Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Remembering My Dad

Twenty years ago today, I received a call that my Dad had died suddenly of a heart attack, ten days short of 76.  I still have a bit of a hang-up (pun not originally intended) about answering phone calls, partly because that is also how we found out that our Lorne had drowned in 1950. 

Dad was about 6'1'', blue eyed, straight brown hair til it whitened, a kind of beer belly (not from drinking) in later years. He was born April 26, 1917 in an upstairs bedroom at 4 Elspeth Road, Wembley, London, and was baptized at St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church a few blocks away. Granny and Grandpa Macgregor were married at the church a year earlier, though Granny hadn't wanted to marry, and I guess Grandpa Mac was a bit of a scoundrel. I've visited the area several times in my trips to the UK. 

Anyhow, WWI over, they all survived the flu pandemic, and Granny's brother, Gordon, had died in 1919 as a result of poison gas in France. Her father died in Edinburgh in 1917, and two brothers had married and moved to St. John's, Newfoundland. So in 1920, Great-Granny Smeaton, Granny, her sister Winnie, Dad's cousin Douglas Bowes-Lyon (whose mother had been another sister) and Dad had upped and taken a ship to St. John's, leaving Grandpa Macgregor behind. The Newfoundland part and Great-Granny is another story in itself - I having found a brief diary of Great-Granny's telling of their arrival and early years in St. John's. Miserable she was, a poet, a Christian (as in seriously Scottish Presbyterian originally) a woman of exceedingly strong character, and did I say miserable?

1923 saw them hopping a ship to Montreal, and settling in Rosemount. Dad was six then. Granny had, it seems, met Grandpa Weston in St. John's - merchant navy man - He jumped ship in Montreal, changed his name from Western to Weston to avoid detection, I guess, and they married.  Hmmm... That, too, is another story, as Grandpa Macgregor was conveniently 'killed off' in a construction accident in Uruguay in 1923. How 'bout that convenient date? Only he didn't actually die until October 8, 1954 in Richmond, London, England. To the best of my knowledge, he never went to Uruguay. Did I say hmmm?

So what does this tell me about my Dad? Firstly, his mother hadn't wanted to marry his father. She was forced to by her mother for reasons unknown. Secondly, he was lied to until he died about his father's life and death. Thirdly, as it happens, his step-father was abusive (exceedingly) towards Dad and his three step-brothers. .. and therein lie the beginnings of understanding my father.

In 1930, Dad completed Grade 7. There were four younger siblings by then, including newborn twins. It would have cost to continue schooling, and he would have had to pay to take the trams downtown for high school. So, he left school and helped out at home and by taking odd jobs. He worked hard.

After Dad died, his wife, Mariette, gave me some papers. These included a typed (before we had computers easily accessible) document of his life story. I had no idea Dad was writing his story. He was a mystery to us. An angry man who could blow up in a flash, was unpredictable, but who  had mellowed some as he aged. Insecure, I think. Troubled. Touchy/sensitive. ("I'm not calling him. He hasn't called me for a long time.") Creative. He painted images of different kinds of whales on our kitchen cupboards. Had a thing for heraldry and became very knowledgeable. Painted shields for St. Mark's, Longueuil, Holy Trinity, South Bolton, and St. Patrick's, Bolton Centre. Made a table-top with the Canadian coats-of-arms on it. He loved taking photos - mostly slides. We camped and travelled across the country in both directions as well as much of the northern US. He loved music and had a beautiful voice that he got from Grandpa Weston (Just kidding, though Grandpa W. had a beautiful voice, too). AND - Dad looked more like his step-father than Grandpa W's own sons. Curious?

When I discovered and began to read his story, I woke up. Our relationship was difficult in some ways. Ambivalent. I felt I could never get it right, wasn't enough, and was a disappointment. In fact, he was proud of me.  There is more to the story. I'm not putting more in a blog. But - waking up, I realized that we all want to be remembered. To have mattered. To have made a difference in this world. I'm sad that Dad kept his writing a secret. That we didn't actually talk about his life more. The TV was always on in later years, and there wasn't much depth to our conversations. There was also ongoing tension just below the surface about him having left Mum ... and I was still growing up when I returned from Boston ... (Still growing up, but I've come a long way. And I expect to be growing up til I die - like the rest of us.)  :-)

Dad was just like the rest of us. He did the best he could with the life he was given. When he returned from the war, he finished his high school equivalency at Sir George Williams College. He had a brief sojourn into teaching after a year at Macdonald College in 1950, but as patience wasn't his strong suit, it didn't work out. He ended up fairly happy, I think, at C-I-L McMasterville after completing his BSc in chemistry in 1954.

