…my handsome father, who loved books, sharply-tailored suits and polished black shoes, who wrote poetry and daydreamed.

He had a terrible young life – father suddenly dead after being run over by a cane train and bleeding to death from two severed legs.

His mother – by all accounts a lovely, but frail woman, left with two young sons – lay dead in her bed for two days before a relative thought to look and found my dad, age seven at her side, waiting for her to wake up.

My brilliant, gentle, sensitive dad, farmed out to relatives in the country who didn’t believe in education and used him as a child labourer. He managed to escape abuse and poverty – to volunteer for war, to join the British Army.

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He seldom spoke of the experience. Snippets – being seasick on the troop ship around Cape Horn and through the Suez Canal. But there he is, an innocent young man off to fight for the Empire, leaning against the rail with such insouciance.

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Lost in the mists of time and family secrets, in between, he somehow met my mother at a dance at the Negro Community Centre in Montreal. I have a photo of her dated 1941, inscribed ‘To my Beloved’, which had to have been him. Their sojourn must have been brief, because that autumn, he returned to the Africa Front.

Daduniform

Dad was a sapper – one of the men who dug trenches and planted ordnance. He spent most of WWII in Egypt, where the heat and the flies were almost unbearable. But he and his mates explored – I have an album of tiny snapshots of ancient ruins, excursions to the Dead Sea and exotic markets.

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Cairo, Egypt, 1941

The faces of the young men standing tall and confident have not yet been graven by the horror of having companions’ brains blown out a few feet away in a fetid trench, or terrified shitless by the incessant whine and boom of artillery. Those that didn’t die got sick. They went hungry.

But they did their duty for King and country. When they returned, nothing was the same again. They brought with them the contagion of sorrow, of experiences no one should have, of recollections to be smothered so one could survive more of less intact.

Dad was ‘discharged overseas’, having shown ‘Very good’ conduct during his five years of service. I was three months old.

I safeguarded his three medals for decades. My son, a police officer, wore them on his dress uniform at my dad’s funeral. He’ll pass them along to his son, who is avidly interested in the family history I’m going to write.

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He returned to my mother a broken man, tight-lipped and sad, skittish around children and unable to bear exuberance for long, living inside himself except for his writing and his photography. The Empire’s War took his youth and soiled his idealism.

Dad was a machinist – I remember him taking me to his workplace, and the smell of hot oil, the gleam of metal shavings from whatever he was fabricating.

Before the St. Lawrence Seaway was constructed, he took me to visit a friend who lived on the nearby Caughnawaga Indian Reserve. I remember vividly standing in the broad circle of a birch bark teepee whose opening soared above my head. The fragrant scent of wood smoke.The metal arms of the tall television aerial attached to the tent poles.

That’s when we were closest, when we were on our own. He left us when I was twelve, but we never lost touch. He visited ten years later to walk me down the aisle then returned two years later, to be close to his grandchildren.

I am much like him. I used to be more like him, but my life has been very different, and I’ve morphed out of the melancholy and solitude that dogged his life. I have his writing gene, though.

Searching through Ancestry, I discovered my maternal grandfather, Leo, had arrived in St. Johns, New Brunswick, from St. Kitts, in 1917, and joined the British Expeditionary Force.

Alphone Bernier

I have no idea where he served or what he did, but I did find his Attestation Papers online. I’ll do more research, to try to fill some of the gaps.

Army registration

When he returned to Montreal (how he got there and married my grandmother in 1920, we don’t know), he fathered seven children, four of whom lived to adulthood) and worked as a Sleeping Car Porter. He died at age thirty-nine, from tuberculosis.

So many stories. So many nuances in lives lived in a different era, with such different motivations. Or have things changed that much?

I will always remember the warmth of my dad’s hand as we strolled the streets in Montreal and he held mine tightly. Perhaps that’s where I get my love of walking. He was a snazzy dresser, with a precisely clipped mustache. I remember his classy hats.

Dad & Uncle Art

Dad & Uncle Art

I remember him telling me that, because of the colour of my skin,  I had to be 120% better/faster/smarter than the other kids.  So I worked hard to make him proud. When I was fifty-two years old, packing to start a life on my own again, he told me he loved me and that I had, indeed, always made him proud. A long time to wait, perhaps, but I was thrilled to hear him say the words, and know he meant them. I didn’t weep then, but I do now.

My father loved music and dancing, in part because he could temporarily become someone else who was freer and happier. He had a killer smile, which we’ve all inherited.

Dad

I remember the shelves of Readers Digest Condensed books that filled our bookshelves and the love of reading he instilled in all of his children. How he’d take us to the library. Snuggling close as he watched the Friday Night Fights, sponsored by Gillette blue blades. Driving the ancient Case tractor as he sprayed the fruit trees on our farm.

He loved gardening – I have a box of plaques and awards he won for transforming the church property into a paradise of colour and joy for the senses. In my heart, I know he did the best he could.

In the end, when the weight of life and his memories became too much to bear, he retreated into himself again. My poet father, my reader dad who loved to putter among his plants, stopped speaking. He put his hands into his lap and sat out the last five years of his life in silence.

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The birthday after his withdrawal

But as I sat beside his bed in the Palliative Care room at the hospital, I’d lay my palm on his smooth bald head, and message him my love through our flesh, and although he was sunk so deep within the dark world he was poised to leave, so close to the edge of goodbye, his eyes would flicker beneath their lids, and I knew he knew I was there.

You left us your poetry. Your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are your forever legacy. Ah, dad. I hope you know we loved you, no matter what. You were one of many who sacrificed for what we enjoy today. Thank you.

I will never forget.