How to describe my father. For weeks I struggled to identify the core ethic of the myriad memories he inhabited but the daily familiar is always the least obvious. But the daily familiar eventually coalesced and clarified my search. He was simply a man who lived his own adage...that what this world really needs is a lot less truth and a lot more kindness.
My Dad was one of the kindest men I have ever known, and I have known a great many.
But why tell what I can show? So I'll start with his 'whisker rubs', my very first memory of his playfulness.And there's no question that as a babe and toddler, I received my full quota of attention. And on his errands in the community, there was always at least one of us tagging along. He loved children, all children, but was particularly proud of his own.
Though not always two. We had neither tractor nor truck, so trips to the local mill to grind grain for cattle and pig feed meant a horse-drawn sleigh in winter, here with my Dad and his favorite team, and in summer a wagon.
Trips occurred every few weeks with distance dependent on which mill was was still operating (eventually all of them closed as farmers came to rely on commercial feed). For my sister and brother, these outings were high drama.
Originally sister Jean would accompany Dad. Came the time brother Austin was old enough, Dad agreed to take both. It was the first and last time—they argued non-stop. After that, it was one per trip with Mom keeping score of whose turn it was. No one ever argued with her.
For me, you already know that many of my early traits were formed through my mother's instruction and example. But in subtle ways my father's disposition was influencing me just as powerfully. For example, congeniality and conversation were his favored recreations and what follows was a typical and not infrequent occurrence.
Small town businesses in rural Ontario derived their livelihood from farmers. And since they often worked dawn to dusk six days a week, businesses remained open for them on Saturday nights. So we're in Orangeville and the stores have just closed at eleven o'clock. Our car is parked diagonally facing up the sidewalk.
My older brother's not with us—he preferred movies in another town on Friday nights. Mom is in the front seat on the passenger side; she had never learned to drive. And of course she's wearing a hat...no proper woman of her generation would be seen in public without one. In fact, purchase of a new one was a major event. If pressed for comment, we all tried very hard to be discreet...
Anyhow, unless it was mid-summer, late evenings could be cool but here inside our car it did occasionally trend to downright frosty. Because Mom's has been up since six and on her feet all day and just spent three hours shopping for groceries. Whereas Dad after his bi-weekly ten minute haircut would usually retreat to the chat room in the town's harness shop where friends and spittoons summoned.
Finally we spot him walking toward us and I can sense Mother's sigh of relief ... mine too for that matter. But the sidewalks are still busy with people and there would usually be at least one more prorogue for a chat, though briefer now that he's in target range. And the homeward voyage could be quieter than usual...
In retrospect, it may have been more ritual than annoyance. I wonder if he didn't sometimes enjoy Mom's exasperation and possibly she merely played the game to his satisfaction. But my Dad did love conversation and passed that love on to his son. But he was seldom into blame or negativity or complaints...life serves up enough disappointment without piling on.
* * *
Our broader community was patriarchal in form though probably less so in practice. But even my mother...one of the strongest women in my life then and since...once mentioned that in the crunch the husband should have final say. It may have derived from her pragmatism, believing that healthy enterprise needs a final arbiter. Or was it more likely an unrecognized rationalism to abide with the norm? From my perspective, it was certainly a detriment within the near-Victorian circumspection of our rural community.
Appearance and reputation were also zealous proctors. I've already described a fine teacher who was fired for the effrontery of an occasional alcoholic beverage. However in my eyes our Catholic neighbours seemed considerably more laid-back and I seriously envied their confession that bestowed a new tomorrow. Whereas our Anglican rote atonement in church had little impact on my conscience. Admittedly early on I tried very very hard to really really repent but my sins just seemed to keep piling up. God and I continued in an uneasy relationship.
Dad's ordinary susceptibility to male peer norms was another early life lesson that naturally I picked up on...an example follows. Mom abhorred swearing and she could be forthright with her opinion. Once as she was serving dinner at one of our threshings (grain harvests), her outspoken rebuke of a particular neighbour for an off-color remark was not uncharacteristic.
But this same neighbor when working at our barn often told off-color jokes even when this small child was present...and Dad's chuckles in response always bothered me. Vulgarity still doesn't sit well with me, but regretfully as a salesman I've had many more sell-outs to my conscience than Dad ever had. And later in a management role, too often by my silence I've condoned bigoted comments by peers or superiors.