I'm learning, as I discover our roots, that Dad is a product of his genes - weird and wonderful. I finally discovered that Grandpa Macgregor had another family - and that his daughter is still living. Margaret and I met the day I was returning home almost two years ago. She had photos of Grandpa, and how Dad looked like him! Not only that, there were five brothers in Grandpa Macgregor's generation, and they all were involved in cars and driving, as was their father before them - he in the early 1900's selling motor tyres for the first cars in London. They were determined. Possibly a bit unscrupulous in climbing ladders - tough? - or is there a nicer way to put it? Great-uncle Robert was a driver (horrendous work) in France in WWI. Dad taught driving in the army during WWII. Grandpa played a ukelele; Dad a mandolin. They all (Macgregor brothers and Dad) had piercing whistles that sounded and resounded around a stadium or neighbourhood.

Most of our family mysteries have been solved. A few remain. I had started the genealogy journey simply to find Grandpa Macgregor. The truth. I found him and some powerful truths. Along the way, I hit Macgregor brick walls. I also traced other branches of our family living and dead with assistance from friends, family and friendly, helpful people on genealogy sites.  It's kind of neat to see where our people are buried, but the living ones are much more fun. 

But Dad? I still feel I hardly know you, but I begin to. I feel sad that I can't share with you what I've found out about your father and family. And yet, I feel I found them for you. Broken pieces. Grandpa had tried to find the family in St. John's, but his letters were returned to him unopened. His work in WWII was connected to the War Office. You could have met him when in London, if you'd known. 

I'm still kind of mad at you for dying without having told us how sick you were. Protecting us, I suppose. Not helpful! But I got even. Instead of the simple service at the crematorium you had planned, we held a proper service at St. Mark's, Longueuil. A priest when you were leaving Mum handled the situation less than pastorally, and you became alienated from the Anglican Church. So... we took you Home to our old parish. Full circle. Ha! Gotcha! If there's a next life where we meet again, you can take it up with me. :-)

Meantime, I miss you, Dad. I don't suppose you can read blogs? Are you looking over my shoulder as I write - as close as my breath if ... 

It was really hard to say, "I love you." It's still hard. You weren't so good at it yourself. But why would you be? I DO however, love you forever and always - and I know you loved me, too. Be at peace, Dad.



4 comments:

  1. You've recounted most of this material to me lately, but in piecemeal. It's so awesome to read it; now assembled and all connected.
    I knew how much he loved you the night he phoned into CJAD's DJ and asked if he could play "Daddy's Little Girl", which he did. Uncle Jim could not hide the tears in his eyes.
    The next day you left for Boston and your new life adventure there.
    You're right, UJ never wore his heart on his sleeve!

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  2. Thank you for this. Poppy Jim and I were much closer while I was in college. We kept in touch and I was happy to feel like I was finally having a relationship with him. I think our birthdays being so close together had a lot to do with our special bond. I tried to not let other people's opinions, or the past, take over my feelings. The fact that he was my 'Poppy Jim', despite everything, is why Mariette and I still keep in touch. <3

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  3. We tend to remember our parents, and all of our relatives, according to how they affected us. It's easy to forget that they were all human beings with complete lives, rather than supporting players in our story. I'm constantly jolted by thoughts about my father, wondering if the traits I attributed to him were really signs of other things I knew nothing about. I often wish I could go back and find out more about both my parents as people, instead of sifting out just the behaviors and events that related specifically to me.

    This is a wonderful piece of writing. Do you have any plans to expand it into a memoir?

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    1. Thank you so much ... yes - I would love to expand to a memoir - but confidence wains easily - and am not quite ure how to go about it... but my confidence improves and I hope it is gradually taking a shape through this blog.

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