A promise kept

I was standing in a telephone booth, Avenue Langlet, in Rheims, shouting (or so it seemed) to be heard. It was beginning to rain and Franc was half in half out of the booth dancing from foot to foot somewhat impatiently getting soaked while I talked. I had a fistful of brassy ten franc coins in my hand to put into the slot. When they were gone, the call would be over.

In France it was a national pastime to cheat the system. Many Sundays, we would go far afield in the city to find one of the phones that could be tricked into thinking one was making a local call. Students and foreigners would line up by the booth waiting for their turn to call home. Then you could talk as long as you wanted unless you got mobbed by the group of individuals waiting their turn.

Franc had called me many times like this during the summer when I went home to Canada to earn more tuition for Art School. Whenever he got a “free” phone, we talked a long comforting talk. When he didn’t, it was a hello-good bye conversation. “Everything OK? When are you coming back. Call you next week.”

But I digress. I was shouting to my Mom, asking how Dad was. He had suffered a second heart attack while in the hospital for his a check up on his prostrate operation. I telephoned home every Sunday to send my love. Somehow I never thought he would die. A bit silly, I know now. Everyone does sometime.

The news was not good this week. He was sleeping a lot, not responding. Otto and Heather were in town and had seen him regularly. My coins were rapidly disappearing into the machine. I only had one left. I said a quick goodbye and heard one in return, then the line cut and I was alone with Franc.

I was living with Franc by that time although I never put that in my parent’s faces. They were strictly religious. The hippie idea of “try before you buy” was odious to them. It broke the Ten Commandments. I think we tacitly both knew I was living with him. We just didn’t talk about it.

Franc and I had been operating a second hand, curio, antique shop, selling anything of interest. It was a fascinating business and we both loved it, but there had been a recession in the economy and businesses were falling like flies. The statistic for Rheims was thirty five percent bankruptcy since the beginning of the year. A small affair like ours could not hold on. We would have to do something else. We had actually officially closed our doors at New Year’s Eve and were prepared to find something else to work at. In the meantime, the law permitted three months for us to liquidate our stock.

We travelled a lot to fairs – Nancy, Paris, Metz, Charleville – and had just returned from the one at the Porte de Maillencourt on the edge of Paris in March early the next Sunday morning when a telegram from Canada was delivered saying that Father had died, the memorial service would be Thursday next and please come home.

The story of how I got back to Canada in a hurry and how I stayed in Canada, leaving Franc to fend for himself in cleaning up everything, including all my affairs, is another story. Stay tuned.

The point is, I got home and Father was gone. Just gone.

I couldn’t say good bye to him. I hadn’t been able to tell him how much I loved him or thank him for all he had done for me. My grief was unbridled. I gulped back tears and soaked up handkerchiefs all through his memorial church service. During the tea afterwards, I dissolved into tears every time someone came up to me and told me how much they loved Dad or how wonderful he was. I couldn’t get a hold of myself. I was truly distressed and was dripping from my screwed up eyes to prove it. Mother came over to me and said sharply “Get a grip on yourself.!” My behaviour was not seemly. I was the prime embarrassment to the family.

In the aftermath, I stayed in Canada, found a job, at first odd jobs, then with a temp agency, then I got a stint with the company I’ve just retired from, and the rest is history. But I lived with mother for the first six months. I was company to her in her grief and it was an advantage to me until I had the wherewithal to pay food and rent and be independent. We got along quite well, except that I lived under some draconian restrictions from my hippie point of view. It was as if I was still a teenager and had to report home by six or suffer the consequences.

Again I digress. The point was that I loved my father deeply. He was an thoroughly honourable man and an deeply ethical man; a man devoted to his church, and proud of his family’s accomplishments. He was from a poor immigrant homesteading family in the Interlaken district of Manitoba. whose prime purpose in coming to Canada was to provide their children with opportunity and education. Dad had not only got his education but became an educator. Academia was a ticket out of poverty; a badge of honour and his lodestar. He was 59 when he got his Doctorate and his full professorship followed.

He provided each of his children with a home while they got their education and each of us got a Bachelor degree; two went on for their Masters, but that wasn’t me. I barely got my degree, and it was only through the patience and love of my father that I really, finally got mine.

I was from the narrow five year group of people that where considered the hippie generation. Rebellion was our banner. My sister before me had dutifully obeyed and followed the strictures of the post war culture, joining a sorority in college, attending fraternity balls and studying well into the night to ensure she succeeded in her studies. She followed up with a great career in teaching. My sister who came after had seen the disasterous example I had set and returned to the post war model of behaviour. She too became a teacher. Twenty four years later, she is still teaching in the same school. But I was the model of what not to do.

