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.

sailboat5

“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?”

sailboat

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.”

sailboat3

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

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.

Billy-Boo at 32 2

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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Resurrection Relevance

Another Christian observance of Easter is upon us, with its celebration of the resurrection of Christ, the man whom many consider to be the Son of God.

cross

During his brief time on earth, Jesus preached peace, tolerance, faith, forgiveness—and, perhaps most importantly, love for all humankind, even one’s enemies.  In return, he promised eternal life for all who believed and acted in accordance with these precepts.

As a child, I learned quickly that one of my mother’s interpretations of his teachings was that I must not fight with other children.  She was very firm about this.  During my early school years, it seemed like good advice; I was a friendly little guy, and others seemed to like me just fine.

schoolyard

As I got older, however, I learned that not every kid subscribed to her viewpoint.  Some of the classmates I encountered in the older grades were quite aggressive, to the point of being bullies, and for a while I was at a loss as to how to cope.  That was one of the reasons, maybe, that I became a fast runner.

Alas, it was not always possible to escape the marauders, so fighting became the only alternative to being pummelled and punished repeatedly.  It was safer to stand up to the bullies, even if I lost the fight, than to do nothing.

My father quietly helped me with the dilemma of disobeying my mother by suggesting that, although her sentiments were correct, fighting back when attacked was okay.  Starting a fight was really the thing to avoid.

I still remember an occasion in my mid-teens, when my mother agreed to accompany my father to watch me play a hockey game, the first time she had done so.  About halfway through, I became involved in a fight on the ice, not one I started, and was ejected, along with my opponent.  My mother was, by all accounts, aghast.

hockey fight

Although I played recreational hockey for another forty years, she never attended another of my games.

That incident shapes my outlook today when I consider the state of humankind on the planet we all inhabit.  Christ was not the only person to preach peace and love; many devout prophets professing other faiths have advanced the same messages.

But just as not every Christian follows Christ’s teachings obediently, so, too, do some adherents of other religions also stray from their prophets’ words.

The situation is complicated by the fact that there are also false prophets from all religions, who have preached a wilfully-distorted or violent version of the message, demanding their adherents forcefully convert everyone to what they call the true faith—and failing that, to kill them.  They have existed under many guises—the Christian Crusades, Islamic jihad, radical Zionism, the Hindu saffron terror, and so many more.

They survive even today, in a god-eat-god world.

'Its a god eat god world.'

If we assume that the vast majority of people alive right now want to live in peace and harmony—perhaps not anxious to love their neighbours, but at least happy to leave them alone—then why is there so much warfare and bloodshed across the globe?  Are we being driven to demise by the bloodthirsty minority, the zealots, and (as a friend likes to call them) the lunatic fringe?

As a questioning Christian at yet another Easter (believing in the wisdom of Christ’s teachings, but unsure about the promise of a heavenly hereafter), I see benefit in acknowledging, if not a literal resurrection, at least a continuing relevance of his message.  And further benefit in acknowledging the similarities between that message and those of other great prophets of different faiths.

Back in that long-ago schoolyard, there was ample space for me to run from those who would harm me.  On this increasingly-crowded planet Earth, however, whither can we flee from the radicals and fanatics seemingly bent on our destruction?

Shall we turn the other cheek, perhaps to be slaughtered?  Shall we fight back, perhaps ensuring mutual annihilation?

Or shall we continue to do what we can to spread those universal messages of peace, tolerance, faith, forgiveness—and, perhaps most importantly, love for all humankind, even our enemies?

love

It is up to all of us in the end.  Or it will be the end of us.

Paulie

A friend of mine from our teenage years died recently, after a long, slow decline, taken from us before his time.  For more than fifty years, Paulie and I celebrated our friendship in the company of our wives, themselves close friends since high school, and our children.

We journeyed through many stages of life together—boyhood teammates and opponents in the sports we loved to play; young men starting out, full of hope and sure of success; new fathers, surprised at how quickly we got to that point; fellow-travellers far and wide, our growing families in tow; and eventually grandfathers, proud all over again of a new generation.  Through it all, we played our games and remained steadfast friends.

Our boyhoods were spent in the suburbs, where every community had its own park, and we spent hours there after school and on weekends.  We were from different neighbourhoods, but connected on those playing fields during the endless summers and wondrous winters, eager warriors on the ball-diamonds and hockey-rinks.  Especially the hockey-rinks.

In every park there was an outdoor ice pad or two, where neighbourhood fathers (and a few intrepid mothers) would stand every night, alone in the dark, flooding water on the rinks to provide fresh ice for the following day.  I’m not sure we thanked them enough back then, but we sure benefited from their dedication.

By the time we’d arrive at the rink, skates dangling from the hockey sticks propped on our shoulders, fresh snow had often fallen.  So the first kid to get there would take one of the shovels propped in the surrounding snowbanks, and start clearing the ice.  As more of us arrived, we’d take turns until the ice was cleaned off.  And then we’d lace up and the game would begin.

