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Fathers: The good, the bad, the blessed, the burdened

Jamie Kastner with his three works of art: Dashiell, Max, Dahlia

Grandfather Martin Kastner, with a maquette of one of his artworks

I hesitated about posting this for Father’s Day, because of the parts about the bad and the burdened. But decided that the good and the blessed outweigh all that, so here goes.

I married two men who had terrible fathers.

The father of the first was a rich successful sneering bully who terrorized and lorded it over his cowering wealth-worshipping family -- who loathed him, but were forever trapped and stamped by a craven esteem for brute power, and by their abjuration of personal agency.

The father of the second was an unsuccessful sneering bully who terrorized his bitter embattled family; who despised him, but were forever trapped and consumed by self-pitying fires of meaningless anger.

Given the heavy stamp of fathers on sons, I’ve forever regretted the burden that my husband-go-round –- which included my own son’s birth father as well as a stepfather -- placed on my son, who was, to put it mildly, father-challenged.

But he has emerged not only as a signal success in life and in personhood, but as the most loving and loved husband and father of three luminous children, not to mention being a stellar son.

For my part, I lucked into the dearest, most loving, most exceptional father imaginable. Mother, too, for that matter.

My father wrote once about the last sight of his own father, as my then 19-year-old dad boarded the fiacre that would take him on the first leg of his escape from Romania, and the impending cataclysm.

Both his parents, and a married sister with her husband and small son, would die of typhus on a forced march to a Czech extermination camp, short years later.

My father, who made it to Canada and married my mother, was only in my son’s life for four years, but the love he gave forged a link that still holds.

His great tenderness for his children took its toll on his heart. He had a first heart attack, at age 63, after I came home with my 3-week-old newborn, abandoned by his father. His second, fatal attack, three years later, came the evening he told his older son that after weeks of escalating and bruising discord, it would be best for my brother to leave the family home.

For Father’s Day 2021, what follows is a column written in 1986, to mark a posthumous exhibit of my dad’s sculpture series, Brecht In Bronze. It was ten years after his death.

The photo that ran with the piece was taken long before, in the 1970s, when that exhibit launched at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre.

Although you can’t see him, my son is in that pic, too, along with my father, the Brechtian bronze, and me. I’m pregnant, and the kid is about six months away from his first external photo call.

Memories of a father who ran away to study art

Martin Kastner, Susan Kastner, fetus Kastner

Toronto Star, October 1986.

In 1966, at the age of 56, my father left his business and ran away to become an artist.

Not to Tahiti: only to Central Tech. He went back to high school fulltime, studying clay modelling, casting, mould-making; at night, he studied painting at the Ontario College of Art. A photograph taken in sculpting class shows him gesturing with clay-smeared fingers, his lean face intense, concentrated, very happy.

Too late to start? Not in a household whose mother, nudging 50, had run away for the summer to become a dancer, studying with Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Merce Cunningham; though she had never taken more than a couple of night classes in modern dance. Her eldest son and daughter, who themselves had run away to Paris - to confront life on a steamer, and break into international journalism, respectively - would receive letters like:

"My own little tortes: Here at Connecticut College I start dancing at 8:30 in the morning and keep it up till 5:15. I thought I would die for sure, but frankly I like the thought of dying in leotards. In Creative Movement class I imagined a huge chocolate bar, and there was such poignancy in my movement and expression that even the great Cunningham commented on it favourably."

Naturally, she backed my father's long-dreamed-of foray into art one hundred per cent. For our father, there were 10 exhilarating years of it. His work was exhibited all over the world, and touched people as disparate as an ex-governor of the Bank of Canada; the New York theatre genius Joseph Papp; the U.S. mega-TV producer and art collector Mark Goodson, who wrote us:

"My Martin Kastner piece has a place of honor between my Arp and my Dubuffet."

This week, the collection of bronze masks and figures he called Brecht In Bronze: Shape Of Content, is on view at Hart House. It is part of "Brecht/30 Years After," an international conference and theatre festival organized by a University of Toronto drama professor and dynamo named Pia Kleber; and those Medicis of Metro, Ed and David Mirvish.

It will be the first exhibit of my father's work in 13 years. This month, we unwrapped burnished bronze masks swathed in newspapers for all these years, and also, memories of the joyous creative tumult of growing up in the family of Martin and Rose Kastner.

It was a family that taught its children the world was their oyster; and that it was never too late. "We're the bestest! We're the brightest! We're the goodest! We're the rightest!" our father would mock affectionately at our mother, whom he called "my creative optimist wife." His drily affectionate view of the world always fizzed interestingly with her exuberant damn-the-torpedoes joy in living.

Architecture had been my father's dream; but arriving in Montreal from Austria in the early '30s, there was no question of that. He became a linotype operator, looked up his relatives, met my mother - a cousin of his - and married her six years later.

Moved to Toronto, my father went into publishing. With two partners, he founded Canada's first paperback publishing house, Export Publishing.

They turned out Canadian-authored historical romances, Westerns, detective stories. Mother, a writer and editor of the post-war Magazine Digest, contributed too. Working together: That was another Kastner touchstone.

It was in the early '60s, after translating the works of some lesser-known German playwrights, that our parents won a commission to do translations for Bertolt Brecht: Collected Works, an authorized collection published by Random House and edited by Ralph Manheim and John Willett. It was a coup: They were the only Canadian translators in a list that included the likes of Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden. In all, the anthology included seven Kastner translations.

It was a heady time. Brechtian phrases resounded around our dinner table. "Something must be wrong with your world. Why is there such a reward for wickedness; why do the good receive such harsh punishment?" . . . "First feed the face, and then talk right and wrong!" . . . "All praise to doubt! I urge you, extend a joyful and respectful welcome to him who tests your word as he would a bad penny! . . ."

By now, the business interests had been scaled back, to a bindery and a series of industrial buildings which my father designed, and rented out. With the bindery binding, the buildings renting, he turned to art full time; and to the Brecht translations for the inspiration for his first major work.

Commissioned, with the blessing of the Brecht estate, for Le Theatre du Nouveau Monde’s production of Trumpets And Drums, my father’s Brecht In Bronze was first shown at Place des Arts, Montreal, in January, 1971. From there it moved to the National Arts Centre, the St. Lawrence Centre, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and other performing arts centres and galleries in Los Angeles, London, Paris, West Berlin, and finally, the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre.

In Toronto and New York, there were shows of his new work: a series of intricate polished bronze knots called Convolutions, described by one critic as, "in my judgment, his finest work."

The New York exhibit of Brecht In Bronze in 1973 was its last, in his lifetime. By then, our father was ill. He was still working hard, wrestling with a new medium: fiberglass-reinforced polyester, fashioned into huge three-dimensional works bursting with form and color.

He died on Jan. 7, 1976. The day before had been his 40th wedding anniversary.

"Ma," he said to our mother on that day, "haven't we had the greatest time?"

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