Mother is hovering over the dinner table waving her ladle like a conductor waving her baton during an orchestra performance, but the cacophony in the room sounds more like a high school carpenter shop than a musical performance. “Eat, eat,” she encourages the room every few minutes. I am nine years old and Dad is in deep discussion with my oldest brother about the importance of “zero” in the world of mathematics; the laugh lines around his eyes crinkle every time he emphasizes a point.
The twins, as usual, have some kind of Indian leg-wrestling contest going on under the table, and my youngest brother is inexplicably standing ramrod straight behind his chair reciting something out loud, and the only one who seems to be listening to him is the dog, who cocks his head this way and that as if trying to judge the quality of my brother’s speech.
It is bedlam, and the typical supper in our house. Supper is the time of day where we all vie for centre stage. Where we tell our stories, and of course inhale our food. Dad tells the best stories, his bald head glistening in the incandescent kitchen light as he talks of being in the bush, or of world politics, or of a novel he has just read.
He has just come in from the bush and smells of wood fire, sweat, and pipe smoke. He is wearing a thick plaid hunting shirt and tan cotton pants with small burn marks around the pockets. The culprit is his pipe, which only seems to keep a burning ash when he doesn’t want it to. “Bloody thing,” he curses under his breath whenever he attempts to get it going. I love the smell of the cherry blend tobacco he smokes.
Dad is a story teller, or as they say today, an epic story teller. Sunshine pours into the small room which has been designated as Mom’s studio these days, but Dad and I are sitting in there on a small sofa, as he drinks his coffee. Dad is telling me the story about the Count of Monte Cristo, but not the abridged version. No, Dad recounts in minute detail the characters, their thoughts, wishes, emotions, and ambitions. The story comes to life when he relates it. I sit mesmerized, breathless, and waiting for the next moment. The next line. The next exciting chapter.
As usual, I have trouble sitting still as I listen, the “most fidgety child on the planet.” I stretch out, scrunch up into a ball, pace, sit on the floor, snuggle into dad’s side, hang on the back of the sofa, lie upside down with my legs on the seat. Dad sits, legs crossed, sipping his coffee, and talking. He never tells me to sit still; he just talks, smiles, and watches my face.
I am almost breathless. Will Edmond Dantes be able to free himself from the cannon ball tied around his leg, or will he sink to the depths never to be heard from again? He makes it, and by the end of the day I know the whole story.
Waves threaten to capsize our canoe as they crash against the gunnels. We are in the middle of Crooked Pine Lake, the wind is howling, white caps make the water frothy, almost as if it is boiling. Dad unlashes the other canoe from ours and instructs the twins to paddle hard for the far shore. We leave them behind as our small motor struggles against the onslaught slamming the bow hard up and down as we cut into the waves. I am twelve years old and I am not afraid. I’m with Dad and he can do anything. He would never allow anything to happen to me. I am pretty naïve. Dad is fearless, reckless, and sometimes does not put on his thinking cap. Mom has good reason to worry when he is in charge of us kids.
We eventually make the far shore and are immediately swamped as the waves pound us into the steep shore. We drag everything up onto the bank and lie there panting and trying to catch our breath. My uncle starts slurring his words and I sigh before going to find the sugar cubes. The twins make it to shore and are slammed into the beach as well. We build a big fire to try and dry our stuff. Luckily the winds causing the mayhem in the water work in our favour and blow our sleeping bags dry.
We are only half way to our destination – a tiny lake called, Chief Peter’s – and it is getting late in the afternoon. Huge snags, dead fall, and beaver dams block almost every curve in the river. We drag, we pull over, we portage, or we push our canoes through them all. I am the appointed nurse for my uncle. I feed him sweet tea and sugar cubes every few hours. I can tell that Dad is annoyed with his brother. He has little patience for sick people. He’s no good at caring for the infirm. Neither am I. My Mom is the nurse in our family; she can make even someone at death’s door feel better.
Our long delay means it’s late when we finally make Chief Peter’s. It is so dark that it feels as if I am sitting inside a black drum with the lid on. I have the only flashlight as we slowly cruise around the lake looking for the road to Sandy’s cabin. Dad announces that if we don’t find the road in the next fifteen minutes he will pull over to the side and we will spend the night on the shore somewhere. I’m exhausted but smile to myself in the dark at the thought of getting out of the boat.
It’s seven o’clock in the morning and I’m not swimming because the heat pump blew up in the pool and they are waiting for parts. Dad is making breakfast, scrambling eggs with the rice left over from supper. All his breakfasts are like this. Green beans and oatmeal. Eggs, deer meat, and toast. Coffee, cream of wheat, and peppers. I’m fifteen; I will eat almost anything, and lots of it.
“Do you want a ride today?” he asks. I can tell he is half hoping that I will say no so he can leave earlier.
I consider this seriously. It’s minus thirty-five outside and black. I can hear the wind howling and rattling the windows. “Yes please,” I say. I can always go for a run in school, I think.
He wiggles bushy eyebrows at me and asks if I want some coffee. It’s instant, two heaping teaspoons in a mug, and five heaping spoons of sugar. I pass. He nods and shovels half the egg concoction onto my plate. We eat while keeping an ear open for the weather report. Everyone else is in bed; even the dog isn’t interested in getting up. I watch Dad’s big, scarred hands as he drinks his coffee and eats his eggs. “I’m working out of the office today,” he says. “Do you want a ride home after school?”
I’m shocked. Dad doesn’t like giving us rides. It makes us weak. We will come to expect it. He doesn’t like to be on anyone’s schedule but his own. I shake my head. “No thanks. Lori and I are working on a project and we’ve booked the microfiche machine in the library after school. Lori’s dad said he’d give us a ride home.”
The weatherman announces that the temperature is going to continue to fall for the coming week, minus 43 by Friday. “You dress warm,” Dad says uncharacteristically. He usually assumes we are smart enough to figure these things out for ourselves. Plus he knows that Worrying Wanda, our Mother, is there to keep our brains engaged.
I’m running a ten k, the fourth one in three days. It took us two days to drive across the country. Dad’s been dead for five days. It’s surreal. One day I’m talking to him on the phone and he is telling me how excited he is about seeing me. The next day he is gone. Just like that. No warning. No goodbyes. Running is the only way I seem to be able to handle what is going on. I’m thirty-two.
The worst is running into someone who knows me. “Sorry to hear about your dad.” “Your dad was the first person to give me a job.” “Your dad always talked to me when he walked by.” “How are you holding up?” I hate it. I hate crying in front of people. So I’m avoiding everyone. I’m running all the bush trails.
It’s the first time I realize how grown-up and amazing my daughter is. She’s twelve. She was the one who found him and called the ambulance. She stood by her grandmother. A little rock. She tells me what happened, matter of fact, strong, poised. She has been stronger than the adults around her. I’m proud of the little blond mop top. I see his strength in her. His genes live on.
Photo By Gab Halasz – All Rights Reserved