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Driving Dad


March 7, 2024 · by jmwwblog · in Essay. ·

The newsletter arrived four months after my mother died.

It came from the church where my father had been a curate in 1940—he was still on the mailing list after 60 years. That was thanks to Dot, now in her 80s, but at one time in the youth group when my father was there. He’d been 24, she was 18.

My father had been moving listlessly through the stages of grief, but after the newsletter, his mood lifted. He started sorting through old photographs, lingering on those from the Maritimes. That piqued my interest—my father’s life had not been easy with my mother, a complicated woman with mental health and addiction issues. We kids were surprised that he took her death so hard, for that reason. So when the newsletter arrived and he was cheered reading through it, and the letter Dot had attached, I started to get visions of a happy-ever-after for him, one that included Dot, sweet, uncomplicated, never-married Dot.

“Ever thought about taking a trip down east,” I asked one Sunday when I was visiting. He visibly brightened so I started sussing out bus and train tours. But travel companies were reluctant to have old men with uncertain mobility and bladder control. So I thought why not take him myself.

Which is how we ended up in a ten-year-old Toyota for nine days: me at menopause with a failing marriage and the beginnings of an ulcer; my 86-year-old father with diverticulitis; and my three-year-old daughter in potty training.

Three generations in search of a bathroom.

We set out on a perfect early fall day, warm sun in a cloudless sky, my father buckled in the front and Anna in the back with her travel paraphernalia: candy, toys, books, dolls, and an old Walkman loaded with a Mamma Mia CD.

Heading east with the windows open, you could hear the lake, and a fine mist was starting to clear. We stopped twice for gas, and once for a roadside picnic lunch, arriving in Montreal at rush hour in stop and go traffic with a nearly empty gas tank. My daughter rocked back and forth banging her head on her car seat. All of us had to pee. She was the only one with diapers.

By the time traffic let up, the sun was setting and darkness fell as we merged onto a lonely stretch of the Trans-Canada north of Montreal. I hadn’t pre-booked a hotel, and now there were none in sight. An hour later, the headlights picked up a motel logo on an exit sign. I pulled off and into a gravel parking lot rimmed with life-size anatomically correct plaster dinosaurs.

The place doubled as a bar and restaurant, with rooms on the second floor. I helped my father upstairs, slowly, him holding tight to the rail. Smoke and the smell of draft beer along with the strains of country music wafted up through the floorboards. It was oddly comforting.

Anna refused to walk up the stairs so I carried her in one arm and dragged suitcases with the other. Up and down, up and down. At three, she wasn’t light.

Mental note to self: get a ground-level room next time.

Next day didn’t start well. I was disoriented from lack of sleep—the room locks could have been picked by a two-year-old, and the single-pane windows rattled every time a truck rumbled by on the Trans-Canada. Since trucks travel at night, interruptions were frequent. And every time I opened the curtains to look out, those plaster dinosaurs leered at me. The room was cold, too—this far north winter was coming on already, and the thermostat didn’t appear to be working.

The next morning, all of us were quiet as we drove north past Quebec City towards Riviere du Loup, then picked up the highway cutting east through New Brunswick. The road stretched ahead like a monotonous ribbon, cutting straight through dense forests. Miles ticked by, marked only by hydro poles, relieved occasionally by clusters of frame, shingle, or mobile homes. I couldn’t imagine living there, the constant rumble of transports and the lonely landscape.

It rained all day. The drive, meant to be a nice change for my father, felt like a chore after only a day, but it provided something I’d not realized I craved – an opportunity to have him to myself. With five siblings and a mother in constant need of attention, that opportunity did not often present. Last time was when I was a child trailing behind him as he did farm chores – feeding the chickens, tossing grain out of a big aluminum bucket, onto the hard packed dirt in the barn, milking Brownie and sometimes turning the teat sideways to squirt me in the face.

Lulled by the steady rain on the black tarmac and the slap-slap of the wipers, my father started to talk. About how he decided to become a priest, why he returned from India, what caused his disillusionment with it, why he married my mother, why he wanted to farm. He talked about setbacks and disappointments, about his discovery that the world is radically different from the ideals of a young man born into privilege and education; how his Christian faith and simple desire to see the good in people was put to the test. As a newly ordained curate, he was sent to evangelize in pubs and gin joints in Halifax’s seedy east side, soon realizing that neither legislating nor converting could cure the depth of these ills. His days off were spent alone, wandering in the woods, with a paper bag lunch the landlady had packed.

