Friday, February 14, 2020

#50 Men, agents of and pathway to cultural metanoia (Letter to Dad)

Dear Dad:

Although you have been gone for some twenty-plus years, your memory not only lingers, it keeps reminding me of your wonderful wit and empathic sensibility, as well as your struggles to cope with some of the turbulences in your life. While I am deeply grateful for your many unrelenting kindnesses, support, encouragement and presence, I am also profoundly sad that, like so many men, in your generation and also in ensuring generations, you experienced a kind of personal, cultural gagging, a repression of your own needs, aspirations, desires and opinions.

Naturally, while every man’s experience of his personal “withholding” is different, conditioned by factors unique and individual, there is a collective similarity to their identity, their roots and their implications for generations of young men who follow you.

Your work life essentially defined you, given your full and unsullied commitment to the “hardware store” you managed for so many decades. Your invoices, “extended” on the dining room table, for so many nights, and the stoker furnace, whose hopper you so diligently filled each Sunday after church during those long cold winter months, are just some of the detailed memories of your diligence, your responsibility and your graceful ease in that role.

The oft-repeated chant from your summer customers, “Where’s George?” announced the date, immediately following the Victoria Day holiday, of the  opening of the real retail season that kept the business open and successful. There can be little doubt that at least 75% of all retailers in our little town did at least 75% of their annual sales from May 24th until Labour Day. It was a cliché known to every ‘native’ to the town, that, after Labour Day, anyone could shoot a cannon down Main Street, without disturbing a single soul. The ‘head’ of Black Diamond sports manufacturing, the namesake of the T. Eaton store in Toronto, the manager of the Iron City club and island are just some of the people whose aura and curiosity sought you out, for their “vacation home” tools, fishing gear and occasionally their fine china gifts. I also recall echoes of the name Tommy Tweed, the Canadian actor, in reminiscences you shared with your family at summer feasts on Georgian Bay.

The series of regular and anticipated dinner guests in our home included the Glidden Paint representative, Harley Taylor, of North Bay, the starting pitcher of the North Bay Garland Pepsi’s in the Ontario fastball league. It was Harley Taylor, who after winning the Ontario championship, ordered his championship jacket in my size, when I was only ten, and delivered it when he came to dinner. A grey melton ¾ jacket, with bright red leather sleeves, and chenille lettering, the surprising gift was one of my prize possessions, throughout my childhood. Ernie Halpenney, the sales representative from White Hardware, now shuttered, also lived in North Bay. A veteran of the first world war, he offered a few glimpses of his war experiences in later years, when I was teaching there, as part of my search for information about how veterans experienced that conflict. Ross Brown, a fishing tackle company representative, along with the exuberant, even effervescent rep. from Modern Housewares were also fondly recalled dinner guetsts and windows on a wider world to my naïve, somewhat closeted childhood and adolescence in that little town on the Georgian Bay shore.

Only later, while in the summer of my undergraduate years, when I worked for Canada Packers, did the comfort of having listened to and talked with those uniquely and universally optimistic and authentic men emerge almost involuntarily. I already knew how they saw the world, how they considered their customer as an honoured client, how they did not question their capacity to fulfil their assigned tasks. Never once did  I hear the word “quota” that they had to fill even if that benchmark lingered in the back of their minds.

I can still see ‘pictures’ in my mind’s eye of you as you flood the rink in the backyard, with a single light bulb hanging from the clothesline. Your frosty breath is surging from your mouth and nose, in the frozen dry air of a January night in the mid-fifties. In spite of the rock outcrop on the one side of the rink, and the little knoll of ice it refused to surrender, I recall warm and happy memories of the opportunity to test my mettle on those first single-blade skates (as compared with ‘bob-skates’ and their inverted “v” blades). It is not incidental to note that our’s was the only backyard rink in the neighbourhood.

Sadly, I also recall the sleigh that someone borrowed and forgetfully left behind their father’s car in their driveway. As he backed out, he drove over the sleigh, bending the metal tracks and breaking the wooden top and the “X” structure that enabled minor steering. You worked with Eddie Johnston, the blacksmith, in his shop for several evenings to restore that sleigh to working health, without ever uttering a word of complaint to the young boy whose forgetfulness generated the need for the repairs.

At the time ‘your’ store was in the business of selling bicycles, the Raleigh brand, as I recall, you brought home a brand-new maroon bike which I could hardly wait to take from its storage under the back sunroom at the first sign of Spring. And then, in the summer when I had the opportunity to attend Camp Wa-ye-kwa-kana with Robert Bradey, that bike was stolen from our front porch, where I had left it behind the wicker rockers in front of the large living room window. Very shortly after I returned from camp, I recall you brought home a new version, a hybrid with gears. And while I liked the replacement, it really never could compare with the romance, the adventure and the sheer excitement of the original.

