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.

 

Condoms or Condos?

As a virtuous, young man—newly-married, not ready yet for children, and still naïve about worldly pleasures of the flesh—I had occasion to consult a pharmacist about the purchase of a certain safe-sex item for use at home.  Sheepishly, in a voice so low the white-coated gentleman had to lean over the counter to hear me, I asked him for a box of what I needed.

“Condos?” he repeated, much too loudly for my comfort.  “I think you mean condoms, sir!”

Embarrassed by the amused attention his declaration drew from nearby customers, I was forced to endure a short tutorial on the difference between condos (profitable investments) and condoms (prophylactic vestments).  I never forgot the distinction, a lesson that served me well when my wife and I eventually purchased a condominium apartment.

No longer young now, nor nearly so naïve, I am living high over our shoreline neighbourhood, looking out on Lake Ontario, one of 328 suites in two towers that comprise our community within the larger community.  To the east of us, the city’s glass-plated skyscrapers gleam like coppery fire at sundown each day, a testament to the vibrant metropolis we border.

Balcony View5

We, too, are a vibrant community, with so much to offer those who care to emerge from their cliff-dwellings to engage with their neighbours.  The towers share a club facility with amenities including:  an exercise wing, featuring separate gyms for women and men, separate saunas, a yoga studio, a squash court, an indoor golf range, a large swimming pool under massive skylights, a communal hot tub, and a tennis court; a sizable art room for painters of all persuasions; a woodworking facility, complete with enough power tools to make a carpenter envious; a large lounge, enclosed along one entire side with outsized windows affording a magnificent view of the lake, with a massive fieldstone fireplace at one end; a billiards room; and magnificent grounds, shaded by mature trees, with gardens and ponds galore.

Gatherings in the lounge are frequent for many club activities, including bridge and euchre clubs, book clubs, a choral group, coffee klatches, knitting groups, readers in the library—and lots more besides.  In many ways, the club is a social centre for the two towers.  At least, it is for those who choose to take part.

One of our favourite activities is the Friday late-afternoon gathering, where residents and guests congregate for an informal cocktail party before dinner.  It used to be called Happy Hour, but is known now as After Five, and everyone brings their own libations downstairs.  In the winter, a roaring fire crackles in the hearth; in summer, doors are thrown open to the lake breezes.  We find it a happy time, my wife and I, a lovely way to keep in touch with friends and neighbours.  And nobody has to drive home!

Apparently, however, not everyone agrees with us.  On our way to the lounge one day we encountered a couple in the corridor, obviously returning from grocery shopping.  We didn’t know them, but it’s our habit here to offer a polite hello to all and sundry.  The man merely nodded curtly in reply.  His wife, pulling a laden bundle-buggy several paces behind him, must have seen the wine bottle case hanging from my shoulder.

“Oh, right,” she sniffed, “it’s the drinking night again!”

We were too nonplussed to reply and carried on to our destination, struck by the tone of disapproval in her voice.  I’ve since thought of many a response I might have made, but I know the opportunity is gone.  And I’ve wondered what it is that makes some people so judgmental.

On another occasion, not too long ago, we were returning from After Five, and were joined in the elevator by neighbours from our floor, people we rarely run into.  They keep pretty much to themselves, but we see them out walking from time to time.

“Greetings, neighbour,” the man said, pointedly checking to make sure I’d pressed the right button for the elevator.

“Hello,” I replied.

“I see you’ve been downstairs drinking,” he continued.  “We’ve been out for a long walk, our second of the day, I might add.”  His wife stared at the floor.

“Wow!” I replied, feigning admiration.  “We were out earlier, too.  But I don’t try to walk when I’m drinking.  Afraid of falling down.”  It was the first retort that sprang to mind.

Silence accompanied us to the twentieth floor where we went our separate ways.

“That was childish,” my wife chided gently as we entered our suite.  “But I loved it!”

It mystifies me as to why people are like that.  And I can never understand why they don’t take part in the myriad activities and events offered here.

“It was childish,” I conceded.  “But people like that bug me.  Instead of being con-do’s, like we are, they’re con-don’ts.  Where’s the fun in that?  And why do they condemn us for taking advantage of what’s here?”

For some reason, these incidents reminded me of my long-ago confusion about condoms and condos, and the linguistic lesson I suffered through.

“You know what?” I said to my wife.  “People like that aren’t living in a condo, or a condominium.  They’re living in a condo-minimum!

And on that note, we had another glass of wine with dinner.

Mothers’ Day Again

Another Mothers’ Day has passed, the sixth since my own mother passed away.  The living mothers in my family number nineteen in all: my wife, two daughters, three sisters, two sisters-in-law, ten nieces, and one grand-niece.  All were recognized and honoured by their children, many on social media, and it was lovely to witness.

But I still miss being able to pay homage to my own mother each year—to hear her voice, see her smile, smell her perfume; and mostly, to feel her arms around me.  We knew each other for sixty-seven years, with nary a breach in the trust and love we shared, and my world is emptier without her.

