Thursday, August 27 , 2015

Me and my dad England around 1970

Me & my dad in England circa 1970

Today would have been my father’s 76th birthday. it is also one year to the day that we had his unveiling at the cemetery. I have just a handful of vague childhood memories of my father and most are enhanced by photos so I’m not sure if they are even accurate. My real relationship with my father began when I was in my early 20s and became stronger until he died on December 13, 2013.

I was lucky enough to work for him at his company Degremont Infilco (where he started as a junior engineer and retired as president). When I was about 23 I replaced his secretary on maternity leave for about one year. He was always amazed by how fast I could type and get things done. He would refer to me as “a machine!” at home. One thing about my father – he didn’t put on appearances for anyone or anything. He would arrive grumpy in the morning, muttter “bonjour” to the receptionist and shuffle into his office. Occasionally he would come out and joke around with his employees who obviously understood “Monsieur Mitchell” and seemed to truly like and appreciate him.

Once in a while, my father would grumble about my mother’s messiness in the house or her chatty nature. But this was the exception and not the rule. I think more of my father as refusing to listen to any complaint or criticism of my mother. If I ever did, he clearly didn’t want to hear it and told me so. He may not have always treated her with the most kindness, but he would not stand for anyone putting her down or not showing her respect. He would reply your mother is amazing, kind, thoughtful, etc. and when he was in the hospital both times the years before he died, he would say how she had made his life what it was. That he would have been nothing without her. To witness such devotion was very moving.

My father seemed to be ahead of his time in some ways. When I was a teenager he stressed the importance of a woman establishing a career and becoming financially independent. Versus relying on a husband to support her.

When I lived in Calgary on my own for a few years, my father would come to town regularly for business. This meant meeting him at a luxury downtown hotel and having dinner at the restaurant and sometimes spending the evening in his room where we’d watch movies from our separate beds. I don’t remember what we talked about during those visits, but I do know that it is when we really became comfortable with each other. I also remember that time at lunch when he was listening to me talk about something and then burst into tears overcome with emotion. I was stunned. When I asked him what was wrong, he said the soup was awful. That is a perfect example of my father. His emotions which would escape control more with each grandchild, and probably with getting older, and his quick wit and sense of Jewish humour.

At my wedding, my father was his usual grumpy and mysterious self and not at all the “father-of-the-bride” I dreamed about. Just prior to the ceremony, he tried to insert some wilting flowers that looked like weeds into my beautiful bouquet and I was having none of it. I found out weeks later from my brother David that they had stopped at the cemetery to visit his parents’ gravesites where he had picked these flowers. My father never talked about my late grandparents – we were the ones to bring their memories alive – but it was clear that they occupied a huge piece of his heart. As David said at our father’s funeral, their absence was a burden he carried by himself and it weighed down on his happiness his entire life.

When Steph and I found out I was pregnant after trying for what seemed like ages, we drove out to Beaconsfield to tell my parents. We asked what their travel plans were for the following spring and suggested that they might want to be in town. Eventually they understood, and I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he turned to my mother. His face was full of emotion and wonder at the news. He had that same expression everytime his grandchildren told him they loved him.

My father always lent me money to get me out of financial debt. He was annoyed to do so but he did it anyways. I remember him using a paper tablecloth at a French bistro in Calgary to work out my dismal finances. And later when I got divorced, he told me that worse case scenario he would sell their condo and advance me my share of my inheritance to buy my house so I would never have to worry. It never came to that but knowing that he was always there to fall back on was something I never took for granted. It was cushion that made a difficult time just a little less difficult.

My father never haggled about money or the cost of things. He was generous but conscientious. He was careful but carefee when it came to making his family happy. When he inherited some unexpected money when I was about 12 he planned a surprise vacation for all of us in Florida and on a cruise through the Bahamas. He also didn’t believe in credit. My mother told me that he wouldn’t purchase things until he could pay for them up front. They may not have had everything their friends did but that was how my father approached money. Their house was paid off probably before most people’s too. He would talk about compound interest being the 8th wonder of the world. I think he was very disappointed when he lost money in the 2009 crash.

My father always seemed “old” to me. And now that I’m 51 I realize how young he was. I now look at photos where he was my age but he seemed so much older than I am now. Partly because he had adult children by my age and partly because he was bald. But mostly because he was my dad. And dad’s were by definition old.