Other tactile memories of your person include a splendid gold Oyster watch, a mid-brown camel-hair overcoat, a highly dignified and dignifying fedora and your preference for your slender yet highly valued wardrobe. As walking was one of your preferred Sunday activities, I can recall many trips “around the bridges” (Cascade Street and Seguin Street bridges over the Seguin River) as I rode my tricycle and you and mother trudged along. Often too there were cocker spaniels along for the treck.
Earlier on most Sunday’s, too, I recall sitting in the smallest pew in St. Andrew’s church, when it was time for a hymn. Contrasting mother’s sonorous soprano with your toneless pitch always brought a secret smile to me, yet I never ever considered asking whether you might choose silence over your lame attempt at melody, essentially a monotone. The contrast was not only striking; it was metaphoric of the divergence and cacophony in tone, melody, rhythm and world view between you and mother.

I recall your sitting, along with the other members of the Session of that little church, in the front pews, on those Sundays when communion was to be celebrated, on average once each month. And then, following the consecration, along with those “pillars” of the church, you distributed either or both small squares of white bread and wine from those miniscule cups throughout the congregation. The sterling trays for both still shine, emblematic of an historic ritual, a commemoration and a thanksgiving, for something I found mysterious, and beyond comprehension.

You no doubt recall my decision, at sixteen, to leave the church, following another of the sermons from the Balleymena bigot, Reverend Robert Crooks, whose visceral hatred of anything Roman Catholic was summed up in his declaration, from that elevated pulpit, “If you are Roman Catholic, you are going to Hell!” And while you never challenged my decision, not even to ask me if I would reconsider, I do recall hearing you depict the four men who joined the church leadership soon after the arrival of the Irishman as the “four just men”…the only words I ever heard from your mouth that even hinted at expressing a negative thought about another human being. Your considered respect for each person, whether neighbour, customer, business colleague, guest, staff under your supervision, athlete on the local hockey teams, continues to radiate through my memory album, counterpoint to the barrage of venom that issued from mother about so many people. And then there was the annual garden we both “spaded” each spring, for the rows of onions, carrots, radishes, lettuce, pumpkins, squash. Blackflies especially in the early evenings were no match for your resistance, nor were the later mosquitoes. And then there are many frames filled with your slightly bent frame and your strong arm and hand reaching out to grasp gently another of the millions of raspberries from the four rows of canes that grew alongside the vegetable patch. Round, cotton sun hats, never a peeked baseball cap, protected your bald head from the sun’s rays.

Only once, I recall, we went golfing together, in my early teens. You had refurbished a few used clubs for my use, including a mashie, on whose shaft you had applied an Elastoplast as surrogate handle. Along with those clubs, you had helped solder an original steel cart in Johnson’s blacksmith shop, painted with silver paint, and sporting two wagon wheels. Although I have no recollection of the kind of score either of us posted, I do recall with considerable sadness, even angst, that we were delayed on the course by several foursomes of American tourists. The delays resulted in our returning home at least an hour after our expected time, for dinner. Not only was this “malfeasance” unacceptable to mother, (we had no cell phones, or any other communication device to call ahead our predicament!), I recall specifically her charge that you were having an affair with my piano teacher, whose brother managed the company store in which you worked.

Not only did I dismiss the charge as ridiculous; I also apparently buried it among other serious marital fractures that culminated in a call for help from you, years later, when I was living and teaching in North Bay. Among some of the other tensions at home, were the many nights when supper would be prepared, and set on the table, without mother accompanying the family to eat. She would have disappeared again, to her privacy and one can only guess her deep, dark, all-consuming thoughts, attitudes and perceptions of anger, depression, and who knows what else. All we really knew was that she had absented herself, just as she did in the middle of the night, apparently following another of the many quarrels you had, only to appear at the top of the stairs, with her bag packed, to ask in her most strident and icy voice, “Are you coming with me, or staying with him?” To which I recall your clear and unequivocal response, “He does not want to have to make that choice!” She finally left, and I am a little vague as to the number of days  of her disappearance. I never knew where she went, nor did I ever hear the matter discussed again.

Another night, in our living room, we heard a knock on the front door, and upon opening it, were greeted by my then Squirt hockey coach, Bert Mortson,  a neighbour from three houses down the street. I happened to be sitting on the stairs that led up straight in front of that door, when I heard him ask permission from both you and mother for me to travel with the team to a hockey tournament in Collingwood. While you remained silent, mother responded, without skipping a breath, obviously not taking a moment to consider the highly valued invitation, at least from my vantage point, “No, John can’t go to Collingwood; he did not win the singing festival last week!” With a curt and courteous thanks, Mr. Mortson departed, leaving a gaping silence, filled by neither the coach nor you.

For these now seventy years, I have wondered, privately and in conversations with others, including therapists, why you were unable, unwilling, or frightened to ask for a pause to reconsider the unilateral, and final decision in that moment. The abandonment I experienced when she left our home for places unknown, and for an undetermined time seemed to be echoed, even replicated, in this moment over the hockey tournament. As I recall vividly, Collingwood had then recently installed what we knew as artificial ice, just like that in Maple Leaf Gardens, and we both knew that our local arena had only “natural ice” whose condition depended exclusively on the prevailing temperature. Of course, I was disappointed, and also confused. Others who have tried to untangle this scenario have also been baffled by its dynamics, including the underlying dynamics of a mother who detested anything to do with sports, and a father whose early life was syncopated with baseball and hockey participation and spectating.

