Sunday, June 15, 2008

Father's Day

Father's Day is bittersweet for me. My dad died on November 22, 1989. We had always had an adversarial relationship to that point, and dad died before we could become friends instead of sparring partners. Many of the things that my dad would have been most proud of in my life have happened since his passing. I fervently believe that our loved ones continue to watch over and guide us from heaven, but it's not quite the same.

My dad, Jack Cheeseman, didn't have it easy. He was the oldest of 4 children, and born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario by Peter and Kathleen Cheeseman. I never knew my grandfather; he was killed in a railway accident (crushed between 2 railcars) when my father was a teenager. I barely remember my Nana Cheeseman. We were living in BC when she died, and we never saw her often when I was a child. My mother said that my dad never spoke about his childhood, except to say that he and his younger brothers used to sneak to the market and steal food from the back of the vendors' carts during the depression. My father was a devout Catholic, and had a firm moral compass. That couldn't have been easy for him.

His brother Peter died of a brain tumour in the early 1970s. I always remembered uncle Peter for his ability to entertain. He would play piano and sing, and I will forever associate creamsicles with Uncle Peter, because near the end of his life, that was all he could eat. My mom tells me that, after a visit with Uncle Peter when I was a child, I came home singing a song that was less than appropriate for a grade school child to sing...something about a stripper that a teacher heard me singing. I was a mimic with a strong ear for music...

Dad's brother Norman became a doctor. My mom worked with Madeleine Cameron at the Bank of Canada in Ottawa, and she met my dad at Norm and Maddie's wedding. My dad was very proud of his doctor brother, but was quite offended when he was mistaken for Uncle Norm's FATHER instead of brother in the hospital one time after Uncle Norm's heart attack. He was very indignant for weeks after. Uncle Norm outlived dad by only a year or so.

Dad's sister, Kathleen, or Kay as she was known to the rest of the world was dad's only sister, and the one that I think he was closest to. She is the only person that I know of who called him "John" instead of Jack. She was also one of the few whose opinion he cared about, and whose advice he would listen to. We lost her to cancer almost 2 years ago and she left a big hole in the family. Losing her was like losing dad all over again, because she was my last link to my dad. I found a big box of pictures from dad's childhood after she died, and now I have no way of knowing who the people in the pictures were.

The Cheesemans play cards. However, to say the Cheesemans play cards is a bit like saying the Clintons like politics. The Cheesemans play no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners cards. It's a wonder that there is a dining room or kitchen table left in the family because the Cheesemans play Euchre in a way that Australia plays football. You could hear the slam of the knuckles on wood from 2 floors up, followed by my dad's trademark chuckle, or my uncle Jack Donovan's "shit house rat" when Dad would out play him. I don't play cards; I'm the enigma of the family. Patience is not a strong suit when the Cheesemans are teaching cards...My father tried to teach me to play cribbage when I was a kid. I double skunked him the first time out and the Cheeseman card competitiveness came to the fore. Lesson be damned, the kid beat him. I never did learn how to play crib because dad became so intent on winning that he forgot about the lesson.

Cards were part of dad's DNA. The Allison cousins on my mom's side and I remember our respective fathers sitting at the kitchen table with the crib board and a bottle a scotch. Crib, Cutty Sark and the deck of cards passed many a family get together. We all remember a particular day when Uncle Ken and Dad, well lubricated on Cutty Sark, went out to light the charcoal barbeque for dinner. The briquets were not lighting fast enough for their liking, and the problem was soon solved by the application of gasoline to the the kids watched in fascination, the two men soon turned it into a game, trying to see how far UP the stream of gasoline they could make the flame reach without blowing themselves and the backyard into next Tuesday. The arrival of my aunt Helen and my mom put an end to impending disaster, and the boys, er men were sent back to their cards with their tails between their legs, after a tongue lashing about setting a poor example with flammable liquids. In retrospect, their breath was probably the biggest danger.

He and Uncle Ken were inseparable, as were our families in those days. My Aunt Betty Harvey, my mom's sister in law, passed away last week from cancer, and I was talking with my cousin Doug about a Christmas at the family farm. Dad and Uncle Ken both snored...and both denied it. The Harvey family tradition was to eat ourselves sick, and then all the men would bolt for the nearest couch or bed for a nap while the "womenfolk" cleared up the chaos. This particular day, Dad and Uncle Ken ended up in Doug and Russ' room above the kitchen. The beds were on either side of the stovepipe from the kitchen. Uncle Ken was using a cane by then, and the 2 of them lay down...and then it started, amplified by the stove pipe for all of us to hear in the kitchen.
"Jack, you're snoring" Sound of bed squeaking...

"I don't snore and stop poking me with your cane" Bed squeaking.

"Don't throw a pillow at were snoring."

"Stop poking...I don't snore-you do"

And so it went with cane poking and pillow lobbing back and forth until they both fell asleep. And for the record...they BOTH snored.

