.

“Bend your knees!” I’d silently tell him.

At my age now, of course, I realize bending one’s knees can be quite a problem if one expects to rise again.  So, I bend from the waist, too—bowed legs canted outward, fanny pointed skyward, gnarled hand struggling to reach the floor.  And alas, I see my father in my ungainly pose.

He used to sneeze—not demurely, but prodigiously.  A-roo-pha-a-!  A-roo-pha-a!  we might hear.  Or A-ree-cha-a-a!  A-ree-cha-a-a!  Sometimes A-chintz-ish!  A-chintz-ish!  There seemed no end to the variety of forms his sneezes could take.  But always, they were six times repeated before he seemed able to stop.  I think we first learned to count by marking my father’s sneezes.

“C’mon, Dad,” I used to say to myself.  “That’s not necessary.”

Now I sneeze, too—not decorously, but colossally.  They come upon me at the most inopportune times, and I’m unable to control them. A-roo-pha-a-a!  A-ree-cha-a-a!  A-chintz-ish!   And to my chagrin, I hear my dad all over again.

I had my childhood heroes as a boy, but my father wasn’t one of them.  Not then.  He was too old, too square, too conservative.  And sometimes (to my shame now), too embarrassing.  But in adulthood, I came to appreciate that his stolid, almost-Victorian demeanour was comforting, that his sly sense of humour was refreshing, that his love for his family was unending.

As my daughters grew up, they called him Grandpa, or more often Gramps.  They didn’t think he was square; they thought he was cool.  Now that I’m Gramps to my own grandchildren, basking in their attentions, I’ve come to appreciate how much my kids’ love must have meant to him.  Which makes me very happy that I appear to have, at long last, become my dad.

As another Fathers’ Day approaches, I give thanks for one of my heroes, that old man who was my father.

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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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