Paulie and I were habitués of those parks.

As adults, our careers took us in different directions, and to different cities.  But we talked frequently by phone—mostly about business, our families, and, of course, sports.  Especially hockey.  We never talked about dying and the hereafter, and what it might hold, not even near the end.  We weren’t afraid of it, I don’t think;  it was just too abstract to be contemplated.

But now it’s happened.  My friend has gone.

But where?  Where is he now, I wonder?  Or, more precisely, where is the essence of who he was?  His soul, some might call it.  In my sorrow, I’ve concocted a scenario that consoles me, regardless that it may sound far-fetched to others.  Paulie would understand.

There’s a celestial park somewhere, complete with a neighbourhood ice pad.  It’s covered with the whitest snow any of us has ever seen, and my friend is the first one there.  He’s grabbed a shovel, and he’s busy scraping the ice.

Sooner or later, I like to imagine, I’ll be joining him.  He knows that, so he’s not troubled.  And when that day arrives, when he sees me coming, he’ll stop for a minute, lean on his shovel, and shout in my direction.

“’Bout time ya got here!  Where ya been?”

I’ll shrug and wave a greeting, my wide smile letting him know how happy I am to see him again.

“Grab a shovel,” he’ll yell, as I stuff cold feet into my skates.  “This is hard work!”

But it won’t be, not really.  It will be joyous work—legs pumping, hearts pounding, breath forming around our heads, skate-blades cutting their cold, choppy sound in the ice.  Just like always…just like always.

In no time at all, the snow will be cleared, the ice will be ready.  And when it is, I choose to believe, we’ll toss a puck out on the ice, take up our sticks yet one more time, and play our game together, the game we always loved.  The way we loved each other.

Paulie and I2

Teammates again, friends forever.

Paul Joseph Boyer

26 July 1942 – 16 March 2017

 

 

Threescore and Ten

When we were very young, the biblical threescore-and-ten seemed a lifetime away—as, indeed, it has been.  But in a few short days, my partner, my lover, my wife, will complete her seventieth year, thus beginning her eighth decade.  C’est incroyable!

We met when she was sixteen, courted for five years, then married, a loving relationship that carries on to this day—fifty-four years from high school to septuagenarian sweethearts.

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A few years ago, when we lived in a forest home on a lake, I wrote this poem for her, and I include it here to mark my best friend’s seventieth birthday—

Sunlight,

Slowly streaming, peering, through tree branches

Seeming reaching up and out to touch it

And be touched.

Dark shade-spots, never-lasting, shift on forest-run

And up the stretching trunks,

To dance ‘cross leaves turned up to see the sun.

Water,

Reflecting morning back to bluing sky

Above, from fiery diamond-dance of light

Atop the waves.

The lake awakes as light turns trees of green to gold

And traps their images

In mirrored mere, quicksilver, green and cold.

Mist,

Wet, wraithlike trails of dew that do not seek

The morn, but rather gather, clutched, and drift,

And look to hide

Until, discovered by the sun’s relentless rays,

Surrender to the light

That thrusts elusive phantoms from its gaze.

Breezes,

Approaching shyly, coming on to shore,

From jigging o’er the watertops and waves

That lap the land.

With sighs they softly rise to stir the trees awake,

Then us, through mesh that screens

The out from in, and stubborn sleep from wake.

I stir,

And lying on the bed in my repose,

With eyes still closed, I draw a morning breath

Into my soul.

And then, eyes opening to the world dawning anew,

I also turn to see the morning sun…

And it is you.

donna-dec-03

It is you, indeed!

Diddle

“I used to diddle myself,” he said, slurping a spoonful of soup.

“Uncle Fred!” I hissed, trying to shush him, afraid diners at other tables would overhear.  “You can’t say stuff like that out loud.”

“Why not?” he said.  “I did it all the time, sometimes in front of people.  They all knew right away it was me.”

“You didn’t!” I said, horrifying visions of men’s-room madness running rampant through my brain.

“Used a scribbler,” he said.  “And a pencil.  No mo-beel phones back then, no selfers.  People used to say I should’ve been a cartoonist.”

“A scribbler?” I said.  “And a pencil?  You mean you used to doodle yourself?”

That’s what I said,” he said, sipping more soup.  “Characterchers.”

“Uncle Fred, you mean caricatures,” I said, relief washing over me.

notebook-with-pencil-clipart-5

He spoke like that all the time, so I should have been prepared.  Ask him what he had for breakfast, for instance, and he might reply, “Broached eggs, toast, and piecemeal bacon.”

When my siblings and I visited him on a Saturday, he would cook drilled cheese sandwiches for us at lunchtime.  For dinner we might have macaretti and meatballs.