“I guess I’m a loner,” he said, then turned to stare out the window for the next two hours as if to make his point.

When he started talking again, he told me about the unimaginable human suffering he witnessed while in India. He was there during Partition and saw things he wanted to forget, the violence between people of different faiths, the poverty and disease. It’s what ultimately broke him and drove him back to Canada.

The radio played softly as the windshield wipers slapped against the continuous rain and I thought about my father going halfway around the world to convert people he soon realized had no interest in becoming Christian.

Out of the blue, he said: “I like this music. What is it?” Jazz, I said. “I like it,” he repeated. “I’ve never heard it before. When I was young, you didn’t listen to jazz if you were a Christian—it was frowned on.”

I jot down these bits and pieces when I get the chance—at a picnic table on the side of the road, or in the motel while my daughter jumps on the beds, or in the middle of the night as I lay awake wondering about my husband and the uneasy truce we’d forged after his affair.

We stopped at a truck diner for dinner. As my father sat with apple pie and ice cream, I went to use the pay phone in the hallway next to the restrooms. Anna, still hyper after the long drive, dashed up and down the narrow corridor past me, running in and out of the men’s room. I was too weary to stop her and didn’t want to sever the phone connection with my son. Then my husband got on. “The car insurance has expired,” he said, annoyed.

“I’m positive I paid the bill,” I sighed, worried about being in an accident without coverage.

I glanced over at my father, looking contented with his half-eaten pie. Anna, who’d finally climbed back onto her chair, leaned over and stuck her spoon into his ice cream. Later that night my father said: “Nothing is ever hidden with her—she’s either a wreath of smiles or a vale of tears.”

I might have turned around for home but for that look of pleasure on my father’s face, watching his granddaughter’s antics, and eating apple pie in a truck stop on the highway in the New Brunswick forest. His life had come to this and he was fine with it. I wasn’t so sure about me, though.

The novelty of the journey was wearing thin after nights of uncomfortable beds, and days of bad coffee and cheap food. My father shifted in his seat, trying to get comfortable, though he never complained. Anna was perpetually on the brink of a meltdown, weaving back and forth in her car seat like a tilt-a-wheel ride. The continuous rain made visibility poor.

We found a hotel and settled in for the night. I was restless, gnashing my teeth about the car insurance, until a flash memory of signing the check, slipping it into the envelope and mailing it, allowed me to finally sink into a deep sleep.

Dad woke early, excited as we neared the coast. I made coffee, then pulled out the hotplate to make instant oatmeal. Every day growing up my father made porridge which we ate without sugar because of my mother’s obsession with sugar and the harm to our teeth.

“Sugar with that dad?” I ask with a smirk.

“Oh, yes, thank you, and a little cream if you have it.” He sat in the room’s one armchair. Anna sat at the desk eating one of her overly sugary cereals.  I handed him a coffee as well. With evaporated milk. Also a family tradition.

“I remember you making breakfast on a hot plate traveling down south every year,” I said, handing him the oatmeal that was finally cooked.

“Oh, yes,” he chuckled. “Those were the days.”

He went to the bathroom to change out of his pajamas into the clothes he’d had on for three days running.

The rain had cleared and we drove under a bright cloudless sky. Anna was quiet, “reading” her books, and playing with her stuffies, as we traveled through New Brunswick’s beautiful salt marshes. “This is like the creek near the stone house,” he said. “It would be thick with ducks. I remember your grandfather salivating over them the first weekend we were there, that would have been 1922. He was hankering to get his gun but your grandmother wouldn’t allow hunting on a Sunday.”

We crossed the eight-mile long Confederation Bridge, and on to Prince Edward Island and its distinctive red clay sideroads.

“You know I was always more comfortable in PEI than anywhere else in my life,” he said, cracking open the window and breathing deeply. In places you could smell the tang of manure.

“Because they’re farmers and you love the land?” I ask.

“No because they’re simple but not simple minded, and they’re real.”

A few minutes of silence later he piped up: “And maybe because they’re farmers.”