On her ninetieth birthday, four years before she died, I wrote this poem to convey what she had meant to me for so long.  I likened her to a tree that sheltered me until I dared to strike out on my own, and even thereafter.

At the time, I thought I had written it for her; but now, I suspect, I wrote it for me.

 

Mum April 04

My Tree

For ninety years and more, my tree has spread her boughs across my yard,

Festooned with leaves providing shade, standing tall and proud, on guard.

When I was young, and climbed up high into my tree, carefree and fleet,

Her branches hugged me safe and close, held fast my hands, secured my feet.

As I grew braver, I would stray beyond the fence that kept me in.

But at day’s end, I’d rush back home to settle ‘neath my tree again.

Her boughs would gently bend and blow about my head, and whisper soft,

And tell me of the wide world they had seen from high aloft.

Sometimes she’d bend, tossed by storms that raged around us, blowing fierce,

Yet, ne’er a storm could match her strength, nor through her loving shelter pierce.

Then, all too quickly, I was gone to seek a new yard, far away.

Yet always I’d return to hug my tree, and feel her gentle sway.

Too big by then to climb once more her branches, high o’erhead,

I still found comfort there, among the fallen leaves my tree had shed.

 ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Past ninety years, yet still she stands, her canopy now drooping low,

Creaking, bending, in the winds that shake her branches, to and fro.

As spring and summer fast have fled, and fall has turned her leaves to gold,

My tree displays a majesty that can be neither bought, nor sold.

And I’ll remember all my days her love, like ripples in a pond,

Because I’m sheltered now by younger trees—the seeds she spawned.

For ninety years and more, my tree has spread her loving boughs each day

Above my head, to nurture me, and gently send me on my way.

Life and Death

Just what is it that makes life worth living, anyway?  Is there a universal, one-size-fits-all answer, or is the answer situational, dependent upon the circumstances in which we each find ourselves?

And what might that answer be?  Is it happiness?  Good health?  Sex?  Wealth?  Perhaps the ultimate aphrodisiac, power?  Or some combination of these?

The existentialists among us might claim the answer is personal fulfilment, harmony with the world around us, inner peace.  Alone though we are, they might say, we are nevertheless connected to others, but on our own terms.

The religious among us might declare life’s significance arises from a meaningful relationship with one’s creator, in whatever form that creator might be rendered.  At this point in time, however, they seem unable to reconcile their competing visions with everyone else’s.

The afflicted and dispossessed peoples of the world might proclaim that life, being an endless procession of hunger, thirst, and terror, is not worth living at all.  And who is any of us, never having experienced their realities, to disagree?

But let us suppose, cheerfully, that everyone we know has found ample reason to live, to carry on, to survive.  In the face, sometimes, of personal tragedy, severe illness, serious setbacks of whatever ilk, they have persevered, even prospered, and gladly proclaim life to be the greatest gift of all.  They are, from all appearances, joyful, optimistic, and strong.

I recognize myself among this happy crew.  Wanting for none of the necessities of life, surrounded by family who love me, blessed with friends who are supportive and caring, I rise each day with a positive outlook, sure this blissful state will continue for years to come.  To state the obvious, life is to be lived.

So what do I make of the current debate swirling around us about a person’s right to an assisted death when the time comes?  How do I square my belief in the meaning of life with a possible wish to end that life at some point?  Are these two concepts even compatible?

For me, it comes down to a fundamental, primal instinct that life exists beyond this earthly planet we inhabit.  The vast universe in which we float is, itself, alive—a pulsating burst of energy, ever-expanding, interminably large.  And an infinitely small fragment of that energy, in whatever form it manifests itself, is what powers life in me.  It is my life-source.  Some, more religious than I, might call it a soul.

So when my time is up, as surely it will be someday, I take it as an article of faith that my spark of life will rejoin the universe from which it sprang—still alive, still burning, but in a vastly different form.

universe1

Comforted by this belief, I do not fear death’s inevitability.  I do, however, harbour apprehensions about the manner in which that death might transpire.  Having been blessed, so far, to live a life worth living, I have no wish to spend whatever number of months or years in a diminished state, waiting helplessly for my life-source to reattach itself to that whence it came.

Perhaps I shall die suddenly one fine day.  Here one moment, gone in the next instant, no assistance required.  Still alive in the universe, to be sure, but departed from this realm.  I’d be happy about that—but not too soon, of course.

Lingering on, however, past the stage where my mortal coil can function properly, holds no attraction.  So I have come to the conclusion that I should be allowed and empowered to facilitate the escape of my spark of life from my failing body, and set it once again on its eternal journey in the universe.

The true meaning of life for me, it turns out, is the power, not to end it, but to release it from a failing, earthly body—freeing it to roam, as the poet, W. B. Yeats, once wrote, “…among a cloud of stars.”