Fall 1991, Volume 8.2


Searching For Dad

There are clues in the kitchen cupboards: a cobalt blue covered cheese dish, four crystal goblets with worn, gold leaf trim, a sculpted soup tureen, a dish made of white porcelain, a platter decorated with gold and rose and green paint. They are abruptly unlike our pink and turquoise melmac plates and bowls, our plastic tumblers, our jelly jar glasses.

They came from your father's house, my mother tells us. Your father's father and his father were captains of clipper ships. They brought home all those beautiful things when your father was a boy.

On Sundays at noon, the big platter with gold and rose and green trim holds our roasted chicken, or roasted beef, or once in a great while, roasted pork. The white porcelain dish holds the mashed potatoes or mashed turnips or yellow waxed beans. There was a glass pitcher once that looked like it was made of diamonds, but we broke it making Kool-Aid.

On Sundays at noon, mountains of dishes appear on the counter for Annette to wash and me to dry. I turn the platter over in my towel. Could this be from China, I ask my mother. She is wrapping the leftover chicken to put in the fridge.

I don't know, she says.

Isn't china supposed to come from China? I ask.

Some of it does, she says. But those good dishes could have come from England or France or Belgium. Your grandfather used to go all over. I don't know if he ever went to China, though.

I run my thumb over the gold trim thinking of China. What did they see when they got there?

Hurry up will you! Annette snaps. I don't have any place to put the pots.

It takes longer to wipe and put things away, I reply, resisting the urge to smack her with my dish towel. If you'd let me wash sometimes you'd see.

All that happened a long time ago, my mother says. Ask your father.

But when the dishes are all washed and dried and put away my father is having his nap. And when he wakes up I am down the street, or in my room reading.

My mother tells us that when she was five her father had tuberculosis and came home from the sanitarium to die. That he called all five of us children to his bedside, one by one, she says, to say good-bye. He told me to obey my mother and to watch over my little sister. Then he kissed me for the last time.

My mother tells us about the general store my grandmother ran. Getting a piece of candied pineapple in your Christmas stocking was an exotic treat then, she says. Jim, the hired man who helped run the farm, couldn't read, but sometimes he pretended to be Pere Noel and took my sisters and me for rides on his back.

What was it like when you were a boy? we ask our father. We are vaguely aware that he was a boy long before our mother was even born. But it is hard to count back that far, it is time unimaginable. What was it like? we ask. Oh, like any boy's life, I suppose, he says, and goes back to his newspaper.

My mother tells us how they prepared for winter along Baie Ste. Marie. How they gathered carrots and potatoes and turnips and squash and apples to bury in fresh sawdust in deep bins in the cellar. Once, when I was six, she says, blushing with remembered shame, I gathered the fallen apples in my bloomers thinking I was being a being a big help. But everyone laughed at me and fed the apples to the pig.

When my mother talks about her girlhood, her eyes widen, her voice goes up a pitch or two. The girl's face shines out, from behind her own.

With my father, it is different. From him, there is only one story. In the winter when we go skating on the lake in Waverly, my father tells us about the ice floes that used to form in the harbors of Cape Breton where he grew up. Once, ignoring all warnings, he ventured out too far on the ice. I was 10, he says, and thought I knew everything. He tells us how the part he was standing on broke off, how he watched, terrified, as the strip of dark water between himself and the shore widened. Only by leaping from one chunk of ice to another was I able to reach safety, he says. He points to the frozen lake. Be careful; it would be a terrible death.

We know this a a cautionary tale, meant to illustrate the folly of youth and the wisdom of parental advice. We hear this story every winter. But we listen anyway. We strain to picture this boy who lived so long ago, this boy who became our father. This boy with only one story. We search our father's balding head, his barrel-shaped body, his red neck with the loose skin for signs of the boy. We do not find him.

My mother tells us about the one-room schoolhouses she taught in throughout Nova Scotia before she met my father, the tiny villages where there was nothing to do, how she and a friend would walk ten miles on a Saturday night just to go to a dance.

My mother tells us how they traveled by sled sometimes, and heated bricks to put by their feet and wrapped horse and buffalo blankets around their legs to keep warm. How once she wore a tam cocked over her right ear because it was stylish and got frost bite in her left one.

What did you do before you met Mom? we want to ask our father. But he is reading his newspaper, or listening to a program on the radio, or we are playing Monopoly, or we just forget.

In the basement, a large leather suitcase encircled by two thick leather straps holds a brown greatcoat with large, shiny buttons up and down the front, a metal helmet, a pair of binoculars, a fitted jacket with more buttons and a small, stand up collar. Annette and AndrZ and Claude and I take turns wearing the helmet and jacket when we play war, shooting each other from behind the candy shelves. We spy on each other with the binoculars. The greatcoat is so big and heavy we can hardly lift it.

