He returned one fine morning, in the front hallway. I leaned over to pick up one of the many pieces of debris lying on our floor and, as I straightened up, I saw him looking back at me.
Him – my father! Dead for more than 10 years, now looking at me from the mirror. I leaned over once again and rose slowly, with my eyes closed. When I opened them, he was still there. Not only had I been picking lint from the floor as my father often had done, I looked exactly the way I remember him when he was the age I am now.
A cold chill of enlightenment followed. Me? Like my father? Yes, you – like your father.
Like many sons, I suppose I have an approach-avoid relationship with my father and his memory. When I was little, I did everything I could to please him and be like him, that source of approval and authority. At the work bench with a hammer, playing catch outside, laughing at the joke that became even funnier on the 10th telling, loving him utterly and unreservedly – it was all the way it should be for any six-year-old boy when dad is at home and all is right with the world. The sky is bluer, the air fresher and the water purer when father is eternal and omnipotent.
These days I find it strange that my clearest memories of him are not from when I was small, and not from the desolate latter years of his life when his once-iron physique had been machine-gunned by cancer. No, my clearest memories of him are from the time when he was about the age I am now, in his mid-50s, when I had more tomorrows than yesterdays ahead, and he more yesterdays than tomorrows.
I guess this is because at that age – late teens, early 20s – our judgment is not clouded by the idealism of the small child, our minds are not yet burdened by the distraction of real responsibility and we are learning to overcome the adolescent disappointment of finding out that Dad is human, all-too-human. And so our love and attachment are more mature and perhaps mixed with forgiveness and wistful humour.
“He looks exactly like his dad,” an old friend whispered to another old friend a while back upon seeing me for the first time in several years.
And so he looked exactly like his father as I remembered him, and my other friend exactly like his father. We spent, we three friends, a lot of time in and out of each other’s houses in our teenage years, and our fathers were great sources of ironic amusement. My father for his predilection for going around the house and turning off all the lights – long before the days of energy conservation – another for relating car accident stories involving only Volkswagens, another for waking in the middle of the night and searching the house for a specific magazine to read.
We were sure we would never be like that. The little boy’s guileless devotion had become the egocentric distancing of the sophisticated teen. No eccentric habits, no pointless anecdotes and certainly no darkness when you could have light. What kind of cheapskate would do that?
“And don’t get the cheapest ones!” my teenage son called after me as I headed to the store to buy a new set of headphones. As I turned back to look at him, he was muttering to his sister, “This guy – he’s so cheap.”
I opened my mouth to say something about the virtue of not spending money unnecessarily, and felt myself a ventriloquist’s dummy for my father’s ghost, playing the part he played with me countless times when I was my son’s age.
I closed my mouth and walked out the door, not because I wanted to avoid an argument, but because I found chilling the superposition, almost word for word, of the past on the present. If my son is me, and I am my father, then who am I?
I found a piece of that puzzle recently. I own a pair of sunglasses that I think are quite fetching and stylish. Or, I thought so until recently. A couple of weeks ago I was preparing to walk down to the corner to do some grocery shopping and put on my Panama hat and that pair of fetching sunglasses.
My daughter called up the stairs to my other son, “He’s putting on the sunglasses,” to which came the pregnant reply from above: “Oh, no!”
My children talk about the way I dress – and it’s not flattering. I didn’t even think they noticed, and now I felt a kind of filial betrayal. If I looked like a doofus, why hadn’t they told me earlier?
Then I remembered cringing silently while walking beside my father when he wore shorts and a certain pair of socks in a colour scheme that announced his arrival many metres up the street.
I asked my daughter what was wrong with wearing those sunglasses. She laughed and shook her head vigorously, saying, “It’s just not right.” That wasn’t the Hugo Boss pour l’homme advice I was looking for, but it was at least succinct.
I stood for a moment by the piano and remembered my father proudly defiant in the face of fashion. Saying anything about his socks would have made no difference because he knew the only standard worth observing was that of the authentic self, orange-striped socks and all.
I inspected the sunglasses for a moment, trying to understand what was wrong with them. I put them on and looked in the mirror. I decided my father looked pretty good in those sunglasses. Then I walked outside.
Mark Harding lives in Toronto.