The videos and photos of when my parents came to the hospital to meet their first grandchild are priceless to me. Their expressions, the way they held Samuel with wonder and love. This all made the experience of new motherhood all the more special. And of course, my father had to say something profoundly inappropriate and plain stupid too. When he saw me less 12 hours after giving birth, my belly was still quite distended. He looked at me and said “You have another one in there or what?” and I was devastated. Now I just laugh. My father was consistent if nothing else and the first one to say “I’m a moron” which at times he really was.

My father introduced me to films versus movies. He took me to see independent smaller films at the repertoire cinemas around Montreal when I was growing up. My first memory was seeing Wim Wenders “Paris, Texas” at Cinema IV. Someone was talking throughout the movie and we were both annoyed. He asked me who it was and when I turned around I saw it was his cousin, Hope, a few rows behind us! We both loved “Paris, Texas” and I remember my father saying something about the theme “man goes out for cigarettes and never returns”. I think it’s a theme that haunted many men of his generation. All the family and financial responsibility they must have at times wanted to just walk out the door and never return. My mother told me that my father supported his own parents when he was a young engineer. And he also supported my grandfather in his later years.

Another wonderful film memory is when I took my father out for Father’s Day when I was in my mid-20s. It was probably the first time I could treat him to a meal and then surprised him with a biographical documentary about Woody Allen’s career as a clarinet player playing at small cinema on St. Laurent. It was a perfect father-daughter day and I can’t remember what he said but he said that it was perfect gift and so much better than a tie or something.

I loved being able to make my father laugh. Once when he dropped me off at my first apartment on Queen Mary he said something ludicruous and I turned around and leaned into the car and asked him “what’s it like living in your world?”  I remember how hard it made him laugh. He could laugh at himself which is one of the best characteristics a person can have. He was serious but didn’t take himself seriously.

My father had a “quick mind” which I like to think I inherted from him. Sadly I didn’t inherit his “math mind” and that drove him crazy. He could never understand how I couldn’t understand no matter how many times we went over my high school math homework. He also tutored my cousin Sarita and made her cry. He wasn’t always patient but he was funny. He used to say his method of teaching math was not common but it worked and he called it “Math Through Tears.”

My father wasn’t overtly Jewish but yet in many ways he was very much a Jewish man. At times Woody Allen and Larry David reminded me of my dad. And I was always surprised that he knew Hebrew every Passover when he would speed read the service like nobody’s business. At one recent Seder he talked about his memory of his own childhood holiday meals that would last till one in the morning and nobody could eat until everything was read in Hebrew. One time, I had a dinner and put together two tables to create one large square. My father absolutely loved the set up and said many times how it was such a perfect dinner because everyone could see each other and talk. It was the only dinner I ever set up like that and I’m so glad that he was there. After he died, someone gave me an old photograph of what looks like a Friday night dinner with his parents and grandparents. My father looks about nine or ten and the spitting image of Samuel. I couldn’t help notice the large square table with white table cloth or wonder if that’s why he enjoyed the dinner with my own square table.

I read many of my parents’ books growing up and one called The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas which was a disturbing novel about Freud and the Second World War. My father explained the parts I couldn’t understand after I had finished and I used what he said to discuss the novel in my high school psychology class. I remember my teacher (Mr. ?) listening to every word as he too had read the novel and obviously I was helping him – through my father – understand it. Other books, like The Painted Bird by Jersey Kozinski, he told me not to read. He said I wasn’t ready. I realize now that I never read it. Philip Roth, Paul Auster, Erica Jong, and pretty much every classic novel lined my parents’ bookshelves. I remember him spending one entire summer reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He was not an athlete, a handyman, a camper, or a hunter. He was an introspective Jewish intellectual.

I remember when he retired as an engineer, he signed up to become a docent at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In the end he quit because he found the other volunteers took themselves too seriously and I think that his jokes and comments were perhaps not appreciated.

My parents always took us to art galleries and museums when we were young. And I’m not so sure it was to further our cultural education. They just did what they enjoyed doing and dragged us along. I remember discovering Modigliani, Pellan, Picasso, Lemieux and Colville among other painters through my parents’ coffee table books or framed prints. The only records I remember growing up are Simon and Garfunkel and Johnny Cash but I’m sure there were others. They didn’t play music when I was young – not that I remember. These were albums I remember seeing and playing myself that belonged to them.

