June 18, 2017 - "Father's Day"

It was still dark.

 

“Hey. Sorry to wake you up, I need your help,” he said, in a gruff half-whisper.

He didn't turn on the light. There wasa silhouette against the light coming from the bathroom, across the hall.

My bedroom was the smallest in our house. It was what the Scots call a box room. Eight feet by ten feet. 

Even though I didn’t share my bedroom, I had bunk beds. Someone my father worked with had given them to me, and of course, I slept on the top bunk. 

As I fought against opening my eyes, my focus still blurred, I could see my father’s face, level with mine, and up close.

“Can you thread this for me?” 

Suddenly, both of his hands were in my face. There was a needle and what appeared to be the thickest, black thread imaginable, right in front of me.  That thread, was thick enough for embroidery.

“What are you doing?” I asked, sitting up in bed. 

“I’m sorry. I just can’t get this goddamn thing threaded. Can you please do it for me?” he asked, his voice raspy in a hushed tone, impatience simmering just below the surface.

“I have to go get some groceries around the corner, and then get off to work. I just need you to thread this for me! Cn you?”

We had been living in Scotland for little over a year. 

My father was escaping his second failed marriage, and as he would teach time and time again, his answer to life’s problems was to leave. 

Literally. 

Just get up, and go. I was ten, and my brother was thirteen when we abandoned everyone else in the family, and took off to the old country.

For the first while, we lived with my grandmother, my father’s mother. That proved unsuccessful and short-term. 

Looking back I guess you could say it was a culture shock. 

While it was without doubt, an exciting adventure, it had, at times, been a difficult and emotional transition.

We moved into our own flat, with little furniture other than a few pieces from Gran. It was sparse, and so far removed from life back in Canada.

There was no flooring to speak of.  Just the bare floorboards of construction. 

We had no carpeting or carpets. 

There were no appliances. 

We had no fridge; the kitchen had a built-in ‘larder’ which was essentially a cupboard with a thick, stone slab, and two vents that opened to outside.

We had no television. 

My father compensated for this by getting us a ping-pong table. 

There we nights we played the hours away.

We had a coal bunker; every flat in the ‘close’ had coal bunker.  

Every close, or stairway, in every row of tenements had coal bunkers. 

Street after street, of rows and rows of tenement housing.

I soon learned how to set and light a good coal fire. 

I found it almost magical that having a coal fire burning in the ‘front room’ meant our water tank had hot water too.

There was no constant running hot water supply, and I didn’t understand it was out of necessity. 

We couldn't afford such luxuries.

We couldn’t afford to keep the water tank heated.

Many couldn't.

There were times when we had no coal, and my father would begrudgingly turn the water heater on, so we could have a bath.

Sometimes, we had to share the water. 

 

My father had found an old, torn, dirty parka in the cupboard, behind the water tank.  

The coat was a dusty, almost camouflage-like military green. 

It had bright red flannel lining, which showed through some of the holes where the seams had come apart.

 

That he was attempting to sew it, with thick, black, thread that felt like cord, didn't occur to me, at first.

“Dad. Do you want me to stitch something up for you? I can do it later.” 

No, he wanted the needle threaded.

 

“Look, it’s early. Just do this for me and then go back to sleep. 

I’ll do it myself. 

I just can’t get the needle threaded. 

You’re good at these things.”

 

He turned the light on.

Again, I squinted and blinked.

I grabbed the needle and the thread.

 

Holding the needle up to the light, I took the thread in my other hand, and by way of demonstration, I put the end of the thread in my mouth, licking it.

 

I slowly reached out, and, closing one eye, focussed on the hole at the end of the needle. 

Boom! 

In one attempt, I passed that thick rope through it’s intended tiny target.

I handed the carefully threaded needle back to my father, and lay back down, covering myself with the blankets. 

“It’s cold in here. Can I turn the heater on for a few minutes?” 

I asked him this knowing that he would find it hard to say no. 

It was cold. 

Despite the miracle of a coal fire heating our water tank, and the front room, it didn’t extend to the bedrooms. 

Or the kitchen. 

The bathroom was the coldest.

 

We had small, 'one bar' electric heaters in each bedroom, but my father didn’t like to use them too often, trying to keep our electric bills small.

He smiled at me. 

“Thanks for helping with the needle. I knew you could do it. I’ll plug the heater in now, but you have to turn it off in five minutes, okay?” as he leaned in, kissing my forehead.

“Have a good day. I’ll see you tonight,” he said, after plugging in the heater. 

"You have a good day too, Dad."

 

As he turned out the light, I snuggled down, anticipating the warm orange glow of the electric heater to fill my room with light and warmth.

 

I must have fallen asleep again.

I stirred suddenly, hearing the deadbolt lock ‘click’ as my father returned from getting groceries.

Leaping down out of the top bunk, I unplugged the heater. 

I opened my bedroom door in time to see my father’s arm coming in the front door. 

 

He was fidgeting with his keys still in the lock, and a loaf of bread in that same hand. 

I knew he was about to curse. 

It was just what he did. 

He reacted to everything.

 

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” he barked, as the silver skeleton key came out of the lock. 

The bread, in it’s waxed paper wrapping, fell out of his hand, and in his attempt to catch it, he lurched forward. 

