Monday, 19 January 2009
The Beloved Passer-by
My father vanished from my life sometime during the year I was twelve. He had pulled the vanishing act a number of times before, so it was difficult to tell that he had really gone for good. When I was eight, he ran off to Boston with another woman, but he still sent Christmas gifts, so I assumed he was off on one of his lengthy business trips. He reconciled with my mother and rejoined the family when I was ten. My maternal grandfather had died a few weeks before, leaving a small legacy which my mother gave to my father to invest in a kitchen-designing business which promptly failed. At age eleven, I was now old enough to realize that my parents weren't happy and to know that the odor on his breath in the morning was alcohol. We spent that summer basically waiting for him to leave. He left in the autumn, the creditors closed in, and my mother, on legal advice, took out an ad saying she was not responsible for her husband's debts. He phoned a few times during the following year, usually in the small hours of the morning, asking to speak to me. Finally, in exasperation, my mother told him to not phone at all if he couldn't do so at a decent hour. The calls stopped.
A little over a year after he left, Judy Collins appeared on a variety show singing this song:
Luckily, I was alone in the house. I was ambushed by a storm of weeping, and said, for the last time: "Daddy."
My mother took out Canadian citizenship under her maiden name when I was sixteen. It was then that I learned that my father had been a father of three when he met her. My eldest half-sister was five when he left; her brother was three and her baby sister less than a year. My mother told me that they had been unable to marry because of his first marriage, "...but I felt married." I wandered around, saying to myself, "I'm a bastard, I'm a bastard..." not in shame, but in awe, and a good helping of teen-aged melodrama.
During my first trip to England when I was nineteen, we stayed in the same house in Muswell Hill where my parents had often visited in the year before their emigration to Canada. One night, I had a vivid dream about my father and awoke in tears, convinced that he had died. Well, he was an alcoholic and a smoker, and had had more than his share of life-threatening accidents due to the former, so it seemed feasible.
In my mid-twenties, I was awakened at three o'clock in the morning by a long-distance phone-call. The operator asked me to wait, but there was nobody there.
Not long after, I embarked on a Master's degree in Education, emphasis on creative arts in learning. During my studies, I came across a poem by Marie-Claire Blais entitled "L'ami":
. . . Et quand venait Avril, l'homme rentrait chez nous,
C'était souvent à la fin d'une fraîche journée . . . .
Ce n'est qu'un passant bien-aimé, disait nos méres
Mais cet homme venait chez nous, il baisait notre front
A la dérobée
Et s'éloignait aussitôt pendant que sommeillant doucement
(. . . And when April came, the man would come into our place
It was often at the end of a cool day . . . .
It is nothing more than a beloved passer-by, said our mothers
But this man would come to our place, he would brush his lips furtively across our foreheads
And would leave as soon as dreams sweetened our sleep...)
This poem so reminded me of my father, who even when he lived with us, seemed to have banished himself to the outskirts of our lives, and I responded with a blank verse poem in pentameter, ending with an Alexandrine. (I was experimenting with poetic forms at the time, and forgive me in advance, I'm no Marie-Claire Blais):
Message to the Friend After Reading Marie-Clair Blais
When you left for the first time, I saw you
Sitting on the porch as we drove away
I wept without knowing why. Packages
Would arrive by post and every time
We took a trip, I unwittingly broke
My mother's heart by watching for you at
Each corner and station, for it had seemed
Your habit to appear without warning with gifts.
When you came back, I ran into your arms
And you swung me up, stepping into the
Dark kitchen and knocking over the milk
Bottles. That's how it always seemed to be,
Beloved passer-by, we reached toward
Each other with the joy and eagerness
Of long absence, tinged with awkwardness
Of strangeness. You knew me so well and so little.
When you left for the last time, you kissed me
Clumsily, slipping two chocolate bars and
Two magazines under my pillow. I
Crouched in my bed, not daring, not bearing
To see your car drive into the dawn. In
The dark, I choked back the chocolate like
Bitter pills. Later, I blacked out each line
In my diary meticulously.
Did you mean to wake me? I think you were
A bit of a glutton for pathos with
No appetite for pain. I think that I'm my
Father's daughter. I'd like you to know that
I knew that you loved me, never doubted
You loved me, but that each fresh failure, each
Perceived rejection when you attempted
Reconnection sapped your courage. It's quite
All right, I have a piece of you in safekeeping.
A few years ago, when I took up researching my family history in earnest, I realized I could track down my half-siblings. I sent Christmas cards to my half-brother and a first cousin, saying who I was and emphasizing that I didn't expect a reply. Considering I'd just dropped the psychological equivalent of a bomb on Colchester, they took my overtures graciously. Very graciously. It turned out my father had wived it wealthily in California not much more than a year after I had last seen him driving away. He had a condo with a boat mooring on San Francisco Bay. He had been awarded a MBE for fundraising, for heaven's sake, pretty rich, considering the financial circumstances in which he left my mother. And he had not told a soul that he had a family in Canada. He had divorced his first wife, but, as far as I can tell, my mother is unaware of this. They gave me his phone number and address. My half-sister told me to call him. My paternal aunt suggested that I shouldn't. In the end, I decided that I'm not difficult to track down, and if he had truly wanted to reconnect, he would have.
He didn't. My half-niece messaged me through Facebook on Saturday that he was dying.
On Sunday morning, as I waited for the second message telling me he was gone (it arrived in the late afternoon), I copied pictures of him from my baby album with my digital camera, and the song that was playing in my head was not "My Father", it was my favourite Leonard Cohen tune, "Song of Bernadette", these lyrics in particular:
We've been around, we fall, we fly,
We mostly fall, we mostly run.
And every now and then we try
To mend the damage that we've done.
Tonight, tonight, I just can't rest
I've got this joy here inside my breast,
To think that I did not forget
That child, that song of Bernadette.
So many hearts, I find,
Broke like yours and mine,
Torn by what they've done and can't undo.
I just want to hold you, won't you let me hold you?
Like Bernadette would do.
Here's Jennifer Warnes singing it:
So may he rest; his faults lie gently on him.
- William Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Act IV, Scene ii, line 31
My father always promised us that we would live in France
We'd go boating on the Seine and I would learn to dance.
I sail my memories afar, like boats across the Seine,
And watch the Paris sunset in my father's eyes. Again. - Judy Collins