The Railwayman

Again this year, I know I’ll receive warm hugs and kisses from my daughters in recognition of yet another Father’s Day, my forty-ninth such occasion.  It never grows old.

We fathers 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 almost twenty years ago, but he remains with me almost daily in my reveries.  And never more so than on Father’s Day.

When I was a young boy, he would 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 did, a boyhood fascination he never lost.  If he could have been anything else in life but an insurance executive, I believe he’d have been an engineer on one of those behemoths. He was truly a railwayman, if only in his dreams.

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As a lad, it never occurred to me to ask him if his dad, my grandpa, had taken him to see the trains, and I’ve often wondered if, during those times with me, he might have been fondly remembering standing by the rails with his own father.

At the time of his passing, I wrote these lines to commemorate what he meant to me, to express my love for him, 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.

All aboard, Dad…all aboard!

And Happy Father’s Day to all who, like me, are both fathers and sons.  We are blessed.

[A slightly different version of this tale was first published here in 2017.]

Pooh and I

Way, way back, at the earliest, foggy frontiers of my memories—at about the age of four—I received a storybook from my spinster aunt.  Entitled Winnie-the-Pooh, it was my introduction to literature, and to the wonderful world of reading.

I couldn’t read the stories myself, of course, not then, but I spent countless happy hours listening to my aunt read them to me, cozy on the couch in front of the warming fire.  That book was soon followed by its sequel, The House at Pooh Corner, which I also loved, and later on by two others by the same author, A. A. Milne.

To this day, I can remember my aunt’s husky voice speaking for the various characters, can hear her uninhibited laughter at the situations they found themselves in, can feel her warm breath on my cheek as we avidly devoured the pages.  Given her happiness during those times we spent together, it would have been impossible for me to grow up not loving the joys of reading.

Among my favourite recollections of those books, beyond the stories themselves, were the illustrations—pen-and-ink drawings lovingly composed by E. H. Shepard.  In my mind’s eye,  I see many of them still, though I have not cracked the covers of those books in more than seventy years.

It occurred to me recently that many of the values and attitudes that I grew up with, and have clarified and refined during adulthood, were first suggested by Pooh and his friends.  For example, understanding others’ points of view, and being tolerant of differing opinions, have always been important attributes to which I have aspired.  And I have always believed patience is a virtue, even if I was not always able to adhere.  To that end, these statements still ring true

When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.

A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.

What’s wrong with knowing what you know now and not knowing what you don’t know until later?

Pooh and his friend Christopher Robin seemed always on the cusp of an adventure, something that appealed to me as a child, and something that continues to motivate me into old age.  A partial list of chapter headings from the first book clearly illustrates their spirit—

In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets into a Tight Place,

In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle,

In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump, and

In Which Christopher Robin Leads an Expotition to the North Pole.

The adventurous spirit of these boon companions can also be seen in these statements—

You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.

Before beginning a Hunt, it is wise to ask someone what you are looking for before you begin looking for it.

They’re funny things, Accidents. You never have them till you’re having them.

If the string breaks, then we try another piece of string.

If it’s not Here, that means it’s out There.

Rivers know this: There is no hurry. We shall get there some day.

I particularly love that last one.

Perhaps the two greatest attributes I absorbed from these stories, the ones that underlie all the others, are the gift of friendship, and the joy of love for one another

It’s so much more friendly with two.

It isn’t much good having anything exciting, if you can’t share it with somebody.

I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long.  If we’re in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.

If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart; I’ll stay there forever.

Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.

Some people care too much.  I think it’s called love.

Love is taking a few steps backward, maybe even more, to give way to the happiness of the person you love.

How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

I cherish that final thought, even while acknowledging I have never had to say goodbye to Winnie the Pooh.

There is one picture I love more than any other from the book, however, a picture of Christopher Robin and Pooh coming down the stairs together, and I can still hear my aunt’s hearty laughter upon reading the accompanying plea from Pooh-— 

If possible, try to find a way to come downstairs that doesn’t involve going bump, bump, bump on the back of your head. 

Winnie the Pooh was my first and abiding friend.

What’s Heaven Like?

Avoiding contemplation of my own mortality was easy, as I recall, when I was a young man.  It has become increasingly difficult to do that as I grow older—especially when in discussion with an inquisitive granddaughter.

