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Pique N Your Interest

Fathers and other strangers

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I never really knew my father. A complicated man, he was at times temperamental, overbearing, and judgmental, but could also be thoughtful, observant and really rather sweet.

As a French-Canadian who fled his small town Ontario upbringing he refused to speak French with his Anglo wife and West Coast children. A quiet, solid man given to bursts of rage that left me shaking as a child, he was the same man who would peer around the door at the school nurse’s office with a frantic face when called to pick me up.

I knew little about his childhood. To ask about his younger years was almost forbidden at the dinner table.

I learned more about my father’s family from a recipe book. When my grandmother died, my mother decided her recipe book would be a useful memento for me. With its pinned recipes gathered from neighbours and magazines from the 1920s to 1960s, the book is interesting enough. But if you turn the book around and upside down there is a different perspective. A few dozen pages of poetry in early 20 th century Quebecois French – from my grandfather’s first wife.

I showed the poetry to a trilingual university friend and having spent some time in a Quebec school run by elderly nuns she recognized the rural turn-of-the-last-century French and graciously took the time to translate the poetry and unlock my family’s mystery.

Married in 1910 the young couple had been passionately in love. Rose Moreau wrote rich, lyrical intimate poetry about her husband, my grandfather Damase. J’aime les nuits avec ces longues voiles (I love the night with its long veils) she wrote. I love the stars strewn across the sky, but most of all I love you. But at one point the writing shifts, becomes a plea as Rose becomes concerned about her pregnancy. She pleads to Jesus to save her child and herself. And then she writes to her husband to not be lonely when she is gone, that she will be in every breeze that graces him. The last entry is from my grandfather telling her he will always love her, that she will always be his maitresse.

For 10 years after Rose died in childbirth my grandfather remained single, but finally pressured by family, church, and loneliness he married my pragmatic grandmother who took the journal and converted it to a recipe book. She produced five children for him but he remained true to his first wife, locking his heart away.

My father worked until age 70, sold his business and promptly had a major stroke. He lived in extended care for some time, unable to speak or feed himself. The day before he died I told him I would miss him for a long, long time and that he had been a good dad. He turned his head so I wouldn’t see him cry.

I’ve sometimes wondered how I’ve come by my writerly sensibilities: the ability to feel too much, both joy and pain, to hear rhythm and cadence in every day speech and to be brought to my knees by one exquisite sentence. I like to think that Rose has somehow watched over this family, fretted for the children of the man she loved so completely and passed on her love of words. I’ve come to recognize my grandfather and father as not emotionally bereft, but as very complex men afraid to feel too much, knowing that joy always comes at a price.

Recently while packing to move to Whistler I found Rose’s poetry and was amazed again at what a remarkable woman she was, spinning lyrical gossamer in rural Ontario almost 100 years ago. With encouragement from my mother I’m thinking of heading east for a few weeks this summer to interview my father’s surviving siblings to gather a better sense of their life and to grasp how men and a whole family can be both consumed and stricken by one woman’s love. Perhaps in this way I can reconcile, understand, and celebrate my very complicated, but ultimately very loving, father.

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