Equally confused, and more than a little frightened, have I been for many decades about what it was that drove you to the basement in the middle of the night, apparently following another of the many “spats” between you and mother whose cacophony had not wakened me. I recall the bedroom door being opened, with the light from the hall pouring in, to hear mother shout, “Get down to the basement right now!” I had no idea why such a provocation was necessary, nor had I any time to inquire. I had no idea what I was about to find when I rounded the corner around the corner of the storage cupboard to face the furnace, the jacket-heater and…only to see you with the .22 pointed at your head, and you standing behind that water heater. “Give me the gun,” I recall saying as calmly as I could. You did, and I have no recollection where I put it, nor any memory of additional conversation about the incident, from that day to this. I do recall, however, asking you a few weeks before you died, if you had anything you wanted to talk about, to which you responded, a simple, “No.”

 Not long after that incident, I recall, as I am sure you do too, a time, mid-day, in summer in the back porch, where mother was ironing. You had been home for lunch and were about to depart through the porch to return to work. Something she said set your volcano off, erupting in a violent thrust of your arm in her direction over the ironing board. As I was sitting in the doorway to your right, noticing the impending and what would obviously be a crucial blow, I jumped up and struck you in the ribs on your right side. I had never then, nor at any time since, struck anyone with my fist. You crumpled to the floor, and limped out the door, down the back steps, and proceeded to walk the mile or so to work. I have never been able to wrap my head around how you were able to get back to work, given your later report that your ribs were broken and you lied to the doctor that you had fallen down those back steps, as the cause of your broken bones.

Violence, and the silence that kept it in the vaults of our memories, deeply hidden from public view, dominated my memories of childhood, along with many hours of practice at the piano, and the occasional drive to a festival competition. On one trip to Huntsville, you may recall, you are I were alone when you asked if I wanted to try my hand at driving on a straight stretch on highway near Utterson. Every time I drive that stretch of road, I still recall the first time, when I was about fourteen, at the wheel of the borrowed Monarch, on that sunny morning. Another moment “sitting beside you” on the back steps, a little later, I remember asking you, “What are we going to do with that woman, my mother?” Your response still rings in my ears, “I really don’t know; I have tried everything I could…you are being raised by hitler and chamberlain, and I am and have been your chamberlain.”

On reflection, I recall a book written in 1960 by CBC reporter James M. Minifie, “Peace-maker or Powder-Monkey: Canada’s Role in a Revolutionary World” when I was starting university, a couple of years after our back-steps conversation. How many times have I gravitated to that title, and your prophetic analysis of our family’s history and dynamics. How does one, or a nation, or an international body, work toward peace? How does one rein in conflict, or even refuse to engage in conflict, as I saw you so many times. I also recall hearing your sister, Eleanor, speaking proudly that she and all the four children in your family never witnessed a conflict between your mother and your father, the kindergarten teacher and Baptist preacher, respectively. How often have I silently not only bemoaned such obvious hypocrisy and repression from your family, but also felt impaled between a parent who espoused peace at any price, until he exploded, and another who incarnated verbal and physical and emotional violence as a preferred weapon.

Who was the more frightened parent, mother whose self-loathing terrified her, or you who feared her outright rejection and abandonment? I really don’t know, and essentially cannot know. I can only continue an apparently interminable pursuit of how these incidents, couched in the context of repeated beatings, also delivered to my sister, twelve years my junior, have impacted my life, and the lives of those whose lives have crossed paths with mine, including three daughters, a divorced spouse and several permanently fractured relationships.

Clearly, I hold all “authority figures” under a microscope of judgement, permitting little if any “grace” for their stupidity, their arrogance, their insecurities or their unjust decisions. I also am known to have “kept my power dry” for decades early in my career, when it appeared to me that compliance was the higher virtue to confrontation.
Finding occasions and outlets for a critical judgement perception, especially focused on the political class, and not excluding the hierarchy in education and in the church, seems more natural than breathing. However, my capacity to criticise, often seering to the bone of the target, has left many wondering at my appetite for power. Ironically, however, my intuition has been so sharpened by my earliest experiences that inauthenticity, like a radar gun, strikes instantly as a sign of apparent politically correct impotence leaving my mouth agape. That's when my “gut” wretches with disgust and my outbursts of anger too often bring reprisals back onto me. If anyone wishes to observe politically correct inauthenticity, hypocrisy, and back-stabbing gossip, look no further than the church. 

And the most recent Republican self-emasculation is only the latest in a long series of men who have lost their spine to a false totem of even more false strength and muscle.

I am both peace-maker and power-monkey, (and many voices in between), raised by both hitler and chamberlain, and often wonder if there are others of my generation who bear the marks of such disparity and evoke the ire and suspicion of so many, involuntarily and unconsciously most of the time.

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