“Do you say prayers, Gramps?”

“Prayers?  Ah, yes, sure, I say my prayers.”

“Every night?”

“Actually, I do it in the morning, before I get out of bed.”

We were alone in the house, I reading a book, she playing with her Lego set.  Music was playing softly in the background.  I wasn’t sure if she was just making conversation, or whether this was a significant moment.

“Do you pray to God or to Jesus?”

“Well,” I began, “aren’t they really the same?  I guess I pray to both.”

“Do you believe in Jesus, Gramps?”

I put my book down on the table beside my chair.  She kept building her blocks, but I could tell she was listening for my answer.

“I believe in the things Jesus taught us,” I said. “That we should love each other and try to be good.” I was hedging a bit, because I have long had difficulty with a literal reading of the Bible.

“If we’re good, we go to heaven when we die, right?”

“That’s right!” I said, on firmer ground now.  “That’s one of the things Jesus taught us.”

After a few moments, she said, “Old people die before kids die, right?”

“That’s right,” I repeated.  “Most of the time, old people die first.”

“What do you think heaven is like, Gramps?”

I wanted to tell her that heaven, for me, was having this opportunity to talk with her, listen to her, and feel the love swelling in my chest.  But that wasn’t what she was after, so I tried a reply I’d heard years before when my father-in-law, shortly before his death, was asked the same question by my wife.

“I don’t know,” he’d said, a sly twinkle in his eye.  “Nobody’s ever come back to tell me.”  His sense of humour had never left him.

My granddaughter gave that some thought as she continued connecting block to block, building I knew not what.  It was colourful, though.

“I know nobody comes back, Gramps.  But what do you think heaven is like?”

“Hmm,” I said, trying to figure out how I might answer that.  I have never thought of heaven as a streets-paved-with-gold sort of place where I’ll meet up again with every person I ever knew—assuming they would also make it there.  My own perception has been evolving over many years, more urgently as those years have mounted, and now my granddaughter was asking me to explain it.

Deep down, I think I believe that heaven is bound up in the vast universe we all inhabit—an ever-expanding universe if science is to be credited.  And I think I believe that every living thing is, in and of itself, already a part of the creator that, in several different languages, we have called God.  So in that sense, we are inhabiting heaven now, wending our way on an eternal voyage through the stars.

I think I believe that every living thing, including each of us, is animated by an inextinguishable spark of energy—I might call it the soul—that enlivens us during our mortal journey.  And when my own journey ends, blotting out my conscious existence as one little girl’s grandpa, I think I believe that my soul will carry on, perhaps to animate some other form of life somewhere in the universe.

I’m as certain as I can be (which, I suppose, is not so certain at all) that my soul, that unquenchable amalgam of light and heat, will live eternally, for if it were not so, if that energy were to dissipate and die, the universe, rather than expanding, would surely be shrinking, bit by bit by bit.

But every time I ponder these things, I remember the admonition I constantly remind myself of—not to believe everything I think.

“Gramps?” my granddaughter said, looking up from her blocks, waiting for my answer.

“Hmm,” I said again, realizing I was out of time.

“It’s okay if you don’t know,” she said, standing up from her Lego endeavours.  As she climbed onto my lap, she added, “I just don’t want you to die.”

It was several moments before I could speak again, so I held her close, offering a silent prayer.

And in that moment, I knew what heaven was like.

Almost As One

you and I for years

becoming almost as one,

but with two faces

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

our togetherness,

heretofore by choice, rudely

thrust upon us now

couple1

as we, quarantined

by rampant pandemic, must

find ourselves anew

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

delving more deeply

into our relationship,

finding new connects

couple2

learning more about

what makes us who we are now,

as both you and me

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

trusting all that’s passed,

moving forward in good faith,

hands clasped as always

couple3

Another Father’s Day

Two years ago, I published this post to mark the onset of another Father’s Day.  The sentiments expressed are even more true today, so I re-post it, slightly adapted, in hope that all of us who are fathers will enjoy it.

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-eight years I’ve been father to two wonderful 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.

Dad, Tara, Megan 2

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.

