Facts & Arguments Essay

My father lived with regrets

Contributed to The Globe and Mail

How do you précis a life? How do you distill 91 years of breath into polished platitudes meant to capture the essence of a person in short, brilliant bites? I mean beyond the clichés, journeys travelled, paths taken, choices made, imposed or voluntary.

It all comes down to the ethos of the man, his spirit, the air that reverberates with his being long after he has left the room.

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Lou Stone, my father, was a mechanic, a car whisperer, a master sleuth who worked magic with his hands, solving mechanical mysteries and resuscitating brain-dead vehicles long before computers levelled the playing field and turned ingenuity into automated zeroes and ones.

He was by myriad measures a simple man, a complex man. A content man, an angry man. Conservative, driven, innovative, naive. And, at all times, profoundly emotional and relentlessly honest.

His laugh grew from deep in his belly to an explosion of unmitigated delight, especially at the antics of my younger brother, a natural comic. The same passion ignited outrage when he perceived injustice.

I was 6 when he took me down to Toronto's industrial southwest end and with great pride introduced me to S & S Service Garage, the vehicle repair centre he co-owned with his business partner. Every mechanic in the shop told me what a great guy my dad was. His employees genuinely cared about him and his values and that was reflected in their work, the most coveted in the city.

In the early 1960s, after more than 20 years of coming home at the end of a long, greasy day and spending an hour with Snap Hand Cleaner trying to remove the detritus of his labour, he decided to make a change. He sold his share of the business and chose plastics, a field completely new to him. He poured himself into research, gleaning knowledge about this modern material, exploring the vast possibilities of injection moulding and dreaming about new applications.

Two years later, tragedy struck when the partners behind the business he invested in took his life savings and ran off leaving him liable for their cooked books. Devastated, he lost his rich head of hair to alopecia totalis in a matter of weeks, along with the aura of high-energy confidence that had accompanied him wherever he went.

Now I would know a different father, not unrecognizable, but loaded with a burden of responsibility that tore at his flesh and burned into his psyche. Tortured as he was, he managed to support and encourage my sister and me through our fledgling theatre and film careers.

After a succession of short-lived jobs, he was hired to manage a massive warehouse. For two years he ran it as if it were his own, transforming a chaos of metallic mess into an organized stable as clean and efficient as his lamented service garage. He revelled in the challenge and appeared to enjoy his new momentum.

One weekday afternoon, he arrived home too early. "They let me go," he said, before erupting into a flow of anguish, thick as lava. I had never seen him cry, even through the worst of the crisis. My mother, his first and only sweetheart, stroked his naked scalp as I watched my dad disappear into a vortex of despair.

A year later, in 1968, he returned to his roots and opened Baycrest Auto Centre in Toronto's north end. An aging clientele frequented the garage with a host of maladies, mostly their cars' though often their own. For five years, he restored ailing engines, revived stubborn starters and offered free advice with every job. But his loyal patrons couldn't help when new landlords forced him out.

Still, he was determined to retrieve some semblance of his previous life, some vestige of the man he thought he was. He reinvented himself as a car care instructor, teaching a class full of women what made their daily commuters tick, becoming a regular guest on CBC Radio - barraged with calls from distraught car owners hoping for salvation from the impending junkyard - and, his favourite, testifying as an expert witness during trials when a vehicular accident resulted in death.

He approached each new challenge with the fervency of a child, eager to piece himself back together and yet, it seemed, always searching for redemption.

In the mirror, he saw a reflection of choices gone awry, of misguided decisions that altered his life's trajectory, of eyes burning with regret.

What he never realized was that his ethos was indestructible. He conquered three cancers; he beat back the torture of a crippled heart that refused to keep up with the vigorous schedule he set for himself; and he sat vigil at his beloved wife's bedside as she suffered and survived multiple life-threatening cardiac events.

I have a lingering image of my father during his final days. As he slowly reconciled himself to the bitter tides of encroaching death, the radio played a familiar song. My mother, so intent on keeping him immortal, remembered the days when they danced together and all eyes witnessed a Fred and Ginger moment, so fluid, so graceful, floating as if they were made from the same piece.

Then, with all her strength, she put her own frail hands in his and pulled him up from the seat of his walker. Together they were young again as they swayed gently to the music and imagined a lifetime.

It would be their last dance.

Marc Stone lives in Toronto.

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