My dad loved to plan holidays for my mother and himself. They didn’t always love the places they visited, so when he told me about their first trip to Australia, I remember answering “isn’t that an awful long way to travel just to come home and say it’s nice but not for me?” Turned out I was wrong. They loved Australia and went back another time.

I remember my parents’ planning their holidays around opera festivals in Canada and the U.S. Later, they would plan them around casinos in Canada and the U.S. If anybody had told me my parents would enjoy gambling in their older years, I wouldn’t have believed it. But they really did. They only played the slot machines and occassionally won. My father loved telling me about the time that he ran out of money and my mother refused to share any of hers. When my dad was sick in the hospital he would tell my mother to go to the casino for a break and to relax.

One of the most poignant things my father ever said to me in a crisis was “what can I say, honey, life’s a bitch sometimes.” I’d never heard him say something like this before but he was right. Sometimes, there are no explanations. Life’s just a bitch sometimes.

My father came with me to see an expensive Westmount lawyer after Steph and I split. I don’t remember much of the meeting but my father was there to ensure that I was okay and protected. And I always felt that. I don’t know what I would have done without him by my side.

My father once told David that when Emma was in the room she was so beautiful you couldn’t look at anything else. He loved his little granddaugther and would call her “Little Rebecca” because he said she reminded him of me. When we were in Spain on holiday we looked in on her sleeping naked – all suntanned with the white outline of her one piece bathing suit. She was the most beautiful thing we’d ever seen. I’m so glad I could share these moments with my father. I think we both fell in love with Emma immediately. He used to ask her “Emma G. where did you get those eyes?”

During that same visit, I slept in the living room on a mattress because it was too hot to share a bed with anyone. My dad left by taxi early one morning and when he was back home he told me that he’d come to see me before he left but I was sleeping. He said I looked just like when I was a little girl.

Samuel looked so much like my father as a boy it was uncanny. He loved the photo display I made for his 65th birthday and presented him in Spain and showed everyone the albums from this holiday.

I remember my dad arriving daily on the topless beach in Spain and doing his regular stretch. He’d put out his arms and then look right and then left likely taking in as many of the sites as possible. Then he’d take his chair out into the ocean and sit there enjoying the sun and the waves. My dad always loved the heat and the ocean. He would get so tanned too.

Also on this holiday we were served at an outdoor restaurant by a waiter who insisted on speaking to us in nearly incomprehensible English. The waiter boasted that he knew five languages. When he went inside, my father said “Great, he’s proud because he’s illiterate in five different languages” or something like that. It was hilarious.

One year my father developed an interest in cooking. He bought Julia Child’s cookbook and mastered the omelette. He also prepared an entire Passover meal by himself. I remember him at other times sitting on a stool staring at a pot cooking on the stove. When I asked him what he was doing he said the recipe said to watch the fish for five minutes. Another time, he yelled up to my mother asking what the hell egg whites were? He had cracked the eggs and found yellow yolks but nothing white. He was very literal, my engineer father.

I was always so proud when he ate at my house and then would tell the kids how lucky they were to have such a good cook as a mother. He would say that I got all of my talents from him – cooking and design.

My father was really interested in my work. I would show him the concepts behind projects and he’d want to know about everything. Especially the hotel project I once worked on. He also would tell me when to get out of a job – like the hotel project. He had a very good instinct for business and bullshit. And he was usually right.

When my father got sick in Florida both my brothers flew down to help my parents at different times. He was so moved by the love and devotion my brothers showed. I wanted to go too but he didn’t want me to leave the kids. He told me I’d help when he got back to Montreal. I remember crying at night alone in my bed terrified he would die there and I’d never see him again. When he was finally able to come back to Montreal, I waited at the airport for him. He was unrecognizable in his wheelchair wrapped in a blanket – he looked like E.T. Those months in the hospital were just terrible for him. And for us trying to help him and witness his suffering. I remember washing his feet and hair and him feeling better for it. I remember driving anywhere to get anything for him to eat that he thought he could tolerate. Normally he would take one small bite and push it away. Once when he was at his lowest weight and his weakest, we were leaving the hospital and he was so angry. Even in the chemotherapy unit, anything I said or suggested he would bark back at me. Other people would look at me with sympathy as I tried not to cry. Getting him in the car, he kept criticizing me for everything and I’d had enough. I yelled back that we were just trying to help and do our best. In the car home he started to cry and apologize. It was one of the saddest times in my life to see him like this.