It bounced slightly, and fumbled it's way down the hall.

His other arm got caught on the door handle, or, the sleeve of that dusty green parka got caught on the door handle.

 

As he lurched forward to catch the bread, the pint of milk that was wedged in under his left arm, slipped out of his grip. 

It all happened in slow-motion, as we both watched the glass bottle fall towards the floor. 

My father’s cursing rose louder, ruder, sounding more personal. 

A seemingly direct affront to him, like no other had ever endured. 

 

“Fuck! God damn fucking bastard!” 

“SHIT!” 

 

“That's all the fucking money we have, for fuck’s sake! 

I'm going to be late now. 

Fuck, fuck FUCK!” 

 

He was spitting angry, and red with rage.

As the milk bottle tumbled in slow-motion, I noticed that the sleeve of my father’s dusty green parka was adorned with perfectly placed, equally sized, thick, black stitches, almost puckering the seams they held together, pulled so tightly.

Blanket stitches.

I spotted another wound on the sleeve that was now firmly jammed up against the door handle. 

It was like a battle field, that jacket, with it’s trench-like stitching. 

 

Utilitarian without concern for aesthetics. Yet, warranting full marks for the uniformity of stitches. 

I’m sure over the years, memory has coloured the story somewhat. 

I’m not so sure my thought process was that sophisticated at eleven years old. 

I do remember those stitches, though. 

Clearly, like I had just seen that parka hanging in my hall closet.

 

In that moment's infinite timespan, I knew what was going to happen. 

And it did.

That milk bottle shattered upon impact. 

 

The glass and milk and cursing splattered all over the floor, pooling, then running in-between the floorboard crevices. 

Splashes of milk trickled down the wall. 

 

The sound of the bottle breaking was like an explosion, only slightly less far-reaching than my father’s violent outburst of swear words. 

Each curse, singularly pronounced, as if to inflict damnation upon those milk-soaked floorboards.

His furiously loud voice ricocheted through the cold, empty stairwell of the close.

“Fuck it! FUCK IT!”

 

“Fuck.” 

 

He sounded defeated now.

“Dad, it’s okay. I’ll get a…”

 

“NO! Go to your room. Leave it!” he yelled, not even looking at me. 

He was watching the milk run through the cracks, leaving puddles cupped in some of the pieces of broken glass scattered across the hallway. 

 

"Just fucking leave it. I’ll clean it up. I don’t want you to cut yourself. Go back to bed, please.”

I don’t remember what happened after that.

 

I remember the shame I felt when I saw him wearing that parka, with it’s rope stitching. 

Those tears in the fabric that would never heal. 

The wounds. 

I was embarrassed that he had to wear it. 

 

We never spoke about it, but I know he wouldn’t have asked me to wear that coat. 

The hand-me-down, found by chance in an empty flat. 

Yet, it didn’t bother him.

 

We were that poor. 

I don’t remember the next couple of days, other than knowing that we didn’t have any milk.

That really had been the last of the money my father had. 

There wasn’t another pint of milk to replace that one. 

Not that day. 

 

I’ve carried this story with me for over forty years. 

 

I’m pretty sure I might have told one person, some of it, but I don’t remember who.

I’ve certainly never written about it before. 

 

My brother has never mentioned it. 

Not this particular instance of going without.

Not the cursing, not the sound of that bottle, smashing it’s way into the floorboards. 

 

I don’t remember even talking about not having milk for a couple of days.

 

We never really got along, my brother and I. 

We fought like cat and dog, constantly.

But we were in the same ring. 

Two brothers, each other's keeper in the battlefield. 

Often unspoken, if not, pared down reassurances and comforts.

We were child soldiers in the same war.

 

My father passed away last year, and this is the first ‘Father’s Day’ since his death.

 

Almost, a year of firsts.

 

I don’t remember the last time I gave him a card. 

Not for his birthday, not for Christmas or any occasion like today, another hallmark moment. 

 

Years had gone by without my father and I even talking. 

Nonetheless, I did think of him, every year, on Father’s Day, despite myself.

 

We didn’t speak last year, at all. 

I'm pretty sure I called him the year before that, as a gesture of friendship, not love.

To let him know I was thinking of him.

 

I didn’t hate him. Nor do I love him. 

I don’t know the last time I felt love for him. 

 

I’m okay with that. Now.

 

I have a few fond memories; standing on his feet while he danced, passionately talking him out of opening all the gifts on Christmas Eve. 

He taught me how to skip stones on water.

 

For me, there aren’t any of those often quoted 'Thanks to my Dad', or 'Dad, I’m so grateful you taught me X, Y or Z’ moments. 

 

I still carry bits of anger. 

I still grieve. 

I understand it never fully ends. 

 

As I’ve told a few close friends, 

"We just learn to drive differently." 

Over time, it finds a groove, and settles in.

 

I can say this, though, with insistence, ironic happiness, and profound honesty.

 

For at least the last two decades, I’ve acknowledged this to myself, time and time again.

It was just what I did.

It's just what I do.

 

No matter how often, I always smile. 

No matter how unfortunate, I always smile.

I’ve even laughed out loud, ridiculously, while others scurry around in anxious despair. 

 

Every time I spill something, I think of you.