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My dad was magic. He could make a corner store appear out of nowhere. This was the best part of going on calls with him: getting a bag of chips and an old-style curvy bottle of Coke, which you had to open using the bottle opener that was part of the cooler.
That was summer for me. The smell of dust and manure, hot on a summer breeze, pushed fast through the windows as we drove down winding roads. Even now, and I know how awful it sounds, the smell of manure makes me think of my dad. For years I have enjoyed that smell, and inhaled it deeply, surreptitiously, whenever I encountered it. It transports me back to those summer days: days with my dad.
This was how I, and both my brothers, got to know our father – against the backdrop of the farms around Elmira in Southwestern Ontario that he served as a large animal veterinarian for more than 40 years. He travelled across the region from farm to farm every day, helping and healing, collecting friends and experiences from every person he met.
But summers were the best: no school, and wide-open countryside, bombing along winding gravel roads, arm kinked out the car window in imitation.
We would talk about pretty much anything on those drives: Dad seemed to know everything about everything. And he liked to listen to us. Sometimes we could just be quiet, and watch the miles roll along beneath us.
He could tell you how long a mile was. But what I did not know was that he was checking the odometer the whole time. Those magical corner stores? He just knew the countryside so well that he knew exactly when to ask if I wanted a snack, to make it seem like a store just dropped out of the sky onto the side of a country road, merely because he wanted it so. I only figured it out a few years ago, because something inside me did not want to lose that magical quality.
But Dad could make magic happen.
When I was about 6, he took me out on a calving call. It was a snowy night. We parked the car at the side of the road, but the barn was nowhere to be seen. Standing there, in blissful confusion, I was unconcerned because my father was there with me and I knew nothing bad would happen.
Out of the darkness a jingling sound emerged, getting louder and seeming to come from every direction.
I was young enough to hope that it could be Santa with his reindeer sleigh (for Christmas was on the horizon), and I waited hopefully. A light bobbed along across the field, and I watched with open-mouthed wonder as a horse-drawn sleigh drew up beside us.
“The drive is too full of snow,” my dad explained, “so they came to pick us up in the sleigh.”
I don’t know whether that was true or not. To be honest, I don’t really care if it was. The truth of that night was a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the snowy dark of night, huddled up under a rough woollen blanket that smelled of horses, and cuddling my dad’s arm. I don’t remember much else of that night, but that journey stayed with me for a lifetime.
In time, my dad let me be magic.
While he treated the animals and chatted with the clients, who had become his friends, I was allowed the run of the barn. And run I did: chasing semi-feral barn cats everywhere, trying to catch just one so that I could pet it and hear it purr. I would return to where my dad was working, carrying my feline trophy with pride. Inevitably, the farmer would glance over, do a double-take and say: “That cat’s near on wild. No one has been able to pet that one in forever.” I would beam and snuggle it a little tighter, then let it go.
Even after I became an adult, my dad was magic.
He and my mother were very progressive in their way of raising me, encouraging me to get an education and career, and then think about a husband and family. But they let me choose my own way to get there, and didn’t say a whole lot when I chose a different order of accomplishing those things.
My dad got my mother onto a plane for the first time to fly over the Atlantic so that she could be there for my wedding in Britain and to meet her grandson for the first time.
He helped me purchase my first home. He showed my son a taste of my childhood and the dusty summer days on country roads, taking him to meet and visit dozens of relatives and friends.
This past year, he trusted me and my skill with words to help him record his memoirs.
And now that his days are over, I wish I had thanked him more. For being my father. For giving me so many memories. For being magic.
Lynn Bauman-Milner lives in Leeds, England.