My father's kindness had a commendable corollary—absolute abhorrence of any kind of abuse. And it had once involved one of Dad's acquaintances who occasionally housed children from a Toronto orphanage for a fee. Generally they were older boys that stayed for one or two years. It wasn't until later in high school that I learned of my father's response to a related incident.
Mom and I'd were discussing the conflict between allegiance to friends versus distaste for their perceived unkindness. To the point, she described a day possibly five years earlier when Dad came home and asked her to immediately write to the orphanage ...we didn't have a telephone...and recommend that they carry out a surprise inspection at his friend's farm.
Because Dad had happened to drop in on his alleged friend and discovered a young boy in the stable working in the filth with bare feet. A few weeks later Mom learned that the child had been removed from the abuse.
* * *
Granted in the schoolyard or in the fields, it could be a thorny environment for a timid bookish kid to navigate. Luckily my social timidity didn't impair my confidence and again all the credit goes to Mom and Dad. Because they always encouraged me in new pursuits yet refused to set benchmarks. Even for my grades at school. It was just, 'Do your best'. Any idea how aggravating that was? Yet you've never really failed if you've done your best.
Dad's 'do your best' applied to himself as well. Which meant work; graduates of the 30's era were particularly addicted and he was no exception. Fields and fences and buildings and livestock were maintained to a fault. Vacation was the occasional interval between morning and evening chores when winter forced him from the fields.
Mom was equally diligent for four demanding decades, but I do suspect she had dreams of spending her golden years far removed from daily farm drudgery. When the opportunity finally came after they sold the farm, God cancelled her dreams...she died a year later at age sixty-six.
* * *
My father was personally fastidious...but with one exception...his lifelong addiction to chewing tobacco. And I mean lifelong. His final months were spent in the nursing wing of a retirement complex but until then a receptacle (spittoon was too fancy a name for what he'd press into service) was always at his side. And it will forever be a mystery to me why my mother accepted this with equanimity. His other affection for cigars ebbed and flowed with the generosity of his children and grandchildren.
Saturday was bath day in a circular galvanized tub with water heated on the wood stove in our back kitchen. Bathing sequence would be Dad, then older brother, then me. How often was the water changed? Maybe once if Dad was particularly grimy. Mother made do with sponge baths—though I do recall one summer's day with her standing upright in a wooden barrel behind our house and my father lugging warmed water. I was quickly chased.
Only Mother and Sis used personal deodorants. Most rural males eventually adopted the practice but even in the Fifties a pungent atmosphere would still linger at the movies on Saturdays, particularly in summer. So town folk were notably absent those days—they had boarded the personal hygiene bus much earlier.
This was also when underwear...briefs...first arrived in our rural male wardrobe. Granted cold winter weather ushered in woolen long johns for when we were outdoors cutting wood or hauling water or spreading manure. I recall scratching my way through all those tasks.
* * *
So combine a multitude of small kindnesses, love of children, and a naturally youthful take on life. Is it any wonder we doted on a father that as adults we would have walked through fire for? Little gems of happenstance are as fresh in my mind today as when they occurred.
For example in winter, it would be dark at five so evening chores often began early before children's bedtimes. And for this child, the barn was magic. Though cold outside, the stables would be warm and snug with body heat from five horses, twenty or so cattle, and one or more pig litters. So if Austin were away for whatever reason, it was a big treat to be taken there to help Dad with the chores. At age five or six, 'help' would be my non-stop chatter.
On one occasion this spawned an event and story that Dad retold countless times. Lying in the hay in front of the horses' mangers and fighting to stay awake, this budding pragmatist asked that if there were a fire, who would he save first, me or the horses? Apparently I was satisfied with the answer...
Another fun diversion was an occasional visit to a convenience store/gas station nearby on the highway. Dad would never hint of a possible little treat in advance and on entering he'd begin to chat with the proprietor. But without fail...and it always seemed ages...eventually he'd grin down, "I guess you won't be wanting anything out of the cooler?"
That was my cue to run and grab my favorite, an Orange Crush soda, that maybe cost a dime.
* * *
Fast forward seventy-two years. My brother Austin beset by paranoia is dying of a raging infection because he first resisted and then refused treatment. His primary caregiver was our niece Judy and she and I are beside his bed attempting to communicate.
Out of his ramblings comes one brief clarity...I'd be OK if Dad was here. That said it all.
* * *