This week, First Person pays tribute to fatherhood.
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Recently, I decided to buy a wrist watch. The notion surprised me because I haven’t worn a wrist watch for more than 20 years. Even more surprising, it ended up leading me to the one place in the world I needed to go.
I narrowed my search down to Swiss or Japanese, quartz or automatic. I hunted online while my wife and daughter eyed me skeptically – I was not one to buy myself anything, let alone an extravagant timepiece. Besides, over these past two decades, wrist watches had become irrelevant.
I kept coming back to the same design: a Swiss automatic with a simple face. Then I remembered. Tucked away in a trunk unopened for years, I had stored my dad’s old watch. It was my only memento of him. I dug it out. It was the same elegant style as the ones I’d been seeing online. The strap was missing, but that could be easily fixed. After a few shakes, his watch came alive with its sweeping second hand. I wondered if my search had come to an end.
I carried his watch in my pocket for a few days. I found it soothing to rub between my thumb and forefinger. Turned out it was running fast, so I called a couple of watchmakers to see what needed to be done. Repairing it would likely cost several hundred dollars. I tried adjusting the tiny arm inside, but the watch still kept gaining time at a frenzied rate.
When I e-mailed my mom later that week, I asked her if he’d been wearing his watch at the time of the accident. She imagined he had been. The fathers of the 20th century wore their watches daily and, in the 1960s, my father would have been no exception. A father’s watch was a symbol of his authority. The stories I had been told of my dad depicted a young forester in New Brunswick who was strong and confident, organized and responsible, with a few men working under him.
My inclination to wear a wrist watch was starting to make more sense. Lately, I had been taking stock of myself. I had spent my life in no man's land, defaulting to invisibility, including a first marriage with a power imbalance that led to divorce. For my new marriage, the stakes were just as high. Maybe some part of me hoped that wearing my dad’s watch might be my ticket to manhood, which had always been out of reach.
Still, I hesitated to repair the watch. The next weekend I made the drive home from Ontario to New Brunswick. My mom was surprised but pleased to see me. I produced the watch that she had bequeathed me so many years ago, and I asked her if she wanted to come on a journey.
We drove to a tiny rural town two hours south of Fredericton, where my mom and dad last lived. Mom tried to remember the way to their rented bungalow. Looking for direction, we happened upon a glorious old train station, fully restored, that served as the information centre. There, volunteers greeted us warmly. One volunteer made a phone call to an older brother to dig up some history for us; another volunteer actually remembered Mom’s old neighbour and definitively pointed the way. That morning, Mom and I walked the same streets that she had walked almost 60 years ago, when I was a one-year-old in a stroller and my sister was a babe in arms.
By noon, we realized we had to trace my dad’s fateful drive to work. A flurry of texts with my sister in Edmonton provided an archived article about the accident. It had happened on a stretch of highway in a hamlet outside another New Brunswick town. The same volunteers who had helped us earlier that morning offered directions to the highway and assured us that we would see a sign identifying the hamlet.
It was a long drive – longer than my mother had envisioned all these years – following a winding, tree-lined highway, with little to differentiate one hill from another. All the while, our GPS signal kept fading in and out. At the top of one hill, my mom piped up, “I think that’s the house.” She recalled being told that a man from a two-storey clapboard house had rushed to help when he heard the crash. But she wasn’t sure, and we hadn’t yet seen a sign for the hamlet, so we drove on. Serendipitously, my GPS came partly to life: No map appeared, but the name of the hamlet stretched across the screen.
We turned the car around. Sure enough, there was a signpost for the hamlet on the other side of the road. We pulled off the highway opposite the house my mom had pinpointed earlier. When I used the GPS to measure the distance to the next town, it reported 24 kilometres. We were crestfallen. According to the accident report, that was too far. Then I realized my mistake. I typed in the conversion for kilometres to miles. We had arrived.
We got out of the car and stepped toward a small clearing.
There was no evidence today of the blinding snowstorm that January morning or the snowplow he passed or the oncoming oil truck. He died instantly, the man with the Swiss watch still running on his wrist. A strong and confident man of 23 who left behind two children and a young wife. When the suited men came to the door of the little bungalow later that morning, my mom spoke first, already knowing the answer to the question, “Is he dead?”
On this day, the truckers roaring past us witnessed a snapshot in time: an 80-year-old woman and her grown son embracing at the side of a highway. For us, it was 1963.
But we had come to bury the sadness, not to relive it. I had come to reclaim the man my dad would have encouraged me to become.
I didn’t know what I was going to do until the moment came. But I do not regret it. I dug into my pocket and pulled out Dad’s watch. I rubbed my thumb over its smooth face the way a child might touch a cheek. Then I slung his watch – our watch – into the undergrowth beneath the trees – trees that must have been saplings on the day that changed the trajectory of my life. It was finally time to move on.
R. Mark Carr lives in Guelph, Ont.