I was talking with my older brother some summers back about things we used to do as children – mostly about how we’d go to the woods with my dad, find streams and dam them up.
To hear us tell it, we spent most of our childhood damming streams with twigs, rocks and mud – tutored by our father, who, on weekends, took us out to some ideal and dappled forest to bequeath to us this skill, his skill, one that I was sure other dads didn’t have.
We changed the landscape around us as we passed through it, my brother and I – we were practically beavers in Wellington boots. We built the sorts of dams people protest against; we generated hydro-electricity, so expert were we at dam construction, of this we grew up convinced.
That I laboured long enough to build the Three Gorges Dam before kindergarten is part of my childhood, my dam-building history is there like a series of slides in my mind – and yet, overhearing my brother and I talking about this, my dad looked up from the barbeque and said “You know we only did that maybe three times, don’t you?”
These moments are like potions – a few drops go a long way in a childhood.
It’s not that my father lacked dad-energy. My family immigrated to Canada (my father’s from Zimbabwe, my mother was raised in South Africa) and part of my dad behaved as if we were just visiting North America: He was going to make damn sure we saw it all while we were here.
Other families had cottages (and cousins, cousins always seemed a very Canadian thing to me) but every summer my father packed us all into the car and drove us from wherever we were to some close-to-opposite corner of the continent.
It was as if we were at the Louvre and admission had been paid and if Mona Lisa in this joint was the Reversing Falls, we weren’t going leave without seeing them – we sure as hell weren’t going to eat at the “over-priced” restaurant. We ate all our meals at whatever free rest-stop attraction was on offer. It was all about value. I doubt there’s a free museum in this country I haven’t been through.
“Oh, look!” my mum would say enthusiastically, “the Butter-churn Museum! Let’s go in!” And my family would stream through it before my mother set up the camp stove and made us grilled cheese sandwiches on a picnic bench into which some genuine local, often graphic, history had often been carved.
Admissions at say, the birth place of the man who wrote the biography of the man who sewed the buttons on General Montcalm’s favourite aide-de-camp’s jacket would soar when my family stormed by some startled volunteer at the door.
“Up 300 per cent” they’d write in bewilderment on forms come fall – ensuring government grants for years to come.
Forget those fancy ONroute service centres with their “too extravagant” donuts, places my brothers and I would gaze longingly at as we went by – like the magical KOA Campground kingdoms we’d never enter. There’d surely be an outhouse near the statue of the World’s Largest Cranberry not another hour’s drive away.
Every commemorative plaque in this country should be designed to heat up so you can grill a sandwich on it, for families like mine.
My dad drove us to see the redwoods and the twisters of Wyoming, the Carolinas and across Canada more times then I can count – sometimes pulling out the tent-pegs as we slept – determined to get an early start, waking us up to “Let’s rock and roll!” because there were places we should go.
Driving through Saskatchewan once, we picnicked in Regina. My brother and I, perhaps age 4 and 7 – of a certain giggly, prudish age – couldn’t believe we were in a city called Regina. Regina! We looked at each other, eyes wide, trying not to laugh.
We picnicked by the river, saw the sights. We could barely contain ourselves the whole day, because – Regina! As we left the city limits my father said dryly from the front seat, “Well kids, that was Regina...” We squirmed in embarrassment.
How could he say that?
“Now you’ve seen Regina....” We tried not to meet each others eyes lest we laugh and “get in trouble,” that dark, almost geographical place one spends a childhood avoiding “now you’ve touched Regina....”
Stop it dad! “Now you’ve tasted Regina....”
I never thanked my dad for that moment, or many others – so thanks, daddy. And have fun, be fun, daddies. Childhood is fertile ground for these things, little is wasted. Happy Father’s Day.