What did you do in the war? we ask our father. We are vaguely aware that his was a different war than the one we know about from all the movies, the one that Mr. Penny across the street lost a finger in. But we are hungry for heroics so it doesn't matter. I was a practical nurse in France, he says, not looking up from his newspaper. Did you ever kill any bad guys, we ask, or save any good guys? I don't believe in killing, he says. We saved all we could. The corners of his mouth twitch a little as he talks, and he doesn't put down his paper, so we don't ask any more questions.

In the basement, Annette says: He couldn't have been a nurse. Only girls are nurses. Yeah, AndrZ says, And nurses don't need helmets. And what about the binoculars? What would a nurse do with binoculars? Maybe he was a spy, I suggest. A good spy! And he has to keep it a secret forever because the bad guys might try to hurt us if they ever found out. Claude stares at the helmet, his eyes black O's. We grow silent thinking of our father's heroic deeds, deeds for which he will never receive his proper glory, all because of us.

One Sunday morning, while rooting through the little drawer above the glass bookcase looking for a lost bracelet, I find a small velvet box, dark blue, worn around the edges. Inside: a medal. I show it to Annette as she buttons her yellow dress for mass.

See, she says, I knew it all along.

My mother sits at the vanity powdering her nose. What was it for? we ask her.

I'm sure it's nothing, she says, her red mouth curling. They probably gave one to everyone who served.

When my father and AndrZ come home from early mass we meet him at the door. The medal gleams from its case. My father takes off his brown Sunday hat and takes a deep breath. His suit smells faintly of moth balls and dry cleaning fluid.

They thought it was the war to end all wars, he says, taking the medal from my hands. War is a terrible thing.

* * *

I want to do one too, Claude says. His mouth is pink and round like a flower.

Stop bothering us, Annette tells him.

We are sprawled on the back steps drawing a treasure map. A toffee tin with a picture of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip holds the treasure: a green rhinestone earring whose mate is lost, a string of clear glass beads, three pennies. Annette takes a toothpick and dips it into the saucer of lemon juice.

How about if we make one inch equal a yard, I suggest, waving a ruler that reads: Do Unto Others As You Would Have Others Do Unto You.

I don't know, Annette says. That might make the map too big.

Claude leans over to peer at the ruler. Claude, you're in my way. I give him a little push.

I wish we had an oak tree, Annette says. There's always an old oak tree in treasure maps.

Claude moves over to the side of the steps and watches us. I know where a real pirate's treasure is anyway, he says. Not just a pretend one.

Sure you do, Annette says, not even looking at him.

I do! I do! he says. His black hair and eyes are glossy, like a cat's.

Well where is it, smartypants, I ask.

I'm not telling, he says. His cheeks are fat and pink, a squirrel holding nuts.

You're just making it up, we say, and turn back to our map. Annette draws a small square with lemon juice. This will be the house, she says.

I'm not making it up, Claude says, thumping into the house. You'll see.

He comes out holding a faded red cloth bag with a drawstring top. See, he says, a real pirate's treasure. His eyes are round and shiny like new coins.

Where did you get that? Annette hisses, dropping the toothpick.

I found it, and it's mine, Claude says, holding the bag behind him and backing away.

Annette and I leap on him and wrestle the bag out of his soft, chubby hands. We loosen the string and dozens of tarnished copper coins spill out. Some are the size of quarters, but thinner. Others are as small as dimes.

They're mine, Claude says, watching each coin as we finger it. Some of the figures and letters are worn smooth; on others we can still distinguish a few numbers: 1854, 1895, 1902, 1886.

Holy smoke, I mutter.

Where did you get them, Claude, Annette demands. Answer me!

Claude hangs his head. In Dad's bottom drawer, he says. Annette and I look at each other. A little shiver runs down my spine.

Hours later, when we hear the truck, Annette and I bolt to the basement. Cradled in my hands is the small, heavy bag. My father climbs out of the truck. What? he says, squinting at us from behind his wire rimmed glasses. What's the matter? I hold the bag up in my open palm, an offering.

That's my penny collection, he says, taking his cap off. There are beads of sweat on his forehead and on the bald part. I haven't seen it in a long time. Where did you find it?

How can they be pennies, we ask. They're the wrong size.

My father closes the big wooden basement doors and lifts the bar into place. Coins used to be different, he says. Before confederation, every province made its own coins.

We follow him to the desk, hurling our questions at him like stones. My father arches his chest forward and rubs the small of his back.

I started when I was 8 or 9, he says.

Annette and I exchange glances: The boy from the ice-floe story.

Some of those are from before I was born, though, he says. He starts up the stairs, moving his heavy body up, one step at a time. We buzz around him like sandflies.

You'd better give those back to me, he says, when we reach the top. He takes the bag from my hand. They might be valuable some day and I don't want you losing them. We watch him go into the bedroom and pull out the bottom drawer of my mother's hope chest. When he comes out he says: What's for supper?

Later, when my father is dozing in the big arm chair, the evening paper folded across his chest, I slip into the bedroom and take the red bag from its drawer. The tarnished coins spill out onto my lap. Fingering the smooth, cool coins, I picture a small boy on a Cape Breton Island: he stands on an ice floe, staring at the shore.