There is a photograph of the two of us sitting on a rock at a beach on the Atlantic Coast. I am four years old, he is forty-seven. I am grinning at the person who is taking the photograph, who could be his wife, my mother, or one of my older siblings, and he is looking at me. The image is blurry, as many amateur photographs of that era tend to be for those of us who have grown accustomed to the high-definition images we can take now. But he seems to be smiling as he is looking at me: a proud father, beaming at his youngest son.
Father and son, on a rock, on the Atlantic Coast. My father turns eighty-seven at the end of the week. This is his second year as a widower; his wife, my mother, died a month before their sixty-third wedding anniversary. He has recently had the health challenges which plague men his age. After seven decades, just when income declines, the cost of keeping healthy increases, he once observed. And after eighty, moving towards ninety, as my father and my mother’s last surviving sister, the last of their generation, are finding, it only gets worse. Alice Munro and Ursula le Guin have written of this elsewhere.
It is Father’s Day. I reflect on the constant presence of this man, born in 1930, throughout my life. In many respects I was my mother’s son, her last-born, and so, to some extent, my siblings always remind me, favoured. But my father and I have always shared a special bond as well. He was his father’s last son, as I am his, and so we recognised in our grief that the death of his wife and my mother in 2015 echoed events from his own life with his father when his mother, my grandmother, died in 1950.
My father has been a reader throughout his life. He is the sort of man who finds Charles Dickens funny, and took on the mammoth task of reading James Joyce in his retirement. He can quote Shakespeare and scriptures from memory, citing chapter and verse from the latter seemingly effortlessly. When consulted on some question he is thought to be knowledgeable about, he uses his prodigious memory, even at eighty-seven, to flip through his many books and pamphlets, to substantiate his view.
Throughout his public life outside the family, a life working with words and numbers and the consequences they have in the world, he was known as a hard taskmaster. Colleagues and subordinates knew of his temper and his intolerance of anyone not giving their best to the task at hand. Many conflicts marked that professional life, but always, and consistently, his co-workers attest to how much they have learned from him, and long after his retirement from that work, continued to consult him.
We, his children, mostly got insights into that public life much later, after it had ended. This man, who at seventy-eight, entered an 18km cycle race, and at eighty-one survived heart surgery, has been a formidable force in my life. Throughout my childhood he was always reading, pamphlets, books, newspapers and magazines. He and his wife, my mother, made ours a house of paper, of reading and writing. Even though we were poor, we had two daily newspapers delivered to the house: that is how important reading was for him. He retains an archive of materials others continue to consult,
There is another image taken from the littoral zone, of the two of us on a family vacation, sitting on a rock, the Atlantic Ocean in front of us. It is similar to the one described above. He is reading a broadsheet newspaper, and I am sitting in front of him, reading the tabloid-sized funnies. My head is turned away from the photographer, looking back at him, as if checking the accuracy of my mimicry. In some senses this has always been our relationship: me surreptitiously checking my life against his way of living his, on matters on which we were in agreement, and perhaps even more so where our views and beliefs diverged.
My favourite poet, Margaret Atwood, composed a tribute to her father in her poetry anthology The Door (2007). In "Butterfly" she traces his journey from backwoods poverty in Canada to the man she knew as her father. It is difficult for me to imagine my father’s analogous journey. His father was born in the 1870s, he was born in mid-1930, and I was born at the end of 1972: we straddle three centuries and two millennia across three generations.
William Alexander, my father, turns eighty-seven five days from now. On this Father’s Day I look back at our life together, and beyond that, imagine his life before my arrival, before he was my father, or even a father at all. The words of Stef Bos come to mind:
En misschien ben ik geworden
Wat jij helemaal niet wou
Maar papa, ik lijk steeds meer op jou
(And perhaps I have become
Something you really did not want
But Daddy, I resemble you more and more)
What times we have lived through, what times we live through still, in our lives in this world, in this country, at this time, even on this Father’s Day.