On the State of My Parents’ Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was their final secret joke.

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

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

Father

I came across an arresting picture on the internet recently, one that caused me to give some serious thought to what it takes to be a father.

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At first, I didn’t fully understand the symbolism inherent in the picture.  In fact, my first thought was that the son was systematically dismantling his father in order to complete himself.  Selfish, no?

But after a bit, I came to think the artist’s intent was more likely to show how much fathers give of themselves for their sons, even to the point of depleting their very being.  Selfless, right?

Still, I had difficulty coming to terms with either of those representations of fatherhood.  In the first place, I don’t have a son.  For the past forty-six years I’ve been father to two lovely daughters, so the picture didn’t truly portray me.

More importantly, though, I discovered I had a problem with the notion that fathers must become diminished in order that their children might thrive.  It’s true, of course, that any nurturing father will freely give of himself to help his children—so, in that sense, the picture of the fractured father did make some sense.

But it’s been my experience with my daughters that, the more I gave, the more I got in return.  And it wasn’t even an equal exchange!  What came back to me from the girls was infinitely more than I could possibly have given.

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As they progressed from infancy to girlhood, I used to tell them all the time how much I loved them, and I tried to mirror my words through my behaviours.  But with them, it was the reverse.  The loving attention they lavished on me—their hugs and kisses, their squeals of delight when I’d arrive home—made it unnecessary that they say anything.  They filled my heart every time I held them.

It was after each of them was born that I learned I didn’t have to carve out a chunk from my love for my wife in order to find love for them.  Love builds upon itself, I discovered; it multiplies and is unending.  So, each time I passed along one of those chunks of love, I was not depleted like the father in the picture; rather I was made even more complete.

Through their teenage years and into young womanhood, I came to realize the importance of letting them go bit by bit, even as I continued to hug them close.  And when they would come to me for advice, or even just for a sympathetic ear, our conversations were honest, sincere, and loving.  Even when I pretended to be the sage passing along my accumulated wisdom, I found I learned more from them—about their world, about the challenges and opportunities confronting them, and about the persons they were becoming.  Any chunks of insight I gave were repaid tenfold, and I was not at all diminished.

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As mothers now, their first priority is to their husbands and children.  I don’t see them as often as once I did, but our get-togethers are all the more enjoyable for that.  I’ve tried to let both girls know that, although they long ago stopped being children, I’ve never stopped being a father.  They understand that and still go out of their way to make me feel valued and loved—supplemented even now, not depleted; relevant, not sidelined.

There’s an old saying that we have to give a little to get a little.  Well, when all is said and done, I gave what I could as a father, and I got so much more in return.  With another Fathers’ Day fast upon us, I give thanks anew for the great privilege I’ve had with such children.

If I had a picture similar to the one of that father and his son, there would be two daughters, complete and whole, and a father—double their size, swollen with the love and honour they’ve lavished on me.

Bursting, in fact.

April

Geoffrey Chaucer, in the late 1300’s, wrote about April in his Canterbury Tales, praising its rains and warm winds for the restoration of life and fertility after the endless winter—

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…

But T. S. Eliot, another British poet, took quite a different view in 1922, in The Waste Land, where he savaged the month—

April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain…

The same month, two opposing points of view, left to the reader to determine which is the most apt.

My own outlook varies from time to time, depending, I suppose, upon my mood, the weather, and the company I keep.  I have often longed for the coming of April with its showers sweet, its promise of spring, only to be disappointed by its refusal to let go of winter.

Poetry is one means I employ to give voice to my feelings, sometimes optimistic, full of hope, and other times doubtful and despairing.  I find the Japanese haiku form especially appropriate—three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively—to convey my conflicted state of mind.

By way of example, here are five haiku I have written dealing with April, each with a picture in harmony with my outlook.  I, too, leave it to you, the reader, to decide which of my moods is being conveyed by each—

peekaboo

sun plays peekaboo,
dancing ‘cross the wint’ry lake—
heralding the spring

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teasing

april is cruel—
so the poet says—teasing
us falsely with spring

springtime

spring

joining in our walk,
tentatively, yet warmly—
sweet spring has returned

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april fool

april can’t fool me,
that false harbinger of spring—
may is the gateway

rainy april

in the rain

dancing in the rain,
neither of us wet or cold—
warmly wrapped in love

in the rain

May the spring blossom anew for you…..in April, or whenever it arrives!

 

 

 

 

Secret Valentine

(first posted 12 February 2016)

In a recent telephone conversation, one of my granddaughters reminded me that Valentine’s Day is coming round again.

She didn’t ask if I would be her valentine again this year, as I have been for most of her six years, which would have been nice.  No, instead she mentioned that she’d be giving a valentine to every one of her classmates at school.

“Every one of them?” I exclaimed, mildly astonished.  “Don’t you have, like, one special valentine?”

“No, Gramps,” she replied.  “That’s not how it works.  In grade one, you give everybody a valentine.  All the kids do.”

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I wondered how many youngsters there were in her class for whom she was planning to buy a valentine card.  After all, how many valentines can a six-year-old handle?

“How can one person have so many valentines? I protested.  “Being somebody’s valentine is supposed to be a special thing.  Won’t people wonder why you’re giving everyone a card?”

“Gramps! You don’t understand!  They won’t know who gave the valentines to them.  Mummy’s going to help me print ‘Guess Who?’ on all of them.  My name won’t be there.”

“Okay, wait a minute, l’il guy,” I said.  “Let me get this straight.  You’re going to give valentines to every kid in your class…”

“And my teacher,” she cut in.

“And your teacher,” I continued.  “But, you’re not going to put your name on them, so nobody will know that you gave them a valentine.  I don’t get it.”

