Husband, father, grandfather, bridge player. Born on Oct. 31, 1936, in Pietersburg, South Africa; died on Oct. 2, 2013, in Toronto, of liver disease, aged 76.
My father was a contradiction. Consider his name: To family he was known as Herb, but sometimes he would introduce himself as Charles, so there were pockets of people who knew him by one name, or the other.
Herb was born in a small town in South Africa, the son of a Tamil waiter who was part of that country’s Asian diaspora. He was five when his parents’ marriage crumbled, forcing a lifelong estrangement from his mother and a move to Johannesburg where he, his father, brother and sister were rolled into an aunt’s busy household. Herb loved his extended family and always referred to his cousins as siblings.
When he was nine, he met Roma, a neighbour from a prominent Hindu family. In their early 20s, the pair discussed marriage but her family refused to agree, solely because he was Catholic. Their elopement in 1961 was scandalous, but their marriage lasted 52 passionate years. With the arrival of two daughters, the couple fled apartheid injustices for Toronto, where their teaching certificates were honoured. It was 1967, and a two-bedroom apartment at Jane and Finch seemed a fresh, exciting start.
Dad taught grade school by day and upgraded his teaching credentials by night at York University. After I was born, they moved to nearby Weston. Our first family visit to South Africa in 1977 gave us a glimpse at the large, loving extended families Mom and Dad had left behind. In Toronto we celebrated high holidays with a small group of relatives, but for the most part it was just us on Sundays, eating and laughing while Dad read one of the three newspapers he subscribed to. South African visitors found our life quiet, but it was a good one, with deep neighbourhood ties.
As his three daughters came of age, a sadness began to engulf him. On visits to his homeland, he found more widows and fewer drinking buddies (by the time he was 55, most of his male friends had died, often from heart disease). At home in Weston, life was marked with tensions typical of raising teenage girls. Dad wanted us to be Canadian, but in South Africa his daughters would have mingled with the family, so he struggled with our desire for freedom. In immigrating, his world grew, and yet it also shrank a bit.
I was the youngest, so by the time I left for university Dad had let go of the reins. I came back on long weekends to a contented man who had embraced the role of grandfather. There was always a kid to shuttle in the Volvo and a hug to be had; they became his reason to retire early. He travelled with Mom, and played golf and a lot of bridge.
I asked to get married in our family backyard in 2007 and Dad was supportive. That doesn’t mean it was easy, as we clashed on various points: He planted colourful blooms despite my request for white annuals, refused to dispose of a rickety picnic table and meddled with the guest list. But on the day, he lined the driveway with planters to create a path to the ceremony, and the picnic table became a focal point in the “back 40.” On the largest tree, he nailed our initials, simple dollar-store finds singed with a BBQ lighter for a beautiful rustic effect. I had forgotten how resourceful he could be. As we left the house to face my groom, we barely spoke. At 70, Dad was more reticent, but he was the proud and perfect host that day.
In his last year, Dad’s energy for words was all but gone, but during those quiet bedside vigils we finally understood something powerful: He never did anything for his own benefit; everything he did was for us. He was our constant.
Jacquelyn Francis is Charles Herbert’s daughter.