I remember going to see the movie Big with Tom Hanks with him at the movies with my brothers. There were some scenes that made him laugh so hard that we threatened to go sit somewhere else. Another movie that made him laugh so much was Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Steve Martin and Michael Caine. Last year, Emma and I watched it and we both also laughed until we cried at the same scenes that undid my father.

One of my favourite movies is “Impromptu” a biopic about Georges Sands and Frederic Chopin. Chopin was very weak and frail and I think suffered from tuberculosis. There is one scene where he says aloud that his body has always betrayed him. My father looked at me and said that’s how I’ve always felt. I had no idea but it was a very revealing moment about my father, who’d been hospitalized for Polio as a child at the Shriner’s Hospital. I wish I had asked him more questions about his childhood and what it was like. What his day to day life was like. I guess I thought I’d always have time but once he got sick the first time, we were all in emergency response mode.

When Jonathan said that his tiny Chinese mother-in-law was born on the same day and same year as our father, my father exclaimed “my long last Siamese twin separated at birth!” I once made them a joint birthday party and super-imposed two photos of their faces on babies in tea cups (Anne Geddes style) for the invitation. I think he thought it was grotesque but everyone else thought it was hilarious.

My father loved to “kibitz” (tease) – he would exchange Sam’s coke for a glass of wine in Spain. And when he visited me in Calgary we went out to dinner with my friend Pascal. Before Pascal went to the washroom he ordered dessert and when it arrived, my father took it for himself, just to see Pascal’s face upon his return. He knew how to pick his victims.

One of Steph’s colleagues (whom he met on his first trip to Africa) ended up knowing my father through work. He said that “monsieur Mitchell had a very good reputation as being very smart but boy if he wasn’t happy about something you knew it”

I have a memory of Jehovah’s Witnesses coming to our house maybe in Chomedey when I was growing up. My father had just parked the car in the garage and they approached him. In mid-sentence of their spiel, he closed the garage door in their faces.

My father was not “cool” but I remember once at a movie they showed a video trailer of Mick Jagger and David Bowie doing a duo and he thought it was just fantastic. Almost always, when I was younger we had the same opinions of movies and books. If he liked something, I usually did too. This changed more as we both got older.

Once when I was 14 and he was driving me to sleep away camp I asked my father if he thought I was pretty? What the hell are you asking me something like that for? he yelled visibly irritated by the question. But when he was looking through our wedding photos (at record speed) he’d always stop at the close ups of me and tell anybody who was nearby, “See that? I made that!”

I remember seders when I was a kid and when it came time to list the plagues with a drop of wine he would interchange things like Pestilance for Uncle Abe’s Hamentashes which were known to be as hard as hockey pucks.

My father was obsessed with keeping your throat covered. Maybe with good reason as Jonathan and I were prone to bad coughs just like him. I used to say that I could show up at his front door holding my severed arm and he’d take one look at me and say “where’s your scarf?”

My father’s fashion sense was not always on the mark. When I lived at home, sometimes he’d enter the kitchen in the morning on his way to work and I’d catch sight of his attire. My mother would look at me and mouth “not one word” – she never wanted to make him feel bad. Although she would complain to me about some of his worst choices and want to throw out some of his old shorts.

My father had terrible toe nails. Twice I remember he dropped a firelog on the same big toe when I was little. And later, he would have fungal problems that made his nails look just plain awful. Nobody would comment on them and one time I had a “special friend” Molly over to the house for a meal. She had no inner censor or social skills and I heard her yell to my father outside “Harvey, you have to do something with those toe nails!”

Everyone knows the story about how my father once commented to Steph at the local park “hey this is the best pick up joint in town… if you’re not choosy” – in front of all the stay at home moms who overheard his remark. I didn’t believe Steph when he told me this – even for my father this was over the top. I told my mother what he’d said and she looked at me and said in her British accent “Rebecca, your father is a mo-ron.” I would tell him this story and his favourite part was how I could impersonate my mother. “It’s true,” he’d laugh. “I am.”

Another time, Steph told me he was sitting on a bench at the park watching Samuel play when one of the wild boys from the area managed to get his bicycle up to the top of the slide and was planning to ride down. Any other adult would have put a stop to this but my father just sat there watching and shaking his head waiting for the worse to happen.