He was a master, unknowingly, of the malapropism, the substitution of an incorrect word for one sounding similar—its origin from the French mal a propos, meaning not appropriate.  The English playwright, Richard Sheridan, named one of his characters Mrs. Malaprop, and imbued her speech with countless examples.

I’m not sure my uncle ever read Sheridan, but he would probably not have recognized the errors—illegible for eligible, reprehend for comprehend, malevolence for benevolence, and so many others.

Not that he was unintelligent.  It was always a pleasure to hear him hold forth on topics of interest, never ranting or railing, simply expressing well-reasoned opinions.  He loved classical music, as do I, especially the nine tympanies of Beethoven.  He was a great baseball lover, a fan initially of the New York Yankers, and then latterly of the Toronto Blue Jades.  And he was a political junkie, always eager to discuss the follies of our elected reprehensibles.

A lifelong Tory, my uncle fondly referred to two of his favourite prime ministers as Chiefenbaker and Moroney, and praised their performance in the federal parlourment.  He called the bicameral bodies the Synod and House of Commoners (although that last one might have been intentional).

Talking with and listening to him was ever an enjoyable experience, and unintentionally hilarious.  “Those are two beautiful, wee girls,” he told me one time, referring to my daughters.  “I hope they’ll grow up depreciating the simple things in life.  Like their mother.”  Even my wife laughed at that attempt at a compliment.

“Invest your money wisely,” he would admonish me on occasion.  “Plan for your future, which is all ahead of you.  Frugality and persimmony are virtues.”

He had a host of other gems, too, all of which made sense once the chuckling stopped.

“Fresh fruit and veggies will keep you regular.  You’ll never be dissipated.”

“Be respectful and polite with people you meet.  Most of ‘em are well-indentured.

“Don’t be boastful.  Self-defecation is a good thing.”

“Get some exercise every day.  Don’t let yourself become sedimentary.”

Aunt Helen was used to it, of course, rarely raising an eyebrow.  I suspect she was never quite sure if he was naturally inclined to err, or slyly having everyone on.  But either way, she wasn’t above giving it right back to him every now and then.

“What’s for dinner?” he asked one night.

“Steak and kiddley pie,” she said, deadpan.

a_meal_of_a_homemade_steak_and_kidney_pie_cg3p2658869c_th

“You mean kidney pie, Helen,” he corrected.

And without so much as a pause, she replied, “I said kiddley, diddle I?”

I miss them both.

 

And the Beat Goes On

Away back when, wiggling in my mother’s womb, I listened to her loving heartbeat.  In that steady, reassuring cadence, I heard the most intimate murmurings of her soul—the fears and doubts she harboured, the hopes and aspirations she nurtured.

Many of those, of course, were focused on me, her firstborn child.

Will I deliver a healthy baby?  Will I be a good mother?  Will I give him a happy, successful start to his life?  Will I make him proud of me?

She couldn’t know the answers to those questions, of course.  Not then, not yet.  But she was an extraordinary woman, my mother, and she turned her formidable mind and powerful will to the shaping of our lives together.  To make it so.

mother-and-childIn time, four more children followed, my siblings, and I hope they, too, were attuned to the musings and melodies she would have had for them.  I heard her refrains for me, echoing and resonating in that remembered, rhythmic beating of her heart, until the day she died.  Even now, whenever I’m confronted with challenges and doubts, a quiet, firm voice speaks to me from deep inside, offering care, counsel, and courage.  Her voice.

So the beat goes on.

When my two daughters were born, I strove from the beginning to insinuate myself into their wee hearts, yearning to know the singing of their souls.  I imagined I could hear it, modulated by their intrepid heartbeats, and my own soul sang back to them, every chance I got, conveying my doubts and fears, my hopes and aspirations.

Will I be here for you when you need me?  Will I make you proud of me?  Will you love me unconditionally, as I already love you?

I proudly watched as they grew from infancy to adulthood, strong, independent, and loving.  And I was humbled time and time again, realizing I was the nexus between these remarkable women, my mother and my daughters.  A biological bond, and more, I hoped—a protector, a guide, and ultimately an unabashed admirer.

My wife—a fiercely-loving mother in her own right—had as great an influence as I, perhaps greater, on our girls.  But it is I who connects them with my mother.

And now our daughters are themselves mothers—five wonderful grandchildren for Nana and me.  Their hearts beat now in harmony with the hearts of their children, their souls connect with the same passion we once shared.  I cannot know for certain, but I imagine these young mothers sing the same heart-songs, straight from the soul, that I first heard from my mother.

Will I always be your friend?  Will I live up to what you expect of me?  Will I be the mother you would have me be?

Knowing my daughters as I do, I believe they will answer those eternal questions affirmatively and beyond doubt, just as I witnessed with my mother.  For they possess the very same hearts—beating the very same rhythms for those same good reasons—forever crooning the songs of the soul I first heard in the womb.

And the beat goes on.