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And their lives went awry

David Sherman

He was born in a different time and in a different world. He crossed the ocean in steerage. He was an infant. He brought no memories, no photos, no reminiscences. No birthday. It was plucked from a calendar for him. And, no stories of home to share.

But, then again, Dad told no stories. I know his parents died when he was a teenager. Conversation was meagre, to-the-point, desperate or disinterested. It was difficult for Sam. When I turned 14, tumour surgery left him deaf as a stone.

There may have been small conversations when he was only partially hearing impaired. I have no memory of them, except for “Stop talking and eat,” and “Don’t upset your mother,” a steep hill to climb.

There was no, “What would you like to do with your life, son?” or “How are your teachers?” No, “It’s time we had THE talk.”

After his surgery, unlike the father/son confessions of movies, books and maybe real life, there was dialogue similar to what you might have on an elevator with a colleague you’d never see after work. “Everything okay?” “Job’s good?” The questions demanded yes or no answers, easily understood for a man who lived in silence.

I’d nod. Maybe shrug.

A couple of years before he died, we sat in a booth in a truck stop, probably Irving. He was shrinking – a little old man. Chances of seeing him again were remote. He had planted new roots in Nova Scotia – a plane, hotel and rent-a-car away – living with a second wife he was not enjoying.

His being ignored and seemingly unloved was a frequent refrain. Conversing with a deaf man who prefers his silent bubble undisturbed is a trial. Even for his wife.

When I lived at my parents’ home, notes to him were scattered in every room, life’s minutiae transcribed. “Hockey game’s at 7:30.” “Want to go to the shopping centre?” “Can I borrow the car?” He always gave me the keys. Always made sure I knew he was not happy about it.

His new home on the East Coast was bare of notes. His second wife spent her time in bed or in front of the computer, he told me. And, no, he didn’t want to come back to Montréal with me, he didn’t want me to contact a social worker or a lawyer. He wanted to vent.

He had a right to complain. And a right to do nothing about it. It was, after all, his life.

Hearing my father disparage his spousal existence was familiar. Raging about my mother, her addictions and mental health in letters or on walks, had been habitual. Understandable. He had not chosen well. In her later years, my mother rarely dressed anymore except for a frayed, synthetic house coat. Her life-long battles ended when she dropped her brass Zippo lighter on her lap. My father couldn’t hear if she screamed but he saw the reflection of the flames on the wall. He wrapped her in a blanket. I don’t know how he called 9-1-1. Maybe he pounded on a neighbour’s door. She died a few weeks later.

And, years later, at the Irving Truck Stop, facing him across a plastic four-top, I typed, “I don’t know when I’ll see you again,” my attempt at tact. “Do you have anything you want to tell me?”

“No,” he said. He shrugged.

“Do you want me to tell my brother anything?” I tapped into the phone. He read it and said, “No.” He shrugged.

After surgery that took away all sound, he slowly withdrew to the TV and its nascent technology – closed captioning. He refused sign language, found lip reading impossible and, instead, resorted to nodding and smiling when spoken to and then turning away, cutting off conversation. But, I accepted it. I have vague memories of being persistent. And newer memories of not bothering. How much was his reticence? How much was my impatience?

The odd time my parents had company, he would sit silently and smile. He’d be dispatched to make coffee, put out cake. “Yes, dear.” Sometimes the TV stayed on, silently. He was in the room, but wasn’t.

We lived the Canadian dream when working people could afford it. From 14 to 65, my father spent his life in clothing factories, cutting women’s sportswear. Seven to eight hours a day, often a cigarette hanging from his lips, he circled a cutting table, shaping stacks of fabric. He did it regardless of weather, ailment or mood. He was a proud union guy. He did not miss work. Forgoing wages was unacceptable.

We had a new duplex that cost $26,500 in the ‘burbs, and a new Chevrolet of one sort or another as soon as the payments were finished on the last one. He took long walks with the dog, smoking a cigar, his one vice, and liked hockey. They were the moments we shared – quiet walks and Hockey Night in Canada.

He died in Nova Scotia at 94. The nurse at the residence said he was alive and fine one second and dead the next. I remember most him tying my skates at the local rink when I was six, a Rothman’s in his mouth, squinting to keep the smoke from his eyes, and then leaving, allowing my hockey ineptitude to be a private affair.

One of the last times I saw him, in New Minas, Nova Scotia, he explained there was no point to visit before four p.m. He had his newspaper to read, and his blood pressure pills forced him back to bed after breakfast. Then he had lunch and his afternoon syndicated programs to watch. Murder She Wrote and Angela Lansbury had won his heart.

