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first person

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

Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

My Dad was 54 years old when I was born. Since it was the 1980s, it was more like a current-day 74. He’d had a whole other life before me. Other children, a first wife and a full career. But I accepted it as normal, as kids do. I didn’t know any different. To me, he was just Dad.

My mom stayed home full time so early memories of Dad were few and far between. He worked a lot (no doubt to pay for his new – somewhat surprising – kids) and although he thought children were important, he wasn’t involved in their day-to-day lives.

I don’t think he ever changed a diaper or did an evening routine. Or a morning routine. Or any routine that involved babies or young children. He watched us from a safe distance, read us books once in a while and paid the bills. He was also in charge of driving on road trips and playing catch with us in the backyard a few times each summer. A classic ‘80s Dad.

A decade later and our family had a slight re-org.

My older siblings had all moved on. And my mom decided it was time for her to move on, too. Looking back I think she was just tired. Fair enough. Kids are a lot.

This left two people in the house. My Dad and I.

By now I was on the verge of becoming a teenager and Dad was nearing 70. I am 99-per-cent sure that Dad’s retirement plans included more Costa Rica and less solo parenting a teenage girl who he’d rarely been alone with. But there we were. Nothing either of us could do anything about it. We had our large family home and each other.

And although it was never said aloud, a serious concern for how we were going to get through the next 10 years.

It’s not that we disliked each other. We just didn’t know each other.

Luckily we were both polite and amenable, so although our two little worlds had just imploded, I don’t recall much fuss. He just sort of went with it. So I did too.

The first few years were slightly unorthodox. Neither of us knew how to cook, for starters. Or garden. Or any basic domestic tasks. Up until this point, my mom was still putting on my socks every morning and cleaning up Dad’s toast crumbs after breakfast.

In the early years together I don’t remember much conversation either. We went about our routines, he made sure there was milk in the house and I made sure I finished my homework. The house was quiet. An awkward silence a lot of the time.

But eventually we found our stride.

We started getting groceries together every Saturday. He learned to cook. Sort of.

I became his plus one at social events; he reviewed my essays for school. He was always trying to make me more “well rounded”; I was just trying to survive high school.

We hosted Christmas dinners. Watched the TV drama ER together. He left me notes on the kitchen counter letting me know what time he’d be home. I asked to borrow the car every night.

From the outside, we probably looked like the odd couple. More specifically, we looked like grandfather and granddaughter.

My Dad’s age was an ongoing joke. Strangers assumed he was my grandfather. I thought it was hilarious. He pretended to be mad.

But now I can see that Dad’s age was, in fact, a blessing. He had patience with me that he didn’t have 20 years earlier. Raising a teenage girl solo requires a lot of patience. He could withstand teenage outbursts, he rarely raised his voice and he’d become an expert at ignoring minor teenage screw-ups.

When I was in high school – where image was everything – Dad was about 40 years past caring what people thought. He did things because he wanted to or because they were the right thing to do. It was a daily reminder to me about staying true to oneself.

He continued to go to work every day, long past when he actually needed to work. He did it because he loved it. I got to watch that. To see first-hand what life is like when your work is your life’s passion and not a 9 to 5 chore that you dread.

Dad cried easily, was quick to forgive and listened closely when people spoke. And he believed that learning to make conversation was the most important skill one could possess.

He was old school before old school was a thing.

Most notably, though, Dad came from a time when helping others was just what you did. He picked up hitchhikers, hired anyone who needed a job and saw a brightness in people’s eyes that most people didn’t notice. Some might say he had a bleeding heart. I think he simply saw the best in people. As we all should.

When I was around 14, he came to pick up me and my girlfriends at the mall after an afternoon of buying $5 jewellery sets (that 1990s life).

When he came inside to find us, he found another Dad who’d had a few too many Sunday Caesars, lying on a mall bench – and his young son, who was completely mortified and lost on what to do. Dad walked up, helped the gentleman to our car, piled him in with me and my friends and drove him home.

Dad didn’t think anything of it. He didn’t know the man’s name, didn’t know his story and would never see him again.

He did things like that all the time because you should.

I was beyond embarrassed at the time. At 14, fitting in was my only mission in life. And having a Dad who drove drunk strangers home in the middle of the day was not helping my cause.

But 26 years later, this memory melts my heart.

In the end, having the old Dad made me the lucky one.

If Dad had wanted to be elsewhere during those years, somewhere more fun, less work, less stressful, he never said it. He never made me feel like an inconvenience. In fact, he made me feel like I was exactly what he needed.

Maybe we were kindred spirits all along. Or maybe older parents have something special. A wiseness, a calmness and a clarity that the rest of us haven’t found yet.

Mary Ann Ker lives in Belleville, Ont.

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