There’s an old bar on the shore of Lake Erie that became a favourite of my father’s.
His enthusiasm for the place developed after my mom passed away in her early 70s, leaving him to putter around their home by himself. It was my eldest sister who started taking him for weekend drives to Crystal Beach, near Fort Erie, Ont., where there was once an amusement park our parents took us to when we were kids growing up in nearby Chippawa. And it was on one of those trips the two of them happened upon the Palmwood.
In one light, it could look like a stale and dilapidated old lakeside dive that had long reached its best-before date. In another, it could be viewed as a joint of lamentable faux Polynesian décor, but one overflowing with character and hip attraction. The staff came to love the sight of my father’s beautiful, weathered face and was easily charmed by his warm, pleasant manner. Any time I flew in from Vancouver to visit, I happily took up the job of taking him there, travelling along the backroads of his childhood.
When I first started this ritual, we’d have a couple of pints and something to eat and our server would come over and ask if we wanted one more. We’d shoot each other a look that said: We probably shouldn’t but … what the hell. We would talk about everything: how his daughter-in-law and two grandsons were doing back in Vancouver; the zaniness of B.C. politics; the latest outlandish thing Don Cherry had to say; and, occasionally, even the Second World War in which he fought. I can easily conjure an image of Jack, laughing, hand to his mouth, trying not to spit out the beer of which he had a mouthful.
My father was not a declarative person. He never tried to impose his will, beliefs or opinion on anyone; he was a gentle soul. He dispensed his wisdom in bite-sized morsels. If I was struggling with a problem as a young man, he seldom told me what to do. He would ask me questions instead. His skillful inquiries often led me to the answer for which I was looking. I’ll tell you, it’s a helluva shock to wake up one day and realize that voice of reason and knowledge is no longer there.
When I look in the mirror, I see him. I have the same shock of unruly white hair. I will find myself sitting in a chair, one leg folded underneath me, as he often did. I will sometimes shudder after speaking aloud, so familiar is the sound of his voice in mine. And yet in many ways, I’m not anything like him. I will never be able to take a broken washing machine apart and make it run again. Or tune up a car. Or complete the morning crossword in less time than it takes to finish a coffee. I will never possess his equanimity or courage. We often aggrandize those we love. In this case, I don’t. It is both a blessing and a curse.
I often tell people that I measure the last useful years of his life by our trips to the Palmwood. We started going when he was in his late 70s, I guess. At the beginning, we’d stay at the bar for a few hours before heading back to his place. Then one year, we only stayed for a couple. He was tired. I took note. A couple of years after that, he was down to one. We’d stay an hour and when our server asked us if we wanted another, his hand would go across the top of his glass. I hated it.
Before I knew it, I was pushing him into the Palmwood in a wheelchair. The female servers doted on him as if he was their father. He’d have a sleeve of Canadian and struggle to finish it. And then it would quickly be time to drive him back along those country roads he knew so well, a trip he would mostly spend looking out the window in silence. The last time I would pay the old bar a visit was seven years ago, for dad’s wake, where the beer flowed and the stories did, too.
This Father’s Day, I will once again think about the times he and I spent there, when the sun was out, the waves crashed against the shore and neither of us wanted the afternoon to end.