27 thoughts about my Dad
March 15,1929-June 9, 2017
27. Every year on his birthday we asked him how old he was. He would always reply 27. For many years we looked at each other with wide-open eyes. 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, a hardened hockey puck of bread that looked like something horses might eat, if they had to. The Dutch word for these delicacies was nearly unpronounceable, and involved gathering a lot of spit and phleghm at the bottom of your windpipe and spraying it 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 him, he would announce that he had to gas up the car, who wanted to come? He might drive for an hour deep into Waterdown and beyond to visit a gas station that offered fuel a penny or two cheaper than the local pump. The gas of course was the necessary cover story, he was a scientist, an electrical engineer after all, so every outing required method and hypothesis. But the real purpose was his lighter-than-air chitchat, the windows rolled down, his unfailing good humour rolling over us as if everything would always be easy, relaxed, carefree. What me, worry? On the way back, much to the delight and consternation of my brother, he 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 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 had been promoted at last, he had toiled for many years in the Motor Division – where they made motors – 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. Doug Tough. Anyways, my father had been handpicked by one of the VP’s and turned into the company’s head of engineering, though he told me 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 for instance, where Westinghouse, the company he worked for, was putting real dollars into research and development. He was being paid to dream in Canada, while they rolled out the prototypes. 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. My father had an unusual relationship to consumer culture. He devoured a magazine called Consumer Reports each month that rated everything from fridges to cars. He loved visiting malls – I think he approved of the air-conditioning, the capitalist efficiency and the fact that you were never more than a couple of minutes away from ice cream. But he almost never bought anything. Or when he did buy something, usually expensive stereo equipment, he hardly used it, because he had little interest in music. My favourite speakers included a woofer, a large bass speaker that he’d rigged up in a man-sized cabinet stuffed with enough dirt to fill a sand trap. It produced thrilling bone rattling vibrations, though usually he was content to play syrupy nothings at sub-audible volumes. What was important, even vital, was that the cutting edge was close by, like having a wild animal take up residence in your living room.
19. 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 at such a velocity that he breaks the speed barrier, it’s necessary if he’s going to touch the furthest parts of the universe. But when he returns to earth he finds that his friends and family have all aged many many years, some are already gone, while he has aged only a few months. He is a hero of science, he has 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, that he was already out in orbit, or even living in a different time zone, none of this was lost to us.
18. 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!
17. “Well, how was that?” my father asks my brother and I. We are strolling down the middle of Canada’s longest street, in the vast and 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.
16. On a trip to the science centre I spent most of the past year’s allowance on a treasured gift to myself. Oh yes, I’m speaking about a mood ring. My mother had taught me that everyone possessed an infinite and fathomless inner life, it was as if the stars and galaxies were reproduced in miniature inside very body. The mood ring would give me a map, or at least a clue about these galaxies. But when I tried it on my father the ring always turned green. Everyone else registered dramatic shifts in colour, but not my father, as if there were only one organ inside him, one easy going possibility, the shortest distance between two points. My sister had just started to watch Sesame Street on the electronic babysitter where a frog puppet liked to belt out showtunes. Our favourite of course was It’s Not Easy Being Green.
15. Dad understood speed limits as soft suggestions and roadside whispers. 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 eleven, my mother encouraged my father to help me out with a science fair project. He decided to build a computer, soldering together tiny circuit boards and transistors. My job would be to paint the wooden case green. These were early days for computers, a machine that could add to one hundred would be big enough to fill this room, so it was difficult to convince my classmates that I had 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’s interest in our school lives was casual and intermittent. At a rare high school parent-teacher meet up, he visited my eccentric physics teacher 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 formerly 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. Summertime on the front lawn with my sister Alex. She is dispatched to the water tap while my father holds the hose pointing directly at his face.
“Ok, turn the water on.”
“Now? You want me to turn the water on right now?”
“Yes.” Growing impatient.
“Are you sure you want me to turn the water on now?”
“Yes, yes, turn it on.”
He is hardly ever short with her, so she complies, sending a great spray of water directly into my father’s face. He was of course recreating the first comedy film ever made, Louis Lumiere’s The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1895).
9. Christmas day 1968. My brother and I are so excited we start tossing around some of the tree tinsel, even an ornament or two. After my mother’s ritual fury, my father was dispatched to spank us, which he had 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 his bearing, when 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 very late in 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 variations of the same TV programs (MASH and Murder, She Wrote), 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. For seven years he walked across the road to the Burlington Mall. He lived for the food court’s chicken fried rice. He struggled to say the words and often was reduced to pointing at the lit up menu, though he quickly became, as they assured me, their best customer. “He’s our best customer” the husband-and-wife team smiled with pride. I tried to interest him in the other Asian food joint, which was an actual sit-down restaurant, but he only looked at me and smiled, as if he was duty bound to humour this outrageous suggestion. They served him heaping mountains of food that he tucked into as if he had never eaten before. He always chose a table at the furthest edge of the court, like we were just dipping a toe in, or that anything more would signal a dangerous commitment.
5. Dad played doubles with the same quartet for years, 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 improvised and unexpected flows of unrehearsed conversation.
4. For the last decade he has called my nephew Jack by my brother’s name. Jack had already swallowed some kind of instant maturity gene, so he never blinked, never had to stand up and correct my father even when Jack was just a teenager. He just let it flow right on past him. It was a kind of test, a trial even, that Jack met with a lightness all of his own. It only struck me later that this lightness was a way of expressing love.
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. The headlines scream “What did we just do?” and “Mac scientists go to ‘dark’ side.” He was one of those Mac scientists once upon a time, but now that’s lost most of his memory, he can read the same articles of faith over and over. He peaks over the paper in my direction exactly once, at minute 4, before returning to the paper, which he finally puts down, ritually checks his watch, and walks out of the room. In the movie’s final shot the camera is attached to a pelican’s beak, it waddles off a beach and soars across the water. Is it the oldest dream? Giving birth to my father. Shot on a single starry afternoon.
2. All his stories left my father except for one. We would hang out on Sunday mornings, and at some point a particular gleam would enter his eyes, and his face would open 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 enough he can see the pilot smiling, before dropping boxes of food. That day he 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.