The Sneezer

My father was a prodigious sneezer.  As children, my siblings and I would delight in watching his frantic scramble for the handkerchief he invariably carried in his back pocket, seeing his face scrunch up in anticipation of the looming explosion, hearing the violent expulsion of air from his lungs.

Getting at the handkerchief was often problematic, especially when he was seated.  Without warning, he’d burst from his chair, sometimes spilling to the floor any of us children unlucky enough to have been sitting on his lap.  Pawing frantically at his pocket, turning away from anyone present, he’d pull the white cloth out, shake it quickly, and plant it firmly across his mouth.  Once in a while he was late getting it in place, which would elicit frustrated mutterings between sneezes.

We thought this routine was especially funny when carried out at church, in the middle of another long sermon.  Or while he was on the phone.

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During his fumblings for the handkerchief, he’d squeeze his eyes tightly shut, wrinkle his slightly bent nose, and tilt his head backwards, looking for all the world as if he was beseeching the heavens to spare him.  His Adam’s apple, never particularly noticeable at other times, would bob up and down with his every stifled gasp.

And the noise!  Depending on the severity of the sneezes, or how quickly they came upon him, the noise could be loud trumpeting, loud wheezing, even loud hissing.  Always loud.  We were never disappointed in the range of noises he could muster.

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.

My mother, always proper, would roll her eyes, frown, and sometimes admonish him for his attention-seeking ways.  That’s how she regarded them.  Genteel people, she maintained, would sneeze into their handkerchiefs so quietly as not to disturb those around them.  And they would never draw attention to themselves in so garish or boorish a manner.

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At her words, my father would nod agreement and point a finger randomly at her as he completed each cycle of sneezes.  But he never changed.  Not once as I grew up did I hear a gentle sneeze from him.  No discreet Ker-choo!  No soft A-choo!

He’s gone now, of course, and I’m older by far than he was when I first began to marvel at his sneezes.  Over the years, I’ve become quite aware of the power of genetic coding as I’ve lived with my own daughters—and my wife—bemusedly berating me for my own sneezing habits.  I believe, at least in this one small way, I am my father reincarnate.

Allergy season is a disaster for me, and every season seems to boast one or more allergens that trigger my sneeze reflex.  Remembering my father’s sneezing, I’ve striven mightily to conform to my mother’s admonitions to him.

But honestly, have you ever tried to suppress a sneeze?  Successfully?  If you can, you’re among the blessed of the world.  I marvel when I see someone turn their face into their sleeve and emit a barely audible Mmm-ffft!  They behave as if that simple act is nothing.

When I try, my eyes begin to water, my breath comes in short gasps, and I can’t continue talking, so preoccupied am I with the tickle in my nostrils that just won’t go away.  And it’s always to no avail, anyway.  I’ve even tried clamping my hand over my mouth, only to have the eruption through my nose.  That’s not pleasant, handkerchief or not!

To my chagrin, I’ve discovered that my grandchildren may have inherited the sneezing curse.  I watched one of the girls recently, doing as she’s been taught, sneezing into the crook of her elbow rather than into her hand.  I thought this a much healthier way of proceeding until I saw her wipe the residue off her sleeve with…you guessed it, her hand!

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And my grandson—what a sneezer he was as an infant.  I even wrote a poem for him, so taken was I with his prowess.  It was entitled Ebenezer Sneezer, and he laughs at it still.

But alas, it’s still I who commands the attention of all around me when I have to sneeze.  Although I remember my father fondly for so many reasons—his sense of humour, his kindness, his pride in his ever-growing family— his sneezing proclivities bedevil me to this day.

You may laugh at my concern, thinking it trivial, but it’s the only thing in my life where I can truly say, “It’s nothing to sneeze at!”

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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.

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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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