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One day in late January, when I opened The New York Times, there was my dad on the front page. Not just there, but soon he was everywhere. Balding, wispy white hair neatly combed, wearing the same trademark all-purpose beige jacket and the wire-rimmed glasses he thought were hip when he bought them in 1986. Of course, it wasn’t Dad, it was Bernie.
I had always noticed that my father looked like Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, but the now famous pose and those mittens from Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony had turned my dad and Bernie into doppelgangers. Dad had mittens and a woolly hat of strikingly similar design knitted for him, no less, by a dear friend and schoolteacher.
It is such a shame my dad died 20 years ago, because he would have loved every minute of the memes. A news junkie, he would have been glued to the television watching the inauguration. I can almost hear him now in his deep, raspy Canadian equivalent of the mid-Atlantic drawl, railing at the disgraceful Donald. But he would have loved Bernie. Bernie’s politics were his politics.
Like Bernie, my dad was a rebel by nature. Tired of sweeping floors in the Temple Gardens dance hall in Moose Jaw, Sask., he set out across the world in the mid-1930s. When war broke out, he persuaded the airforce he should become a pilot. Even more remarkable, he persuaded my mother to marry him. After the war was over, he turned himself into a hotelier, he opened a restaurant, he tried to sell boats and failed. For a time, he even dispatched the dead. Always restless, master of makeshift, Dad did everything on the fly.
But like Bernie, he believed in the underdog and he cared about his neighbours. Socialist, atheist and armchair philosopher, he eschewed any particular affiliation, yet his values ran deep. In the small town where we lived Dad used to look out for the old man who lived in the shack across the highway. Eddie had no running water and nothing but a wood stove to keep him warm. He wore the same red checkered shirt every day and pants held up with string. Comfortable in his own skin, Dad never had any trouble connecting with folks like Eddie, who were down on their luck. “You have to help a bloke out,” he used to say.
So, what makes Bernie special? It’s not just his politics, it’s his age. We don’t expect septuagenarians to be so passionate. To challenge the conventional wisdom, to champion equality and justice so vigorously. To be able to laugh at themselves.
It’s surely not his sartorial sense nor his imposing persona that makes him so popular. It’s true Bernie delivers a good speech. But it’s really because he is who he always was: straightforward, honest, decent and caring. It is as if he has defied the passage of time.
A meme becomes a meme because it resonates in some way. It can poke fun at something serious or help us identify with someone or something. Bernie went viral because he resonates with all of us in some way. The young see his resilience and his conscience. And those of us on the older end of the spectrum, whether or not we agree with his politics, admire his energy and passion. Deep down, I think we envy him waiting there patiently in his mittens. Don’t we all wish we were so at ease with ourselves? I know I felt better every time I saw him photoshopped into someone else’s story. My Dad would have loved the idea of being everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.
Bernie shows us it is never too late to stop thinking about big ideas. Watching his interview with comedian Seth Myers I was reminded again of my dad. Even though Bernie doesn’t really go in for social media he laughed at the memes: Head thrown back, mouth wide open, genuine mirth on display. Nothing curated. Then he dove into the politics and told us how to knit his country back together. He gesticulated, his voice rose and fell, he stretched his vowels so that somehow even the most radical of propositions sounded simply sensible or soothing.
My dad never lost that passion either and he never grew tired of the world. As I ventured out, he relived his youth and travelled vicariously craving my news of the far-flung places I called home. He was also endlessly patient, not least with me, his untameable daughter. Even when his health and mind failed, he could rally himself to help others. Sometimes reclusive and tired of his contemporaries complaining of their aches and pains, his face would light up for a young person. He could still turn on his unassuming charm when he wanted. “Bring your friends home,” he would say as if I were still a child.
Watching Bernie, the resemblance was uncanny. I felt a catch in my throat, a pricking at the corner of my eyes and then just for a moment, I let myself imagine I was watching my dad.
Jillian Stirk lives in Vancouver.
This week, First Person celebrates fathers and fatherhood. Read them all: tgam.ca/first-person
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