My father served as a navigator in World War II, but was never posted overseas. He was stationed in Vancouver, and I still have his orders, his discharge and his railpass. I also have his letter that allowed him to go to university afterwards. He never talked about the war, and mom knows very little. Among the photos in his box, there are pictures of his squadron, and a couple of pictures of friends. I wish I knew more about them. The one thing that dad would talk about was the time that Yvonne DeCarlo (Lily Munster in the tv show) came to visit the base. My father was good looking and was selected to squire her around. There are great photos of dad with her and it's the only wartime thing he would talk about.

My father became a professional fund raiser in the days before it was handled in-house. He would be hired by a hospital or university to raise the funds, he would create and run the campaign to successful conclusion and then move on to the next one. My dad is responsible for Simon Fraser University, Memorial University, University of Prince Edward Island, Dalhousie University and a bunch more that I don't know about. Dad needed to be where the campaign was going on. That meant that he was gone for weeks at a time when I was a child. My job when I was a kid was to spot him at the airport. He would call once he landed, and mom and I would head off to the airport while he got his bag. My job was to watch for him as mom drove slowly by. The one benefit for me growing up was that we would travel to wherever he was for summer vacation. I spent a summer in Halifax and a summer in PEI that way. It also meant that Dad was simply not around when I was a kid.

My dad's life ended in his 50s when the company that he worked for, was vice president of and had dedicated his life to went under. He never worked steadily after that and he never got over it. He went from being sought after to having to look for work in an era when people had not yet figured out the value of mature employees. He may have lived to be 66, but he died when his job did. He just forgot to tell his body that.

My dad had a lot of demons. With adult perspective, I don't think he ever got over the loss of his father, and I think he always felt guilty for not making it overseas during the war, whether it was in his control or not. He certainly never got over losing his job and never finding another long-term one. Whatever the source of his demons, he dealt with them by drinking. It's taken me a lot of years to be able to differentiate between my dad drinking and my dad sober. My dad sober was a loving father. My dad drinking was a bitter man who used words as weapons and is probably a source of many of my self esteem issues. I brought home A+ papers and he found the typos. I brought home 90s and he'd ask where the other 10% went. I learned not to show him if I didn't want to get shot down.

The funny thing was, I knew at some deep level that he believed in me. My dad was anti-feminist, yet believed that I could do anything. My father was staunch Catholic and very traditional, but he would have been the more accepting parent if I'd ever ended up pregnant and scared as a teenager. At dad's funeral and afterwards, I found out that he had been proud of me and my accomplishments; he'd never found the words to tell me.

After I moved out, when I came home for the weekend, it was his light that would be shining over the driveway when I came home after midnight. It became a game. The light was on when I got home; off when I reached the top of the stairs. I would poke my nose in and say "good night dad" and there would be a guilty silence as he realized he'd been caught waiting for his 20 something daughter and then "good night..." I missed that more than anything after dad died. The last thing he would say to me before I headed back to Toronto was "watch the other fools on the road" and he would phone occasionally if I was sick, with the excuse that "my mother was worried about how I was" never knowing that I had already talked to my mom that day. He could never bring himself to admit that he was phoning because he wanted to know.

I graduated with my Masters after dad died. I married after dad died and my daughter arrived after dad died. I married a card player; dad would have been thrilled, especially since my husband plays crib. My daughter and dad would have been great friends. My dad tried very hard to be a curmudgeon in the Archie Bunker tradition, but kids and animals figured him out in minutes. My tortie cat, Tisha, who loved me and tolerated the rest of the world barely, would let my dad brush him. She waited for him for days after he died. My dad had lost a finger at the Stelco steelmill when he was young-his index finger was amputated at the first knuckle. It was a kid magnet that charmed a couple of generations. A couple of months after my daughter arrived, I woke from an exhausted nap to hear her quietly babbling in her room, and I could barely hear murmurred voices. I got up to check, and couldn't see anyone, but she was looking intently at someone, and then she laughed out loud. I'm pretty sure her grandpa was there in ghost-form, visiting with his granddaughter and waggling the irresistible finger at her. I have often felt his presence since he passed on. We have doves that hang around that I associate with my dad. The morning after my aunt Kay died, at the end of December, 2 doves sat for a long time on the railing outside our kitchen door, watching my daughter as she played in her high chair. I'm sure dad's sister brought him to see his granddaughter-she's the only one of the siblings to have met her, after all.

So here's to you, dad. You taught me the importance of education, faith and charity. No matter how little money there was, mom and dad found money to give to people who had less. You taught me the importance of faith and belief in God. I still have your daily missal that is so well-thumbed. You always believed the best in people-it was your greatest strength and your greatest downfall. You loved a good laugh, a good card game, a good comedy and a good jigsaw puzzle. You loved to debate and argue about politics and you loved me. I wish I realized it sooner. I miss you dad. Happy Father's Day.

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