I had taught school for four years with my art education degree in hand, and married a draft dodger from the Viet Nam war, divorcing him just three years later because of his abuse of drugs, alcohol, money and me. I fled from him into the Kootenays and taught another year of school to make a living. It was how I made money and I loved teaching the children, but I hated the system, true to hippie form. By the time our divorce had been finalized, I had a packet of money from the sale of our house and I was determined to do what I had always dreamed of doing – going to art school. That my lodestar. I wanted to earn my living as an artist.

It was my younger sister who put the idea of Europe in my head. She sent me the list of schools she had applied to and I applied also. She asked only that we not attend the same school. If we had, we would both have spoken English together and she was going principally to learn French, the art was secondary for her. In July we both left for Europe, agreeing to meet up in Holland where our relatives lived. I arrived in Amsterdam on the 14th of July. It’s Bastille Day in France. That’s how I remember the date.

But, back to Father. I was talking about Father, and ultimately, I will get back to my story of Mother which is what this blog is about when it’s not about me.

One day when Mom was talking about Dad and her trips down to the hospital, her conversations with him as he was dying, the participation of the other siblings, she let drop a bombshell. She said. “ at the end, Father kept repeating ‘We’ve lost Kay!, We’ve lost our precious Kay”.

That turned in my head for years. What had he meant by it? Had he meant only that I had not been at his bedside when he was dying; that he hadn’t been able to bring my soul to his succour in his last days? Was I lost just because I was living in France and couldn’t or didn’t get home to be by his side?

Did he mean that I was lost like the prodigal son? Or that I had turned “bad” in the manner of a remittance man (woman) – one who had lost their way according to the religious principals that his church demanded, and had to be paid to stay away? Was I lost because I smoked, drank, partied, went to art school, did life drawings of nude models? Was I lost because I was living in sin, that is, not married to the partner I was living with? Or lost because I was not making a living at a respectable job, in Academia or some other benevolent profession? Or that I had gone far away to find myself, grow up, and I hadn’t come home? Or that I hadn’t found the self that was believed by my parents to be my destiny? I was the prodigal daughter and I had not returned.

I loved my father deeply. The comment twisted in me. Changed me. Tortured me. Saddened me. Made me change. Made me look at myself. Made me re-think what I was doing.

I began conversations with my father. His body was gone but his spirit was not. I held conversations with his spirit and sometimes he answered me. Sometimes I felt he put opportunities in front of me and if I only thought things through well, I could take the opportunity and advance in the right direction. All his early teachings were still within me; I had only to use them as a compass for me again.

One of the things he had often said after he retired was that he would surely die before mother did. Dear Father loved our Mother profoundly and honourably. Sometimes he would be at odds with my mother over some household expense or another. Mom really liked to decorate and to put on a fine table. She felt that Hostess was a profession that was adjunct to Professorship. She supported my father in his profession by ensuring they entertained the right people. To do so, she had to have a respectable residence dressed up in a House Beautiful manner. And that cost money.

Dad was of the opinion that his academic career hinged on his authority of knowledge and professional conduct. Household decoration was secondary.

Point being, Dad would tell us that he was careful with money because he was trying to ensure that mother would be well provided for in her later days without him. Men lived to be 74 on the average. His father had not; Dad only expected to live to 74. Women on the other hand, expected to live to 80. Her mother had died at 109, a fantastic old age. Who knew how long Mother might live?

He wanted her to be comfortable and at ease financially. If he was being frugal to a point of annoyance it was because he wanted to ensure her security. He wanted her to have a maintenance free house and a family that would rally around her to protect her. He entreated me to care for mother when he was gone.

As mother progressed in her aging even in the most difficult situations, my promise to my father was what guided me through. It has been twelve years now since I first came to live with her. She was a fiercely independent, intellectually active woman with a large dose of prairie grit in her constitution. Slowly, very slowly, she became totally dependent and not long after, she died. I’m putting together pieces of how that happened, like a puzzle. It was a harrowing task some days, beautiful on others. The last moments were sacred. I don’t regret one minute of the commitment I made.

And there endeth today’s blog. For love of father. For love of mother, I took to heart that I would look after her. It was a promise, especially for Dad. I would fulfill his wish that I would look after mother until she died.

If I did so in good faith, I might no longer be lost.

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One Response to “A promise kept”

  1. Everything About Americans Says:

    What a nice bunch of people! I like this place!

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