“Oh, they’ll know, Gramps.  Everybody knows.  They just won’t know which valentine I gave them.  That’s the fun of it.”

That’s the fun of it?  Back when I was a kid, the fun of it was in deciding whom I would ask to be my special valentine.  To which little girl would I dare to offer a valentine card?  And who would accept it without laughing?  Or worse, not accept it at all?

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There was a certain delicious risk involved back then, a risk that made the whole exercise worthwhile.  After all, asking someone to be your special valentine meant you were sort of sweet on her (or him, if you were a girl).

But, times change, and so do valentine cards.  Now, they don’t ask someone to be your valentine; instead, they proclaim ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’!  They’ve become indistinguishable from birthday cards, for goodness’ sake.

Anyway, I wished my granddaughter well with her plans.  I harboured the faint hope that perhaps I’d still receive one from her—with her name on it!

Afterwards, I kept thinking about our conversation.  Anonymous valentine cards made no sense to me.  But, my granddaughter had stated, “They’ll know…”

Well, who’s to say?  Maybe they will.  It occurred to me that I’ve always sent anonymous, loving wishes to my own two daughters—back when they were growing up, and even now, as they raise their own children.  I never thought of that as silly.

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At night, after they were asleep, I had the habit of whispering in their ears, to tell them how much I loved them.  They hardly stirred as I did it, and they never mentioned it the following day.  And, every day now, when thoughts of them cross my mind, I still send little messages of love their way.  I always believed that, somehow, they would know I was telling them.  Anonymously, as it were.

So, maybe my wee granddaughter is right.  Perhaps it isn’t such a ridiculous notion.  In fact, I’m even hoping to receive a valentine this year from ‘Guess Who?’

I’ll know.

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Lust and Power

In a 1976 interview for Playboy magazine, the 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, said, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”  This was in response to a question about his views on the Bible’s admonitions about adultery, and was a paraphrase of Christ’s teachings in Matthew 5: 28—“I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery.”

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Many were aghast that so prominent a man would admit that, thereby damaging his political standing.  Others saw it as an honest answer from a pious man, acknowledging his imperfections.  Still others saw it as a cynical ploy—embracing both arrogance and humility—wanting to appear virtuous in the face of temptation, thus enhancing his political position.

Whatever it was, it is extremely unlikely Carter was the only man to have sinned in that fashion, although most of us would not choose to admit it.

There is obviously a difference between the so-called evil of lust and the widely-accepted blessing of love—but perhaps not so great a gap as might be imagined.  Lust is relatively easy to define: a strong, sexual desire; a sensuous appetite (regarded by many today as sinful).  Its blunt hunger can be satiated, at least temporarily, through participation in a sex act with someone else, or even alone.

Love is a softer sentiment, usually involving sexual attraction, but also embracing such emotions as friendship, protectiveness, tolerance, forgiveness, happiness, fulfilment, and mutual respect.  It is something that, although freely given, must also be earned.  In a truly loving relationship, the quest for love is never satiated, but yearned for, and given, all the more.

It cannot be disputed that the propagation of our species has relied upon the sexual attraction between men and women, their lust for each other.  If two people also found love in their coupling, that was a bonus.  Love for one another was not required in order to produce offspring.

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Biologically speaking, lust can drive a person to have sexual relations with more than one partner of either gender, and more than once with each.  And so it is with love.  There is no biological impediment to falling in love with, and entering into a loving relationship with, multiple partners—although obviously, no children will result from a union of partners of the same gender.

Over time, and for a multitude of reasons, monogamous marriages became the norm in our culture.  Although men and women could fall in love with more than one person, the law allowed us to marry but one at a time.  However, the standing of each person in the conjugal union was unequal.  For a long time, women were considered to be, if not the property of their husbands, at least subordinate to them.  Power resided with the men. That status has changed ever so slowly, only beginning a hundred years or so ago.

At the time the Dominion of Canada was formed, a decade before the birth of the great Republic to the south, our fathers of confederation and their founding fathers espoused equality for all.  But that noble ideal was to be applied only to the propertied classes—almost all of whom were male, white, rich, and protestant.  Others of different gender, race, wealth, and religion were scarcely considered, except as property, workers, or servants.

Money and power were all that really mattered, and both resided with men.

Thus, it continued to be possible for men who lusted after women (or other men, or children) to prey upon them with relative impunity.  Might makes right, as the adage has it, and fear can make cowards of us all.  For the victims, suffering the abuse in silence was often more palatable than facing the public shaming and loss of employment that would crush them if they complained—assuming they would have been believed in the first place.

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Jimmy Carter was honest in his admission.  But I wonder, is it possible all men harbour such thoughts from time to time, even if only a relatively small number act on them?  I cast no stones at him.

I also wonder, does power corrupt only men?  Would women who come to power be immune to its seductive persuasions?  And would any act on them?

Sexual misbehaviour of any sort is unacceptable, a monstrous issue only now being brought to the broader public arena.  But I believe it is power, not lust, that is the driving force behind such behaviour.  Any of us might experience lustful feelings, just as any of us might fall in love.  But only the most powerful, the most arrogant, the most sociopathic among us would mobilize those feelings into unwanted actions, forced upon unwilling victims, solely for our own gratification.

It is as if the predators, when seized by a biological imperative, say to themselves, Because I can, I will.  And who is to deny me?

And so, it is time, as many are saying—time to expose and shame those who are found guilty of transgressions, time to re-assess the accepted perquisites of power, time to educate our young people as to what is deemed acceptable in social intercourse, time to redefine the relationship between men and women.

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It is more than time.

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.

old man

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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