He was quiet the rest of the way. As we drew close to the church I asked: “Are you worried that things will have changed so much you won’t recognize the place, or that they won’t remember you.”

Something like that he said and stared out the window again.

I’d written the minister to tell him we’d be coming, but he wasn’t there when we arrived. His wife gave us tea, listed how things had changed since Dad’s time, and then recommended a motel.

Luckily, the proprietors had a daughter Anna’s age. I’d have left her at home, but her father couldn’t work with her around. It strikes me now how many more outings I had with my children and my father, than with their father.

The next morning as we drove to attend service, my father became morose: “They’re probably all dead.”

As soon as we sat down in the back pew, though, elderly necks craned to look. And as soon as the service was over, they swarmed him. Anna and I wandered around the church, stopping at the B&W photo gallery of past ministers. I pointed out Grandaddy’s picture, 24 and handsome – my mother used to say he was almost as good looking as Clark Gable.

A man named Sudsbury ambled over. “I was watching you and your little girl in the balcony up there. I remember your dad very well. I was a boy of eight or so and your dad would put me over his knee and threaten to whack me so hard my lungs would come out.”

I must have looked alarmed— in these #MeToo#ChurchToo times—for Sudsbury quickly explained: “Your dad was fun. He’d come to our farm and jump off the loft beam with us kids into the hay in the lower loft. He was just a big kid, told us about his younger brothers, how much he missed them.”

Meanwhile, dad was setting up visits. I reminded him to get directions. He tapped his head: “I know where they live. People don’t change houses here like they do in the city.” The last word said with some contempt.

That afternoon, we went visiting: a quiet 80-year-old apple-cheeked farmer’s wife who was an award-winning quilt artist garnering national media attention; a potato-farming family on the verge of selling out to a golf course; a retired lobster fisherman and his wife who still lived in the cottage in a treed hollow that their family had for generations.

It was easy to see the appeal of these people who take their cues from land and sea and sky.

Between visits, we detoured to nearby Cavendish Beach to stretch our legs.

The wind off the ocean was ice cold and gusty as we walked the suspension boardwalk over the dunes. At one point, Dad, white-faced, gripped the railing with both hands, a reminder he was no longer young. Leaving Anna ahead on the dunes, collecting seaweed and trying to remove her clothes, I walked him back to the car to doze in the sun. By the time I returned to her she was in diapers, clothes and footsteps dotting the sand behind her.

Later, on our way to Irishtown for the harvest evening service, Dad looked out on the red clay roads leading off the main road. “The winter after your mother and I got married, there was so much snow, we had to take a horse and cutter for parish visits. We’d fly across the fence tops the snow was that high.” He chuckled at the memory.

The next day we set out for Halifax and the main purpose of our trip—to meet up with sweet Dot. We’d stay with my cousin, who was eager to hear stories of her father, his brother, who had died several years before.

The second of five sons, Bob was born with cerebral palsy, walked with a lurch and spoke with a slur. But he excelled at school, graduated with two university degrees, and became an Anglican priest, married and had four children.

All the next day, my cousin probed Dad to tell everything he could about her father as a young man and it was evening before he got a chance to call Dot. He stood, grasping the phone in one hand, and the back of a chair with the other, shifting nervously from one foot to the other. They arranged to meet at noon the next day for lunch.

My father was ready by 9, showered, shaved, and dressed—with a clean tie even.

To kill time, I suggested visiting the historic white church downtown Halifax where he was a curate in 1940. He grumbled his whole way through the tour, saying it felt like a museum. In some ways it was—built in 1750, it was the oldest Protestant church in Canada.

By the time we met Dot at the restaurant, my father was animated, charming, mannerly. Petite and soft-spoken, Dot was almost everything my mother wasn’t. While I thought of the possibilities for my father’s happiness, Anna ran around the restaurant refusing to eat anything.

An English couple in their 90s had joined us and the conversation was spirited as the four exchanged stories about places and people they all knew. The world shrinks if you belong to a particular tribe, and these were born and bred Anglicans.

Leaving the restaurant after lunch was a little awkward. Neither Dot nor my father had email and they were too polite to request a phone number. The rest would depend on Canada Post when we got home.

