Monday, July 8, 2013

17-1/2

My son Alex is 17-1/2 and it's summer.

It occurred to me last night as I lay sleepless in a too-warm bed with too many tangled sheets twisted like confounding ropes, that I was 17-1/2, and it was summer too, when my father died.

That was in 1978, and it's become a faded dream, that summer. I can't remember the sound of my dad's voice, not really, because it's been 35 years since last I heard it.

It seems bizarre to contemplate either of my children losing a parent at the age I did. I've become used to thinking about how my life unfolded in those terms, but am startled thinking about such a thing in the context of Alex and Kathleen.

My father wasn't happy all that summer, as I recall. He was a quiet man to begin with, and he was particularly withdrawn, yet testy and jittery at the same time, in the summer of '78.

We were at our cottage in Manitoba, and I had a job at a pizza joint in a nearby town. My nephew and niece spent that summer with us because my brother, their father, was going through a divorce and had custody of them but nowhere to stash them for the summer months. So they came to us from their broken home in Montreal, and there we were.

You'd think it would have been pleasant. The lake was gorgeous: clean, cool and welcoming. I liked my nephew and niece, enjoyed my job and had friends to swim and suntan with. But somehow it wasn't pleasant.

We could see how tightly wound my father was, unhappy with every little thing. My mother would complain in private to me about him, not a good thing to do by a long shot.

"We have to walk on eggshells around him," she'd sniff, and though it was true, I gained no solace from gossiping about my dad behind his back. It only made me irritated with her.

By the end of August, my reticent father had quietly slipped over the edge. He exploded one day, drove off in a cloud of dust with our only vehicle (and we had no phone at that cottage), and left us adrift. I couldn't get to my shifts at the pizza joint, located in a town seven miles away. So I walked a mile in the opposite direction, down dirt-rimed country roads, trying to ignore the heat and flies, arriving in the nearest hamlet from where I called my employer.

Yes, it's true. There were no cell phones back then. 

I can still clearly conjure up the Manitoba Telephone System public pay phone that stood literally in the middle of a field of grass in front of the local candy store. But I cannot remember what lie I told my boss, to gently let him know I wouldn't be coming in for any more shifts that week. He was kind and understanding.

Dog-days dawned and went by, bathing us in blistering, dry heat, the kind the prairies serve up with such mastery. We didn't know where my father'd gone, but assumed he was at our house in Winnipeg. Because of the uneasy relationship my parents enjoyed, I didn't think it strange at all that my mom didn't make the same march I had down the dust-choked road to call from the MTS phone booth and locate him.

Then one day, my brother-in-law, my sister's husband, pulled up behind our cottage. He strode past me into the building, and a minute later, I heard my mother scream.

I ran in and with no ado, no preparation, no "Maybe you better sit down Delia," my mother shrieked out: "Dad's killed himself."

And that was that. Possibly the most distinct sensation I still retain from the week following on that, is of the heat. The funeral took place right after the Labour Day weekend, and that entire week was a scorcher in Manitoba.

My mother and I couldn't return to our house until the brains and blood had been cleaned up. It's pretty amazing that there are services to do this type of thing.

So we stayed at my sister's house, sleeping on a mattress in the basement, which was not the hoity-toitiest accommodation, but was thankfully a cool place in which to get away from the stifling miasma of over-heated air and emotions.

Did I mention that no one had air-conditioned homes back then?

My nephew and niece were bundled onto a plane back to their unhappy home in Quebec, and the funeral took place, a miserable, sweaty affair at which I spent most of the time trying not to cry, but failing spectacularly.

This summer, my son will not work at a pizza joint, or anywhere, because for the second year in a row, he hasn't been able to find even a part-time job. I am given to understand this is fairly common these days with youth unemployment so high.

He won't spend endless sun-kissed days hanging around his family cottage because I too, am divorced, and do not own a cottage. My mother sold the cottage of my childhood two decades after my father passed.

So instead, Alex will experience a patch-work quilt of this-and-that: a weekend in Lake Placid with his father, cycling and camping; another week with us at a cottage I have rented which is very nice, but not as nice as the one in my memories; another weekend camping with his best buddy and their family, etc.

To all our chagrin, he'll have to endure the removal of his wisdom teeth toward the end of August, a week before he returns for grade 12 at Kookytown High.

He'll earn no money, but have fun, get tanned and fit, and experience a radically different type of 17-1/2 than I did. That, I think you'll agree, is probably a very, very good thing.

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