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?”

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.”

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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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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.

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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.

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“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.

 

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.

 

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.