I bumped into the memory of my dad the other day. It happened like this. I was at one of those outdoor antique markets, pushing past the aisles of old spoons and large coins with kings stamped on them. Peeking around the corner was a telegraph key, one of those tools that looks ancient but is really only a generation old. Seeing it, I was transported.
My Dad was a telegrapher for the Canadian Pacific Railway, and he taught me the code for those patient dots and dashes, which communicated changes in plans, derailments, or impending crashes. He was an electrical engineer by training, but he also worked as a station operator for the railway at points along the way. Station operator is not the most flashy of jobs. He is the liaison behind the scenes by which messages are relayed. He holds down the fort while sitting mostly in the background. People do not often think of the station operator, unless something has gone deeply wrong. When that happens, you realize that what you miss most is his dependability in holding the whole show together.
My Dad was interested in all kinds of things and that is what made him interesting. Maybe because he did not come from money, he had to make do with imagination and some sleuthing to coax entertainment from the more prosaic things of life. This particular personality trait showed up best in the small hamlets where he was posted during itinerant stints for the railway. He would sometimes take us with him, and drive us around for a tour of local lore that he had dug up, stories that would give life and interest to places and things that otherwise looked simply commonplace.
In Lucan Ontario, he took us to see the graves of the Black Donnellys, the feuding Tipperary Irish family that was wiped out by a vigilante mob in 1880. The original obelisk erected in 1884 read, MURDERED under each name, by way of epitaph. In 1964 the town changed the grave marker to silence the protests of those buried below. While murder had been inconvenient to the victims, the salacious nature of the story was inconvenient to the town because it drew nosey tourists who showed up to gawk and take pictures.
My Dad once took me to an old-fashioned circus sideshow. That was the heyday of Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and the sideshow mentality was still very much alive. The “freak show” was a tasteless collection stillborn fetuses - pregnancies that had not cooperated with how life was to unfold. Those silent witnesses floated eerily in large bottles of formaldehyde, bearing provocative signs like “octopus boy” depending on the nature of the abnormality. It reminds me that children have oft learned the unvarnished truths of the natural world while exploring farms and fields where life happens and no explanation is necessary.
My Dad had an unusual ways of approaching things. When he taught me to ride a bike he convinced me that speed would act as a gyroscope to keep my bike stable. He repeatedly rolled me down a hill - me unsure of his methodology and nursing scrapes and bruises until I learned to stay upright. He de-iced his car windows using a quick draught of boiling water until one day he shattered his windshield and had to change to more conventional methods. He taught us about bee husbandry by purchasing three hives of angry bees that he raised in the back yard until the neighbours became too irate for him to continue. For a couple of years he was a high school science teacher and would demonstrate his experiments at home to a rapt audience. My Dad was like Merlin the Magician or the whacky professor, teaching us about real life with dramatic demonstrations that involved fire, smoke explosions and dangerous things like electricity. Life 101 - handle with care and keep that fire extinguisher at the ready.
Fathers make accessible those aspects of life that for a mother are messy, dangerous, or simply not allowed. They dispense a strong elixir of the exotic from the world outside while moms tend toward the kind of advice that is simple and practical, like keep your room clean and put the toilet seat up when you pee.
Life it seems, is an experiment that involves danger and fire and faith to get through it. The biggest mystery of all, may be those fellow travellers we have close-up who are so hard to really know. At times their personal goodness flashes into view through the shadows, at other times it hides around corners. Fully seeing that goodness is a lesson that cannot be taught directly. Such enigmas can only be absorbed through time and from a distance.
Here’s the thing. I was conflicted. I wanted to buy the telegraph key, and at the same time I didn’t. I was haunted by the realization that even a memento as personal as this would not bring me any more of my Dad than I already knew. I would just have to carry it around, trying to figure out what to do with it. I never cried at my father’s funeral. I was too busy doing what people do, ‘holding up’ and writing a eulogy. But at the flea market stand, a tiny telegrapher’s instrument called an entire lifetime before my eyes, suddenly unable to carry my father with me, and equally, not knowing how to let him go. Grief can find you in the strangest and most inconvenient of places.
It could be that all of life is just a search for words sufficient to heal those ailments which afflict us all, like the inscrutable mystery of fathers and sons, and what it means to have a legacy. I am still searching for those words.
I learned about communicating in code from my Father. He had to get it right because serious information was transmitted from distant points and lives depended on getting that message across…