A Gift to Remember

The train screeched and groaned its way onto the platform. Silhouetted against the Christmas lights shining through the windows of the station, the darkened figures dotting the platform gradually came into focus. I squinted, trying to locate them through the foggy vapors billowing back from the engine just ahead. It was December 24th, 1967. Christmas Eve. A happy time. Maybe. Wiping the condensation off the train window with the back of my mittened hand, I watched as his tall stout figure standing next to her short tiny one gradually became visible through the quickly dissipating mist. My stomach finally released me from its grip when I saw their faces. As I looked at them standing there among all the other families waiting for their loved ones, I couldn’t help but notice how much they looked like everybody else. But were they? I had never really thought about it before, but I now wondered how many of those smiling faces masked the kind of tension and unhappiness that hung like a cloud in my parent’s home. That unhappiness had provided the perfect excuse to run away on that Friday almost two months before. I told myself that I did it because my parents were arguing a lot. That was partly true. Some part of me knew better, though. I hadn’t been studying at all and was afraid to face the first of my grade ten secondary school exams on the following Monday. The part of me that knew this stayed buried deep inside.
“Dad.” I said, as I made my way away from the train towards him and my mother. Reaching him, I dropped my suitcase and stepped into the warmth of his hug. As a young child I had loved being enveloped in these arms: The faint scent of Old Spice aftershave. Rough whiskers scratching my face. Some things remain the same.
“Welcome home,” he said, as I pulled away from his embrace to give my mother a hug.
“I’m glad that French family of yours let you off for the holidays,” he said, grabbing my suitcase.
I thought for a moment about that phone call that I had made a month before to let them know I was okay. I remembered acting pretty casual about everything at the time. I had been surprised by the relief in his voice when I told him that I was working as a nanny for a Quebecois family who wanted their children to learn English. I had run away to Toronto first, then to Montreal where I had managed to get the nanny job in Ville D’Anjou after only three weeks. I was glad he cared enough to be worried about me, but didn’t he know that I could take care of myself? I mean, really…at sixteen years old?
As the three of us walked away from the station towards the car, I looked from my dad’s face to my mother’s and couldn’t help but wonder what this Christmas and the days ahead would be like.
Christmas day came and went. All I remember was how awful I felt because I had only received gifts. I had no money as I had yet to get a pay check from my Quebecois family;  I had been unable to buy anyone a gift. Not even something little. Throughout my childhood I had always had my allowances to buy my parents a Christmas gift. Just getting and not giving made me feel empty. My parents understood why I didn’t give gifts. They didn’t seem to mind. That didn’t help me to feel better.
Three days after Christmas found my dad and I making our way across the parking lot of Sayvette’s, a local department store. We had been shopping for a couple of hours. I was enjoying every minute of it.
“Thanks for the new suitcase, dad.” I said, sliding into the car seat beside him. Sitting quietly as he turned into the traffic on Wellington Road, I watched the wipers fight a losing battle with the sheets of rain spreading across the windshield. I felt safe and warm as I leaned back against the headrest.
We talked. I talked about smoking pot and he talked about how the police had not posted my picture in Montreal when I ran away because of the white slave trade.
“What’s the white slave trade?” I asked, looking straight ahead into the darkness outside.
“Men involved in organized crime kidnap young women to use as sex slaves.” He paused for a moment. “They’re kept as prisoners and forced to be prostitutes,” he said, taking his eyes off the road to glance at me. “If they try to escape they are beaten and sometimes killed.”
I turned to look at him, saying nothing. I was thinking once again of that phone call that I had made a month before to let him know I was okay. As I looked at his face, I wished that I had not been so flippant and nonchalant during that earlier conversation.
“Dad.” I finally said, breaking the silence. “I’m really glad to be home. It’s good to see you.”
“Your mother and I both feel the same way about you, Maureen.”
I didn’t want to hear about my mother. In the few days that I had been home, it seemed as though my mother was always picking on me about something.
“If she’s so happy to see me, then how come she keeps getting mad at me?” I asked, an edge in my voice.
Dad then did something that surprised me. He slowed the car and pulled into an empty parking space just in front of the YMCA. With the engine still running, he turned and looked straight at me. Quietly and in an even tone he spoke.
“The reason that your mother is picking fights with you, Maureen, is because she is having trouble dealing with her feelings about your running away. We didn’t know whether you were dead or not. That’s why she is so upset. We both love you a great deal.”
I didn’t say too much for the rest of the drive home. Dad told me how he would prefer it if I moved back home and went back to school, but that if I needed to be away for now, he understood. He just wanted things to be right for me. I could return to school next fall.
In bed that night I thought a lot about our conversation. I was finally aware of just how much my running away must have scared him and my mom. For me it had been an adventure. I had never once stopped to think of how my absence must have affected them. I was also more than a little bit in awe of the fact that my dad had not become angry with me when I had talked about pot. I wanted to see if I could talk to him about anything. None of my friends could talk to their parents like that. I remembered the day a few months before when I had told him that I was going to drop acid. It was about the time that I was beginning to admire him. I was testing him. I did a lot of that. He told me that he didn’t want me to take LSD but that I was an adult now and that being an adult meant that I could make my own choices. He also told me that I would have to be responsible for those choices. If something went wrong with my decision to take the drug, that as an adult, I was fully responsible for the consequences. He would not bail me out. I was pretty impressed. I know now how very hard that conversation must have been for him.
The day after buying the suitcase should have been Christmas day. As I stood with my arm linked through my father’s, waiting for our photograph to be snapped by my mother, I suddenly realized for the first time just how much I loved this man and how very lucky I was to have someone like him for a father.