Tara and Megan 3

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 Father’s 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.

father and daughters

Metaphysically

During this pandemic lockdown in which we all are bound, it is all too easy to surrender to despair.  But, always, there are pathways to freedom we can find if we look hard enough.  Here are a few of mine, in haiku form—

physically bound,

but metaphysically

I wander freely

metaphysical 1

on wings of sweet song,

I rise above the earthbound

shackles of my life

singing 2b

my literary

scribblings whisk me to a world

that I alone know

writing 2

phantasmical dreams—

delights from which I awake

most reluctantly

dreams 2

omnipresent, too,

the love, which for sixty years

has sustained my soul

love 1

physically bound,

yes; metaphysically,

I am ever free

waiting-and-watching-a-sunset

 

 

You’ll Never Know

The melody was as familiar as my mother’s cheek on mine, the words had long ago been committed to heart.  The singer was Aunt Marie, my mother’s older sister, her voice reedier now than in her youth, her pitch a trifle off.  But the emotion she felt shone through in every chord.

You’ll never know just how much I love you,

You’ll never know just how much I care…

You'll Never Know

The occasion was the fiftieth anniversary of her marriage to Uncle Bob, and six of us were celebrating on the deck of my home overlooking the lake—my wife and I, my mother and father, and Marie and Bob.  She was standing by the railing, singing to him as he sat in the old, wicker rocking-chair.

They’d married in the summer of 1942, enjoying a three-day honeymoon in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before saying a tearful goodbye when he was shipped overseas to join his regiment.  It was three years before they saw each other again, when he returned home, battered but unbroken, a couple of weeks after V-E Day.

ve day

As my aunt sang on, her shoulder-length hair, salt and pepper now, fluffed and fell in the gentle breeze off the water.

…And if I tried, I still couldn’t hide my love for you,

Surely you know, for haven’t I told you so

A million or more times…

Within a month of returning home from Europe, Bob had gone off again, this time to the gold mines of Kirkland Lake in northern Ontario, where his degree in mining engineering had landed him a job.  Marie joined him three months later, leaving her job and family in Toronto, and they stayed in that booming gold-town for the next twenty-five years.

I spent almost every summer of my childhood with them, for they never had children of their own.  I thought of them as my second parents, certainly my favourite aunt and uncle, and to this day, the times I had with them rank among the most enjoyable of my life.

mile of gold

I used to hear them sing together after I’d been tucked into bed, she in a dusky alto, he in a clear tenor befitting his Irish heritage, and it was from them I developed my lifelong love of singing.

The last ten years of Bob’s career had brought them back to the city, working in the provincial Ministry of Mines.  Although they were closer, I saw them less often, having married and begun a family of my own.  But they remained as dear to me as ever.

Leaning against the railing by now, my aunt’s voice had begun to quaver, the sentiment of the song assailing her.

You went away and my heart went with you,

I speak your name in my every prayer…

Within a few years of their retirement, my uncle had gone away again—this time to fight a war he could not win against the pernicious onset of dementia.  But on that momentous day on the deck by the lake, he’d been with us for awhile—alert, engaged, and as happy as ever.  Inevitably, though, he’d drifted off, as was happening much more often by then, his eyebrows knitted quizzically above a thousand-yard-stare we could never penetrate.  He was a part of us still, yet apart from us irrevocably.

Alzheimer Dementia Brain Disease

My aunt had continued her song, voice choked with emotion.

If there is some other way to prove that I love you,

I swear I don’t know how…

And she stopped right there, unable to finish, tears welling, rolling slowly down her weathered cheeks.  None of us knew quite what to do, so we just sat there, watching her watch her husband, not a sound to be heard.

And then, the most touching thing happened.  Bob had slowly turned toward his wife, perhaps wondering why the song had been cut off.  Then, rising from the rocker, he’d shuffled over to stand in front of her.  As their eyes joined, he lifted her hands to his shoulders and placed his own on either side of her waist.

And softly, he sang the closing lines to her.

You’ll never know

If you don’t…know…now.

Bob died before the year was out, mercifully for him, sadly for us.  But I’ve never forgotten that song they shared on the day of their golden anniversary.

couple

And I believe they both knew in that moment how very much they were loved.

Five Cousins

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

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

3 Cousins cover

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

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

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

[pause for muffled snickers of disbelief from amused grandchildren]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

smiling photographs

on the refrigerator—

loving grandchildren

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

grandchildren, our hope

for the future—as we were

once upon a time

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

free your grandchildren,

hug them close, then let them go—

they’ll e’er be with you

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

more yesterdays now

than tomorrows, but it’s the

tomorrows that count

grandchildren

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

He Was My Brother

My brother died today, the first of our generation to go.

