27. Every year on his birthday we asked him how old he was. He would always reply 27. 27? We could barely count that high, it was definitely the oldest we could ever imagine a person becoming. Although when we got old enough to remember last year’s reply (hey, aren’t you… 28 this year?) we didn’t understand that while his body might continue to age, inside he was locked into the permanent shelter of 27.
26. One Saturday morning he spreads ginger marmalade on a rusk. It’s a hardened hockey puck of bread that looks like something horses might eat, if they had to. The Dutch word for these delicacies was nearly unpronounceable, and involved spraying a lot of spit in the direction of your listener. Dad assured us that the Germans used this word as a checkpoint test during the Occupation. Only the Dutch could pronounce it properly, and if you couldn’t say the word you would be shot. Breakfast could be an adventure with my dad.
25. When he came to Canada my father met faces that had never been hungry. It might have made him angry, instead, it reassured him. Food had always helped him so he was delighted to learn this new English expression: second helping.
24. On Sunday afternoons, when the mood struck, he would announce that he had to gas up the car, who wanted to come? He might drive for an hour to visit a gas station that offered fuel a penny cheaper than the pump around the corner. The gas of course was the necessary cover story, he was a scientist after all, so every outing required method and hypothesis. But the real purpose was his lighter-than-air chitchat, his unfailing good humour rolling over us as if everything would always be easy. On the way back, much to the delight and consternation of my brother, dad would shut off the engine and we would coast for miles down the huge hill, trying to see if we could make it all the way back to the intersection at Plains Road before turning the engine on again.
23. Dad told me hundreds of times that the friends I would meet in school would be the most important relationships in my life, although he himself didn’t have contact with any of them. Perhaps he’d read this in a book? But one year he was part of a class that made each other so happy they decided they should stay together forever. To do this they would vote on what they would study in university. They chose electrical engineering, and that’s why my father entered the field. Or at least, that’s what he liked to tell us, as if the most important things in your life could only be decided by accident.
22. One day after work he came home with flowers for the only woman he ever loved. That was my mother of course. Though it turned out the flowers were at least in part for himself. He’d been promoted at last, after toiling for many years in the Motor Division under a boss whose name I heard often spoken at the dinner table. Doug Tough. When I was a kid I thought that every boss would have that name. Anyways, my father had been handpicked by one of the VP’s and turned into the company’s head of engineering, though when he explained it to me, he said he had become the science officer. As an avid watcher of Star Trek, I was no stranger to the job of being a science officer. My father had just turned into Mr. Spock.
21. As a science officer he frequently travelled for business, there were weekly jaunts to Pittsburgh where Westinghouse, the company he worked for, put money into research and development. He talked to us about the electric car, and how computers, which were then being fed by shoeboxes full of punch cards, would one day revolutionize education. Once he travelled down to Texas for a weekend. It must have made a big impression, because on top of his pronounced European accent, he added a broad Texas drawl. “Howdy partners.” We couldn’t stop laughing so the accent only lasted a few days.
20. There was a story he liked to tell, and the more often he told it, the more convinced we became that he was telling the story of himself. He was trying to explain to us Einstein’s theory of relativity. An astronaut heads out into space and breaks the speed barrier. But when he returns to earth he finds that his friends and family have all grown old or died, while he has aged only a few months. He is a hero of science, experienced something that no one else has ever felt, but the only way he can describe his encounter is by saying e = mc2. The cheery scientific faith, the sense that my father was entirely alone, already out in orbit, living in a different time zone, none of this was lost to us.
19. He was legendarily absent-minded. One afternoon, still running over the day’s events at work, he pulled into the garage and strolled into the house, only to notice that something was a little different. Wait, what is that strange woman doing in my house? It seems he had driven to the house where we used to live and walked right in. Hi honey, I’m home!
18. “Well, how was that?” my father asks my brother and I. We’re strolling down the middle of Canada’s longest street, in the forbidding metropolis of Toronto, choked with butter and chocolate. He had taken my brother and I to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, a postmodern puzzle of a film that begins with 20 wordless minutes of human-ape ancestors wandering around until, in cinema’s most famous edit, an ape man tosses up a bone that turns into a space station. The main character of the movie is a computer, and there are four endings, each more mysterious than the last. I was about to celebrate my tenth birthday, my brother was eight. The only film we had ever seen was Mary Poppins, which had catchier tunes, but we understood that here was the future we were hurtling towards. Sometimes being with my dad was like going to see a fortune teller.
17. He came to Holland for the first time as a pre-teen, and shortly after he arrived, the Germans invaded. His home country of Indonesia declared war, and threw some German residents in jail. The Germans responded by putting Indonesians into concentration camps, including my grandfather, my dad’s dad. German soldiers came to the door to pick him up. My father said, “I felt proud, because I was the only one who could speak German. The German sergeant spoke only to me. “Don’t worry little boy, your father will be OK.”
16. My grandfather wasn’t Jewish or a spy, so he didn’t need to be killed. After two years in the concentration camp, he was released, though he was never the same. He liked to read at night, so my dad rigged up his bicycle to a generator. He spent the rest of the war sick in bed.
15. Dad understood speed limits as soft suggestions. In order to frustrate a police force that he felt was better applied to others, he installed a special scanner in his car that allowed him to track police radio chatter. After just a few weeks he was pulled over because his device had been detected, and he was forced to remove it, which only soured him further on the project of the law.