The visits became dutiful. There was an excellent restaurant in neighbouring Wolfville, which became the high point of my sojourns. And though I picked up the check, he sneered as soon as he opened the menu. He preferred the truck stop.

The weather was too cold or too windy for him so excursions around the Bay of Fundy were short and not often sweet.

He loved walking through the local mall, chatting up female clerks of all ages. They found him charming. They would talk and smile and he would nod and smile, say a few words. He understood not a syllable but he enjoyed the attention, the interaction.

I picked up his habit of smiling and nodding when speaking to someone I don’t understand. Looking like the village idiot is easier than admitting language shortcomings. Or how my hearing has been bested by a life of loud music, planting my head as a kid between two large Advent speakers to hide from the goings-on outside my door.

On a walk decades ago, he confessed a strange woman had accosted him, pushing her leg between his, seeking adventure for a price. He was flushed with excitement, the dog on a leash waiting, making me wonder if my father had been a one-woman man. Sex was never discussed, though he told me, while I still lived at home, he knew what my girlfriend and I were really developing in the darkroom I had fashioned in the basement washroom. The lounge chair wedged between the sink and the door had been a giveaway.

When iPhones made writing notes to him easy and portable, he would glance at my tepid attempts and nod or shake his head. Sometimes he shrugged. He always turned back to the TV. Showing him websites for the hearing-impaired invited scorn. He resented the computer his second wife spent much of her time on and wanted nothing to do with it. He never typed and wasn’t about to learn.

He did develop a taste for marijuana and would ask, “Do you have any of that crap you smoke?” But I had stopped smoking.

He had married my mother, he reminded me a few times, because his friends had gone off to fight the Second World War and he didn’t qualify He was born hearing-impaired with flat feet. He was lonely.

The marriage faltered from the start. Family lore has my mother uninterested or afraid of sex. They abstained for three years, my father was persuaded to stay by her father and brother. They had three children, a middle girl dying at six weeks which made pregnancy for my mother a time bomb. When I developed chronic bronchitis, she was certain I would die, too, making us both neurotic.

Smoking in the house and car was commonplace. Vicks VapoRub was the cure. Second-hand smoke was not in the vocabulary. My coughs disappeared as soon as I found an apartment in Montreal.

“Stupid Pollack” was as close as my mother came to endearments. He would say, “Yes, dear,” and smile. Slapping, throwing shoes, hairbrushes and insults were common, except when my mother hid in her room for a day or two, overcome with grief from my brother sneering at the canned peas on the dinner plate. Or I hadn’t peeled potatoes for dinner. Esther lived on the high wire. It was what it was and rarely discussed. Then, doctors cranked up the Valium dosage and she took to chilling in front of the TV, cigarettes, a Zippo and water on the end table, meds filling a kitchen cabinet.

My father missed out on life. He had his one shot and what he lost wrote the script rather than what he could have. His dream of a new home and new cars were fulfilled. His children were disappointments. When I sent him a tear sheet of a story about me and the program from my first play, he wrote back wondering when I was going to get a real job.

He had a right to be disillusioned, anti-social, uncommunicative and self-centred. He spent his life in sweat shops, not even hearing the whistle sound at 4:30. His day was done when the power to his electric scissors was cut. He had a right to embrace booze or drugs – love affairs his wife embraced – but he demurred. Cigars and Angela Lansbury seemed enough.

As teenagers, he and his brothers were harassed, called DPs for “Displaced Persons.” In school, my father’s hearing difficulties labelled him an idiot. His brother went to work at age 11 when their father died. My father punched in at a factory a few years later.

Flats in Montreal were cheap and cold. There was a depression and a war and education was for the wealthy. Life was hard for most. Perhaps he had no illusions about streets paved with gold. Perhaps he thought walking hundreds of miles around a cutting room table was his due and as jobs flowed across the ocean, he was grateful he had work and a lawn to water.

Perhaps his acceptance not only of his hearing loss and his working life was a sign of an inner strength I was late to recognize or applaud. He had none of the advantages I had – an education, technology, good health and curiosity, and, a father who worked in factories and loaned me the car. I can recall his smile at will. He had a good one.

Therapists told me I had raised myself. The jury is out on how successful that effort was but I don’t miss what I never had and I’ve family among friends.

I have a romantic illusion that most people with fathers have sat down and talked with them, the sharing of views or the search for knowledge between parent and child commonplace. In my imagination, it’s a tempestuous stew of deep-seeded rancour, resentment, grudging acceptance salted with pride. And love. I wonder if it’s a reflection of reality or Hollywood.

There are no bitter tears. Or life-changing third-act revelations. But, when I see fathers and offspring in films, fathers listening and offering wisdom or curiosity, I wonder. What did we miss? Or, is my curiosity another of the aches and pains of aging.

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