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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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It’s a question many of us consider. If we could invite three historical characters for dinner – who would we ask?

Not too long ago, my list would have included some of the world’s best writers. All that has changed now. I would invite only one guest, my father. Not only because he knew so much of our family history, but also because of a book he wrote decades ago that I never read until this year. The unpublished manuscript had rested in an old cardboard box in my late brother’s storage locker for 45 years.

My father was a descendant of Scottish highlanders who were veterans of the Battle of Culloden. While they sailed to Nova Scotia in 1791, his story begins in 1901 and focuses on the descendants of those old warriors. His characters were mostly farmers who lived in a fictional place in Nova Scotia. Cape Breton? Antigonish? I sense he based these characters on real people, but I’ll never know.

There was one character in his book that jumped out at me and made me tear up. Percy Jeepers. How did my father come up with that name? The character was so real and his situation so sad, I cried at the end. Percy was an orphan, adopted by a neighbouring family who needed a farm hand. He wasn’t loved. He was illiterate, always filthy and hungry. But strangely, he remained optimistic. He believed he would inherit the farm when his adoptive parents died but that didn’t happen. They had already arranged to sell the farm to someone else. Percy was kicked out.

He was devastated but when the First World War broke out, he signed up.

In my father’s book, Percy’s proudest moment was when he marched down the main street of his town, dressed in his regimental gear before sailing to France.

He never came back.

Was Percy a real person? I’ll never know.

At least if I had that mythical dinner party, I’d be able to ask my father, as I poured him another glass of wine: “Dad, who was Percy Jeepers? I know he was real. Tell me more.”

In real life, my father was a writer. He was a journalist, a columnist and book editor at the Windsor Star for many decades, writing under the byline H.L. MacPherson. He was also legendary for predicting election results down to the last seat, during a time when polls didn’t exist.

Throughout my high school and university years, I often dropped by the Star to watch what I thought was magic. The grungy newsroom, the Underwood typewriters, the surly editors who rarely looked up, the glamorous woman who wrote features for the Women’s Department and who would occasionally say hello to me – that was the life I wanted.

I butted heads with my father over this. No career for a woman he said. I would end up covering teas for the rest of my life. I ignored him and landed a summer job in the women’s section at the Windsor Star and did go on to cover teas and weddings. But only for a while. Times changed and women moved into male-dominated newsrooms, something I don’t think my father could have imagined. I always had to remind myself that he was born before women won the right to vote.

On one lucky day during my summer job, I was assigned a feature story which was displayed prominently in the Star. I was over the moon and could hardly wait to get home so I could gloat.

However, when I sat down at the table that night, there was no food on my dinner plate. Just my article, blue-pencilled up, down and sideways. Edited mercilessly, every mistake highlighted. My mother was upset, but his only answer was: “Well if she’s going to do it, she’d better learn to do it right.”

After he died and I was cleaning out our old home, I discovered that he had saved everything I had written as I moved on and up whether it was published in the London Free Press or the Toronto Star.

My father was a quiet man, well read and articulate but he spoke just as he wrote. He didn’t waste words. Even the advice he gave me when I was going through a messy marriage breakup was succinct.

He began by saying, “Helen, you know I have never given you any advice.”

To which I replied, “Yeah, I know dad.”

“But, if I were you,” he continued, “I would tell a certain party to, in the Biblical sense, arise, take up thy bed and walk.”

And that was it. I laughed then and I still laugh when I recall how much he said, in such a unique way and in so few words.

I didn’t realize then that would be one of the last conversations we would have. Within a few years, my father began showing signs of dementia which progressed rapidly. That brilliant mind, gone to dust.

The time for questions was over before I even knew what to ask.

In a sense, his unpublished book has brought him back to me. I can see how his journalism background has influenced his writing and I search for clues to help me distinguish fact from fiction. His story describes election campaigns in the early 1900s that ended up in street brawls, tempers fuelled by cases of Demerara rum purchased by candidates aiming for more votes. He describes a huge flash of light in the sky that the community believes is a bad omen. I think he’s really describing the Halifax Explosion of 1917. He was just a teenager then, standing outside the family’s farmhouse in Antigonish, 215 kilometres away, when the sky lit up convincing them all that the world was coming to an end.

Worlds do end for us when a loved one dies. We’re left with memories and we wish we could go back, if only for a few hours to host that mythical dinner party and ask the questions we neglected to ask when they were with us.

Helen Wainman lives in London, Ont.

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