A Gift to Remember.121746_11fixed

Me at 16, my dad, and Mary, my younger sister. The last photograph taken of my dad.

I squeezed his arm because I wanted him to know that I cared. I had never done that before. I felt shy. We weren’t a demonstrative family.

In two days I would be heading back to Montreal. With winter safely locked out behind the icy tapestry decorating the kitchen windowpane, I sat at the table listening to my dad and sipping hot chocolate.
“I lost all my men in Italy.” He said. “I was supposed to go with them, but at the last moment I got orders keeping me in England.” He was silent for a moment. He looked at me as though expecting something.
“I should have been with them.” He said quietly.
My dad was telling one of his war stories. As I sat there, I remained quiet. I didn’t say ‘not again’; I didn’t try to change the subject; I didn’t act bored. I really listened and didn’t try to stop him, even though I had heard this story many times before. For the first time I didn’t care about me and whether or not I was bored. All that mattered was letting him talk because what he was talking about was important to him. He was all that counted. It was wonderful to watch his face and hear the pleasure in his voice as he told his story to someone who wanted to hear. No one ever wanted to listen to his World War II stories, but he would tell them anyway. I would be many years older before I could even begin to comprehend how war altered a human being forever. And how those stories were more than stories. They were a part of what he was.
The day finally came to say good-bye. The drive to the station was a quiet one. As I watched him put my luggage into the train’s overhead storage compartment, I thought about how well things had gone over the holidays. Just before he turned to leave he hugged and kissed me good-bye. I felt embarrassed about kissing him in front of everybody and ashamed about feeling embarrassed. After making sure I was comfortable in my seat, he walked towards the exit, but before he disembarked, he stopped and turned to face me. As I watched him, he looked at me in the strangest way. I have never seen a look like that before on another human being, not then, or now. Ever. I could see the love in his eyes; I could also see incredible sadness. And I saw something else. I didn’t know it then, but that look would haunt me for years.
As the train clacked its way to Toronto I cried quietly. I couldn’t understand why I was so upset. I knew that something in that final look had disturbed me greatly, but why should a facial expression upset me so much? I knew that I would be back again in the near future for a visit. I really should be happy. I couldn’t wait to see my dad again. I wanted to show him how much I cared. The war stories were just a beginning.
Three days later, on January 4th, 1968, my dad died of a massive heart attack.
It is now January 4, 2018. Fifty years have passed. If I close my eyes I can still see him standing next to the kitchen table. I can smell the dampness of the car in that parking lot at Sayvette’s. I can feel his fear at the side of the road. But most importantly, I can still feel the love so evident throughout that final week of his life. Thank you dad for my life and for your love. May you rest in peace.
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2 comments on “A Gift to Remember
  1. Myke Johnson says:

    What a powerful story, and so glad you had that week with your dad full of expressed love.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 5amt3n says:

    Thank you. I will be forever grateful for that final week. I think that was the first time that I really saw outside of myself, that it’s not about me. It was like I had been wearing blinders and suddenly they were gone. I know that, to a huge degree, I have my dad to thank for that. I also think, no, I know, that that was the first time that I began to truly understand what love is about.

    Like

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