Skip to main content
first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

I had never given my father’s pronunciation much thought. I suppose I was so used to it that I paid little heed to the variances and nuances of his diction. Yet something occurred to me during the long months of quarantine and lockdown: My father, who never had any qualms about speaking in his own distinct way, sounded completely different.

I sat within a few metres of him every single day as I made my way through the chaotic mess that is online high school. As I listened, I began to ruminate on what was “off.” Both my parents grew up in India during the 1970s and you could find lingering traits of their upbringing in their accents. My father’s rustic and homely Indian accent, the one that I had grown to love – and at times dread! – had vanished. Now that I was able to catch a glimpse of my father’s daily routine, from his surprisingly loud conference calls to hushed conversations with his team members, I had an insider’s view of his busy work life. I found myself listening to someone who didn’t sound like the father I knew. Gone was his deep, measured cadence, replaced instead with a fast-paced and higher-pitched style. Rather than use his trademark pauses for emphasis, he had developed a knack for injecting classic Canadian slang into his speaking (“eh?”).

Prior to the pandemic, I would never have known this. My immediate family had become somewhat sequestered and distant from one another. Instead of spending time together, we’d burrowed ourselves into our own busy worlds. I’d be hunkered down in my room, doing countless assignments and listening to music on Spotify. My parents spent long hours at the office and were bone-tired when they got home, then occupied with their own tedious tasks and routines. In my childhood, I remember playing cricket with my dad in our backyard and going on long family road trips and recounting my din-charya, a summary of my day at school. But those memories seemed to be from a bygone era; we seldom spent the sort of time together that we once did. High school meant that distant commutes and lengthy meetings replaced family meals and weekend excursions.

Then came COVID-19. We, like millions of other families across the world, adopted a new online, stay-at-home lifestyle. At first, I was tense; no teenager envies the idea of spending more time under the watchful eyes of their parents. Existing within a few feet of my parents 24/7 was frustrating and slightly jarring. I had no downtime and little privacy as they took a larger involvement in the minute details of my life.

Gone was any idea of a carefree and relaxing break last summer. I couldn’t play video games with friends or watch soccer on YouTube for hours on end. Instead, I was “encouraged” into a strict routine of early wake-ups, studying for the dreaded SAT exam and regular walks with our family dog. During school days, my father would sometimes meander into my room and I’d find myself hurriedly explaining to him that, yes, I was in a Zoom call and yes, that meant everyone could see him!

But just as I noticed my dad’s “new” accent, I began to realize something else; our family was going through a renaissance of sorts. In the pre-COVID-19 world, the lives of my father, mother and myself were on different trajectories, each focused on their own business. Now, my family began to drift back together as we worked out the kinks of online life. At the start, it wasn’t out of choice. But when you can’t go out to meet friends or spend time with office colleagues and clients, you turn to the familiar refuge of your family.

Eventually, we rediscovered the wonders of family life. Regular family walks stand out to me. My parents and I would saunter around our neighbourhood, happily chatting away on just about everything under the sun; from sharing little tidbits of Roman history, arguing about the state of the Raptors and discussing what scrumptious meal we planned to eat for dinner.

When you’re spending countless hours together, you start to catch onto the little things again. On one particular long weekend, we took a short road trip to Niagara Falls. We’d been to the Falls many times before, but the opportunity of venturing out of our home was a welcome respite. It was a cloudy and windy day, perhaps not the best to get a good view. In the place of natural beauty, however, are the memories.

That day we ate our lunch (two large pizzas) in our car. The quirkiness of the situation – balancing a thin paper plate in one hand and a drink in the other, all while doing my best to not drop any crumbs in the car – was comical. That three-hour period, just me and my parents, alone in our car watching the world go by, made me reconsider the significance of family. Isolated from the rest of our normal lives meant that we delved into each other. I don’t remember the substance of our conversations then, but I do remember how I felt: Despite the shivering cold outside, I felt warm and at home with my family.

Eventually, I “turned the tables” on my dad and accused him of succumbing to the “peer pressure” of his Canadian colleagues. One day, as we waited to pick up my mother from her weekly grocery run, I told him what I had noticed. I revealed my carefully compiled findings about his accent, but he just shrugged his shoulders and returned to browsing the stock market on his phone. Despite his anticlimactic response, it was almost as though our relationship had come full circle. After our immigration to Canada, he had often warned me of the importance of retaining my own unique identity. Now, I was able to return the favour.

In the grand scheme of things, does the way my father speaks to his work colleagues and his family mean much? Probably not, but it does symbolize something; perhaps a reflection of how the little things define a family and how, because of the pandemic, we had started to notice them again. The everyday interactions, the slight details, the filial conversations that alternate between being heartfelt, humorous and heated are what truly define what it means to be a family. COVID-19 did what we didn’t have the energy or desire to do before the pandemic: It brought us back together.

Vivek Sapru lives in Toronto.