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My memories of my father are like puzzle pieces Add to ...

I grew up in a solid, square, traditional house. It was a suitable extension of the people who had built it. The walls, constructed with a good Protestant work ethic, were meant to keep secrets in, to reinforce a private kind of dignity.

This is the situation my father married into. Although he was an Englishman, he was not the "stiff upper lip" sort. Perhaps that is the exclusive territory of the wealthy. He was a tradesman, a tool and die maker from the industrial north of England, and the black sheep of his family. After all, he ran off to Canada, the colony of wilderness.

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He came to Canada, I suspect, in search of adventure and maybe a wife. He found the wife easily enough, but I wonder if the kind of "adventure" he found was anything like what he'd been looking for.

He died when I was 10, leaving me with some facts, a few memories and a tenuous sense of who he was. I think it's the memories I miss the most. To complicate matters, sometimes you think you remember, but the memory only comes from repeated stories or looking at photographs - better than nothing, I guess, but not memories you can hold on to with confidence.

I believe he loved Canada, but I'm not sure why I believe this. I have to believe that he loved us and had the best of intentions. I've been forced to conclude, although I have no evidence, that he'd found himself in a situation for which he was ill-prepared.

I know he dearly loved one of his older sisters and her husband, who took him in as a teenager when their parents died young of influenza. It's not difficult to know this: He gave one of my brothers their last name as his middle name.

He served in the British Army during the Second World War but did not see any action, having been deployed to the Middle East.

I know he was a small, wiry man. He looked athletic, and I think I remember he liked numerous sports. We have photos of him with horses and dogs. It seems to me that he liked to be outside.

I remember the dark tobacco stains on his "cigarette fingers." They were a sickening shade of yellow. Or is that just a reflection of my present-day reaction? He was, perhaps, a typical British tradesman of the time, if there was such a thing: He worked, he drank, he smoked. Then he paid for it. When he died, even those stalwart Presbyterian in-laws and the walls of that red-brick house were not able to contain the truth of the matter, the tragedy and the shame of it.

The medical explanation for my father's death at 47 was pneumonia and heart issues, but the pervasive suspicion was that he had caused his own death with alcohol and cigarettes. This, not surprisingly, was viewed as shameful and best kept a secret, although that wasn't really possible.

His namesake, my brother Clifford, inherited his physique, his talents and interests, his tendencies, his issues. My brother died at 43, walking through the bush to a cottage on a cold night after an evening of drinking. Like father, like son: a similar trajectory and another premature death.

I suspect my father had some happy moments. I have an impression of him as a creative person, a person who liked to make things and was prepared to experiment. I remember doing "art projects" with him - plaster relief creations and sculpture with an amazing mixture of whipped detergent.

For some reason, I imagine that he was a traditional, conservative man, although this does not seem to correspond with the emotional openness I think I recall. He was a strict parent, or at least wanted to be seen that way. I remember the shillelagh that hung in the stairway. I don't know if it was ever used, but we believed it readily could be. It was a constant threat that served as a reminder - behave, or else.

I presume that for my father, the trades were real work, worth aspiring to, honourable. I suspect that he would not have seen the sense in university education, especially for girls.

I think he must have been a protective parent because I remember him chasing off some unfamiliar, predatory-looking teenaged boys from the schoolyard next door. I remember his quick reaction, his fiery determination to ensure there was no danger. I remember he tried to say something to me about the facts of life, but was stopped by my mother because I was too young.

I think I recall that he always treated my grandmother, who lived with us, with the greatest of respect. Or maybe I just remember people saying so.

With the help of photos, I can be sure that we had at least one family holiday: a trip to a lodge in Muskoka when I was about 4.

I know he had an accent, but I have no recollection of his speaking voice, no memory of his touch. I don't remember him ever telling stories of his younger days. I have no memory of him laughing. I don't remember love, although I have shadowy, flimsy feelings that it must have been present.

I do not drag the sorrows of life around behind me. Life is too short, too full of marvellous opportunities. Yes, there has been tragedy, but how many people are spared it anyway?

My memories of my father are like a small collection of puzzle pieces rattling around in the bottom of a mostly empty box, with the majority of the pieces missing. Sometimes, it's hard to feel whole.



Elaine Hall lives near Rockwood, Ont.

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