We weren’t close, he and I—brothers by birth, but distant in life.  He was a complex man, troubled by emotional problems and addiction issues, and hard to help.

Since learning of his passing, I’ve been reflecting on his life and how it intertwined with mine.  As is often the way with me, it helps to write it down and share it.

The best parts of our relationship were during our childhood, so long ago now that I have to think hard to remember them.  We didn’t see each other much over the past five decades, nor did we speak very often by phone—telephone phobia being one of the fears he struggled with.  The last time I met with him, he looked older than I who am his elder by three years—hair gone white, walking only with assistance, racked by a persistent, phlegmy cough.

When we did meet over the years, it was almost always when he needed help.  I checked him into rehab clinics on three different occasions, lent him money, gave him a temporary bed, and after our parents’ deaths, managed his financial affairs—always feeling, I’m sorry to say, somewhat put-upon.  I could never understand why he seemed unable to respond to the many, well-intentioned interventions mounted by his sisters and me.

I have pictures of him as a young boy, nestled in the cocoon of parents and siblings, but almost no pictures of his adult years.  He always had a dreamy expression on his face in those pictures, as if he couldn’t quite grasp the notion that the onrushing realities of life would have to be faced.

He was highly intelligent, but seriously unable to apply his intellect to everyday problems and situations.  He wanted to be liked, but his social skills were lacking, to the point that he would frequently offend people without intending to.  And when he became frightened or frustrated, as he often did, he had a temper.

But he could display a quirky, astute sense of humour, too, and would smile quietly as the rest of us laughed at some of the things he said.  When at his best, he was unfailingly polite, almost Victorian in manner, and spoke deliberately in the most precise English.  Even when I, impatient with the pace of the conversation, would finish his sentences for him, he would continue on to finish in his own way, as if I hadn’t interrupted.  He could be a charmer.

He was a keen devotee of chess, a game at which he beat me regularly in our childhood, much to my chagrin.  He loved classical music, a trait we both learned from our father.  I remember listening to each other’s LP records and arguing about which was best—Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol; Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht-Musik or Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, ‘Emperor’.  I find now that I love them all, and am glad we listened together.

clef

Reading was another of his passions, as it was for me, although our tastes were not the same.  Nevertheless, it was my brother who introduced me to Edgar Allen Poe and William Butler Yeats, two favourites to this day, and it was he who gave me my first copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, Lord of the Rings, perhaps my all-time favourite story.

It would have been nice if all that had continued into adulthood.  But it didn’t, and no amount of wishing will make it so.

Given his afflictions and general health near the end, I feel little sorrow at his passing—rather, I am grateful that his problems are over and he is at peace.  I picture him now, embarking upon the next phase of his eternal journey through the universe, unencumbered by his mortal restraints, free and open wide to whatever may come.

If I choose to remember him only through the good things from our time together on this earth, so be it.  If I choose to believe we loved each other despite the many obstacles, then it is so.  He was more than his illnesses and sufferings, after all.

He was my brother.

Nothing Else Matters

I read an interesting post recently by an author, John Gorman*, who professed that life is essentially meaningless, that there’s no preordained destination for our journey.  Rather than searching fruitlessly for meaning in life, he wrote, we should be looking for the intrinsic value in the things we do along the way.

On the same day, I read another post by a different writer, Rachel McAlpine**, who mused poetically on the eventuality of her own death—

…I’ll be dead and I won’t know I’m dead because
the brain that could create, contain and comprehend that fact
has fled.

The two posts got me thinking about, guess what?  Death, and the value of life.  And here, in haiku form, are some conclusions I came to—

my thoughts, unbridled,

take me to worlds I ne’er will see,

nor have ever seen

The-Spirituality-and-Immortality-of-the-Soul

don’t fret the future,

focus fiercely on the now

where we live our lives

the now

the journey from womb

to tomb—no matter how long—

is but a fragment

immortal 2

I would have to live

forever to realize

I already died

live-a-life-of-purpose

nothing else matters

in the great, grand tapestry

if you are with me

together

See?  No worries.

*[John Gorman –  IG: @heygorman]  **[Rachel McAlpine – writeintolife.com/blog]