14. When I was 11, my mother encouraged my father to help me out with a science fair project. He decided to build a computer, my job would be to paint the wooden shell green. These were early days for computers, a machine that could add to a hundred would be big enough to fill this room, so it was difficult to convince my classmates that I’d actually done any work at all, especially when I just wanted to talk about the paint colour. For the dubious talent of convincing my father to do my work for me, the teacher gave us both a B+.
13. My sister Alex is five years old and my father is a cat, crawling beside her on all fours. Is little kittie cat hungry? Oh yes. My sister shakes out some kibble triangles and gives them to my cat father who promptly swallows them. Uh dad, that was actual cat food. Suddenly human, he rushes to the bathroom.
12. Dad took a casual interest in our education. At a rare high school parent-teacher meet up, he visited my eccentric physics instructor Mr. Cantalon. My brother enjoyed this class so much he took it twice, but my father returned amused and exasperated. “I had to teach the physics teacher some physics,” he announced. “There are only six formulas in physics, he’s doing everything the hard way!”
11. Sometimes his jokes were unintended. Like some of his expat Dutch comrades, staying clean and germ free was a priority. Each Sunday after we came home from church he would remind us, “Be sure to wash your hands. You’ve been in a dirty place.”
10. Music never seemed to touch my father. One Saturday morning he announced that we would take a trip into Toronto to visit Sam the Record Man where he would buy all nine Beethoven symphonies for nine cents. He never took them out of the wrapper. The most represented composer in his modest record collection was James Last. Sometimes described as “acoustic porridge,” Last’s big band arrangements poured a happy drizzle of brass over popular tunes and sold millions, so I guess my father wasn’t alone in his indifference.
9. Christmas day 1968. My brother and I are so excited we start tossing around some of the tree tinsel, even a branch of two. After my mother’s ritual fury, my father was dispatched to spank us, which he’d never done before, though whenever political leaders misbehaved he would repeat, “That man needs a good spanking.” He couldn’t bring himself to the task though, instead, he tickled us roughly grimly and dutifully, his face set in a thousand mile stare of incomprehension. Why am I doing this?
8. I can’t remember seeing him angry, though it must have happened. And tears arrived only when he’d lost most of his language, and memory was a foreign country. He would look at my mother with the adoring stare of a teenager, and when she told sad stories his eyes would well up with tears. His emotional repertoire expanded only at the end of his life. It seems it’s never too late to learn.
7. He had always been easy with words, they flowed out of him without any effort. But he spent his early retirement glued to the same chair, reading variations of the same newspaper, watching the same TV shows and slowly language became a stranger to him. His new failures might appear as fear or anger in someone else, but in my father they looked like an affable helplessness. “How are you?” was a question medical professionals posed often. “I don’t know!” he would reply, jaunty, relentlessly upbeat, as if we were all part of the same existentialist joke.
6. After the Second World War ended, my grandfather, my father’s father, developed a taste for alcohol, sometimes drinking away the food rations. Upset at his erratic behaviour, my grandmother decided he was insane, and had him committed to an asylum, where he spent the rest of his life. My father watched as his own father was forcibly taken away by guards. Angry and helpless, he hurled the oldest curses at his wife. How could you?
5. Dad always played doubles with the same three men, using a heavy top spin serve that he lobbed into play. After more than two decades, he could only remember the name of his old pal Seymour, though it would be some years before the rest of his memory would go. He refused every invite to linger over coffee after the game was over, until my mother made him stay. Clearly he preferred the structure of game, set and match to the flows of unrehearsed conversation.
4. In 1988 I became HIV positive. I waited six years to call my mother and break the news. I met up with my folks a few days later, at the Festival of Festivals as it used to be called, where I was showing a movie about AIDS. I hugged my father, as we always did when we met up, but he never spoke to me about being positive, which was a death sentence then, and in the years since, we were careful never to speak about it. I never heard him say I love you. Emotions were a department that was run by my mother, I guess his own were a question neither of us wanted to ask.
3. I only made one film about my father. It shows him sitting in the chair he was married to, just a couple of meters away, inhabiting another world. He is hiding behind his newspaper, while I hide behind my camera living the oldest dream, of giving birth to my father. In the movie’s final shot the camera discovers that dad has turned into a pelican. Free at last.
2. All his stories left my father, except for one. We would hang out on Sunday mornings until his face opened with an infinite softness and he would smile and offer his truth. It was always the same story, about how he had travelled from Indonesia, where he had grown up, to Holland, which was quickly invaded and occupied by the Germans, and then his refusal to do post-war Dutch military service and the resulting move to Canada. I never tired of hearing him tell me this story, because everything he needed to say was in it. And aren’t most of us telling versions of the same story… over and over again?
1. In his last story, he describes a moment after five years of a brutal Nazi occupation, when the Allied planes fly so low that he can see the pilot smiling, before dropping boxes of food. That day dad eats an entire loaf of bread. At the end of his language, at the end of his story, there is a precious loaf. Here was the proof that every promise would be fulfilled, every hope realized, everything we had ever wanted could be held in our hands and cherished. The endless war would be over soon. We would eat together and it will be good. It turned out the heaven he believed in was right here, in every ice cream parlour, and every plate of fried rice, and most of all in the face of my mother, who he loved devotedly for 63 years.