When he retired, he helped immigrants with their income taxe filings, volunteered as a docent, signed up for Spanish classes and learned the clarinet. One by one, he abandoned each interest. But he played “Happy Birthday” by clarinet at Sam’s 2nd birthday party. My mother was so disappointed for him as he’d rehearsed several times perfectly but at the party it was a disaster. We have this on video and the noise seemed to nearly frighten Samuel sadly. Looking back at my father’s health and weak lungs, it’s a miracle he managed to ever get a single note out of a difficult instrument like the clarinet.

My father’s eating habits were typical of a man of his generation. White toast, coffee with cream and lots of sugar, scant vegetables or fruit. I used to say he was a medical anomoly after he survived cancer the first time and months later was at his chair in the dining room eating a hot dog.

My father had no use for people who didn’t get his puns or jokes. I remember him asking Jonathan’s girlfriend back in Cegep whose name was Cinnamon if she was Danish? When she said no and explained her background he walked away in despair.

My father did not waste words. He could go for hours, days or weeks without speaking. He was not easy to live with.

Many of our times together were at restaurants and sometimes I’d pick him up to take him somewhere. Most places that we used to go to were now “off his list” – either because of the service or the food. We went to the restaurant in Beaurepaire village for lunch and as usual because he hadn’t eaten anything up to then he was in a foul mood. He looked at the menu with disgust and finally settled on the B.L.T. – when the waiter explained it was made a little differently than the usual B.L.T. – my father went on a rant to me about how they should just leave some f-ing things alone and that’s what’s wrong with the world and this f-ing restaurant. After he’d eaten half of his lunch, he acknowledged that it was quite delicious after all.

All through my life, I remember my father saying at restaurants to me “what’s wrong, I’m embarrassing you?” and I would reply “After growing up with you nothing could embarrass me anymore.”

My father loved all the babies in our family including his nieces and nephews on my mother’s side. Once I was babysitting a neighbour’s “shlub” (big bald bruiser) of a baby boy for a few minutes. My father had fallen asleep on the couch in the living room and I sat next to him waiting for him to wake up and notice my new friend. When he opened his eyes, he was startled and said “what the hell is that?”

My dad was my biggest supporter and enthsiast when I launched my headboard business. He didn’t live to see it not succeed but he was the one that pressed “send” on the introductory email from his hospital bed before he died. He loved the idea that I could run a business with no overhead and no risk other than the cost of the website. I wish he had lived to see my new office. I know he would have loved it and especially the fact that there was no risk as it was a month-to-month. When I first hired my assistant Julie was around the time I met John who I was dating. I once said that I wanted him to meet John but he said he just wanted to meet Julie. I’m sorry he never did.

When John and I become engaged, and asked my dad to officiate the wedding ceremony, he was so happy and honoured. I kept telling him it wasn’t a stand-up act. He died thinking that I had met someone and was settled and he told me in the hospital how happy he was about that. It was a very emotional conversation. John and I stopped seeing each other and didn’t get married in the end but my dad was part of a very happy time for a short while. After he died and I started to have second thoughts about my relationship with John, I heard my dad’s voice in my ear once when I was driving to see my mother. He said “Rebecca, you have to get rid of this guy.” – he always called me Becca except when he was serious or angry. He liked John but later my mother told me he was very concerned about his finances and career choices. In the end so was I but my dad never let on. He just wanted me to be happy.

When we told him we’d invited our new friends that we’d met in Mexico to the wedding he asked if they (a gay couple) were married? When we said no, he said tell them to come and he’ll perform a “two for one ceremony.” Ironically, my mother ended up becoming friends with Alan and Joel when she went back to California with her sister-in-law after my father had died.

When I was about 25 I went through Italy with a boyfriend. We stopped in the town of Taormina and the shops were closed for the afternoon “siesta.” There was a store with hundreds of tiny different figurines in the window. We were looking at them when I spotted one and said “Oh my god, that one looks just like my father” – my boyfriend knew immediately which one I was referring to! We went back when the shop re-opened and I purchased it. It now sits on the sofa on a pillow where my dad used to sit and read to keep my mother company.

These memories are not in chronological order but I wanted to record as many I could – partly for me (to not forget with time) and partly so that my children will always have them. They knew and loved their grandpa and this will give them a bigger picture of him.

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