We still had the long drive home, but first my father wanted to go by the house where he’d boarded as a young curate. His landlady had been a distantly related widow who mothered him like her own son, ironed his shirts, and drove him to the woods to hike on his days off.

After that, he asked if we could stop by Point Pleasant Park, a smooth promontory overlooking the ocean. A good place for Anna to run off steam. I took her to the water, and returned to the car where we could watch her playing in the sand.

Dad said the last time he was at this park was with his landlady to see her son set sail for war. “We watched until the ship was out of sight. He never returned. You never quite realize how much you have until you lose it, dear.”

I changed the subject: “What did you think of Dot?”

“She’s nice,” he said. Nice??? That’s all he had to say after showering three hours ahead of time?

He turned his head from me to look out the window and changed the subject: “I took your mother to Wycliffe College’s Christmas tea in 1939, and then never called her again. I left for Halifax in early 1940, never told her I was going, and only wrote again in 1941. We exchanged a few letters, but only saw each other four or five times before we were engaged.”

Whoa—first time I heard that. I’d assumed they had a longish engagement, which was nearly called off when they had an argument in a canoe on Frenchman’s Bay.

But he’d obviously been thinking of her all through his vocational discernment: “I was heading to Aklavik in the Arctic, as a missionary, but changed to India because your mother hated the cold.”

Good thing, I thought, considering what is now known about the residential schools, which he likely would have been involved with. If India’s poverty and death rate pushed him into a depression, the abuse of children forcibly separated from their families would have destroyed him.

Dad quietly watched Anna sitting on her haunches in the sand, bent over examining something. “I could watch her for hours,” he said, “seeing how intrigued she is with the smallest things.”

These two people—my father and my daughter—were on opposite ends of life. This trip her first, and maybe his last, but both could recognize the pleasures of the small, finding shells or bits of bright glass half buried, poring over memories of red clay roads and simple friendships.

I was thinking about time passing and the need for good moments, when I pressed him again about Dot. His answer was oblique: “Spend as much time as possible with the children.”

No point in asking him to explain, because with his usual avoidance thing, I was left to draw my own conclusions. That no amount of loveliness and newness can replace the intimacy that comes from 60 years of shared history, regardless of how bogged down it was by mental illness and various other things.

If I open myself to unprejudiced memories, ones not colored by resentment over my mother’s shortcomings as a parent, I am able to recall some of those moments. Afternoons raking leaves together, the weaving of our family’s life around rituals like Sunday afternoon drives, skating in conservation areas, tobogganing on our big hill. I have continued these traditions with my own children.

But there was also the elephant in the car. My clinically depressed, emotionally disturbed, sister waiting at home for him. I realize now that my hope for him to “hook up” with Dot was as much about escaping that situation as it was about sailing off into the sunset for some long overdue happiness.

“Your sister needs me,” he said as if reading my thoughts. The implication being that Dot did not. Dot — sweet, soft, kindly Dot, who never married — had a full life of friends and family. Even the doorman at her apartment watched out for her.

My father accepted his future, taking on the mantle of responsibility for his child. I have always known this about him, that he chooses other people’s needs over his own. That didn’t stop me, though, from wanting freedom for him to take a kinder route.

It turned out the trip had not been entirely about my father’s future, but mine as well, with its alarmingly similar trajectory with a philandering husband who repeatedly said he didn’t love me, but never left either. And yes, I was sticking it out, as my father had done, for the children. But life is far more complicated and there are no easy answers. For in spite of his behavior there was also love between us, buried as it was beneath layers of garbage. Even that is ok, because it’s possible to create something from nothing, and magic moments from crap. Like watching Anna consumed in sand play with the sun glinting off the water behind her.

As we pulled out of the parking lot and headed for home, Dad said something to the effect of you can’t look at it as putting in time but as parceling the time you have into moments which can override the dark.

Because the thing is, you can’t really run away from the story you have begun.

Alex Newman is a Toronto writer and editor with two adult children, an aging cat, and a Labrador puppy. She’s currently working on a memoir about growing up a preacher’s kid on a chicken farm in the 1960s.  One of six kids, with an academic-farmer father, and a mentally unwell mother, she lived in a 150-year-old unrenovated—and rarely cleaned—farmhouse. Reading Great Expectations much later, she immediately recognized Miss Havisham’s surroundings.  



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