Father’s Day

I have been thinking about the fathers in my family, and about my own father. Prompted by my thoughts, I have taken a box of papers from a cupboard and pulled out a peculiar manuscript I haven’t thought about for years.

The disorganised contents of this box have been mine for several decades and I do not remember exactly how I come to have them. Most of the documents concern a Colonel Falkland George Edgeworth Warren, born in England in 1834, and his descendants, of whom I am one by way of my father’s mother, the Colonel’s granddaughter.

And goodness, are there tales to be told there – but family legend holds the military Warrens to be rather reprehensible human beings; the original Colonel, having settled in Canada, abandoned his Canadian wife and children and hightailed it across the border to remarry in the US and found another family.

His son, Falkland Fitzmaurice Warren, was my grandmother’s father, and she told her children the story of her father’s wish that she not be born, of the pressure he put upon his wife to terminate her pregnancy. Mrs Warren resisted and my grandmother Gundred came into the world.

I think, therefore, I will leave the Warrens where they lie, in two countries, not far from the Peace Arch that straddles the US-Canadian border south of Vancouver.

So, to return to the manuscript I mentioned above. It is well over 100 pages and was typed up neatly by my father, probably in the early 1980s. I presume this was not his only copy.

The rare letters my father sent me when I went to live in France in my twenties and which detailed the weather (compulsory in Canadian correspondence), and musings on the failings of politicians, (ditto), were typewritten – so I knew he was a competent typist. This document has however a hand-written title page. It reads:

Who Am I
Where Did I Come From
Part 1

I have chapters 1 and 2, 4, 8 and 20, some random inserts, a couple of complete stories of adventures prospecting in the Northwest Territories or wildcatting on oil rigs in Alberta – things my father did during university breaks to make money for the next year of study.

I wonder about all that is missing from this document, and find myself imagining my mother impatiently tipping the contents of my father’s desk drawers into the box with the Warren papers and taping it shut. Who knows?

I remember flipping through the contents of this box in a summary fashion many years ago. When I pull it out now, thinking of fathers, I suspect I am looking for a proof of absence, perhaps no mention of me or my sister at all, a confirmation that we barely registered on the surface of his life.

In a way, I find that proof. There are pages and pages about university high jinks, varsity romances – this doesn’t surprise me, as when I enrolled on the campus my father and his brothers trod before me, the venerable and aged be-robed Dean of Women eyed me and my name-tag icily in the reception line at the compulsory function she hosted for new women students, and asked: Which one is your father?

My father’s writings contain lengthy passages about aircraft and flying, planes and more planes, his time in the Royal Canadian Air Force at the end of World War II, the hierarchy and the incessant postings and repostings, relocations to Montreal and Nova Scotia and back out west to Alberta.

My birth gets one line. In the later chapter about the immediate post-war period, I search in vain for a mention of my sister’s arrival. Fatherhood seems to have weighed very lightly upon him.

I am ready to put this document away in its box but I decide to scan through one last chapter, called Aircraft and detailing near-misses, technical failures, snafus. In the middle of the first page I read this:

‘For a few years my aeroplane flights were in commercial aircraft. I remember one flight that I was on to Toronto with my oldest daughter when we dropped over a thousand feet unexpectedly. The stewardess was removing meal trays when it happened. Many of them went up in the air. The woman behind us started to scream. It was all over quickly and I looked at my daughter and saw that she even had a smile on her face. I asked her if she was not scared and her reply was no. "You didn’t seem worried, so I guess I wasn’t worried." Quite a brick.’

I have no idea what that last sentence means. I hope it means he approved of my composure, which may in fact have been more shock than self-control, but no matter. I’m choosing to believe he was pleased with me.

I am chuffed to find myself there, on page one of another chapter about air travel, my anecdote sandwiched between the tale of the two-seater he flew to Coleville, Saskatchewan, in a blizzard, the weight of the ice building up on the wings making it almost too heavy to fly, and the story of the plane taking off from Amarillo, Texas, a build-up of gasoline in the carburettors, flames belching from the engines.

My father has been gone for years now, but he has just given me a little Father’s Day gift. He’s given me a paragraph which tells me that in the middle of writing about one of the great loves of his life, about flying around in the heavens, about the Cessnas and the helicopters and the private corporate jets, he thought about his daughter and put her in the story.

‘It is a wise father that knows his own child’, Lancelot says in The Merchant of Venice. Did my father recognise in me a commitment to calm, a refusal of unbridled chaotic emotional response?

Maybe he did. Probably he didn’t. But it’s Father’s Day. I’ll take the gift. Thanks, Dad.

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