It's only now I understand why he got so pissed when I cried at hockey practice
My extended family is still huge, though not as huge as it once was. My grandmother had 13 kids, and the reaper has taken home four of them, along with six of the hundred or so of my cousins. My dad was the second-youngest of the Wilson/MacKenzie clan.
Recently, we got together to celebrate the 40th anniversary of my Uncle Don’s entry into the priesthood. A picture of some of the family, circa 1962, seeing him off to some parish in BC shows my dad, younger than I am now, front and centre, sporting the same shit-eater of a grin that I’m often accused of wearing.
Geez, I tell myself, do you ever look like your old man. It’s not a disquieting moment, just surprising. Most of my life I’ve thought of myself as very different from my father. It’s my brother Jimmy who’s like Dad — tougher and more confrontational than I am.
I’ve always envied them their similarity. I can only guess that they understand each other better than Dad and I do. My dad and I love each other, but at my end I’ve always felt a little discomfort between us, as if we just can’t figure each other out. He’s my father, I’m his kid, and beyond that there’s a sense that I’ve only been able to scratch his surface.
In the church hall, Dad cracks wise with his sibs, goofs around with his grandnieces and -nephews and then turns his attention to his grandson Matthew.
Matt is stretching his gum and twirling it around his finger. “Matt,” Dad solemnly intones, “if you keep doing that, your head’ll spin right off.”
A ghost of a smile at the corners of his mouth gives him away. Matthew seems as excited at being headless as his older brother, and giggles madly.
Dad’s always been good with kids. He coached minor hockey, and held barbecues for his teams at the end of the season. One year the kids chipped in and got him a trophy for being such a great coach. To make sure everyone knew that the bronzed hockey player atop the trophy was Mr. Wilson, someone’s mom added tiny clippings from a wig to mimic dad’s shaggy red hair and beard.
I think Dad’s own kids resented his easiness with other people’s children. When my brother Jimmy and I played on his teams, we always felt like he went out of his way to make sure no one would accuse him of favouritism.
But not being on his team could be even worse. You’d be taking the puck behind the net and moving it up the ice when The Voice in the stands would pierce the chilly arena air.
“C’mon, kid! Hustle! Work, work, work! Play the puck, not the man!”
I’d get so nervous on Saturday mornings when I was scheduled to play that I’d end up puking in the dressing room.
If my team lost, I took it as a personal failure (even then, I had a grossly inflated opinion of my own importance) and would end up bawling my eyes out. That would just infuriate Dad, since it reeked of poor sportsmanship.
“Why you cryin’?” he’d ask sharply while rushing me to the car. The crying was what had him pissed, but I could never wrap my eight- and nine-year-old head around that. I always thought he was mad because I’d lost the game, and I’d start sobbing so hard I’d become completely incoherent.
“Jesus Christ, you make me so goddamned mad.” He always spat the words through clenched teeth when he was really angry.
“Cryin’ like frickin’ Jamie T. (Jamie potted the puck in his own net so often his coach sewed a stop sign on the front of his jersey) because you didn’t win.”
The only time he ever came close to hitting me was when I did something monumentally stupid and probably illegal. Worse still, it made Dad look foolish, and he got a call from my vice-principal.
I found myself pinned against the bathroom wall staring at a cocked fist. Dad caught himself, probably just in time, and left me alone in the john. I had to sit on the can to contemplate being “grounded for life.” My knees were shaking too badly to hold me up.
Next day, my life sentence was commuted to four weeks, and when Dad informed me of this he clutched me and apologized.
I don’t remember if I accepted his apology, but 15 years later I’m still amazed that he didn’t lay me out. I was an odious little turd of a teen.
If you ever snuck a few ounces out of the bottles of clear booze in the liquor cabinet and replaced them with water, you know what kind of a kid I was.
Around the time I clued in to the fact that my shit indeed stank, I started to revise my line of questioning about my father. “Why is he always on my case” was refined into “Why is always angry at me?” and eventually was distilled further into “Why is he so angry?”
He may be an infuriatingly tough nut to crack, but I think I’ve begun to understand some of his anger.
Dad got my mom pregnant and had to marry her, having dodged that bullet once before. To support a family, he took a job he hated on an assembly line.
Now, having worked in the same place for almost seven years, I understand a tiny bit of the anger it must have engendered in him.
I, too, hate the monotony of doing the same thing over and over, 500 times a day, six days a week. The sense that you’re little more than a flesh-and-blood robot bolted to the floor is infuriating.
The difference between Dad and me is that if I choose to walk away from my job, I’ll only have to worry about myself. Dad had four other people relying on him for food and shelter.
We tend to idealize our fathers, putting them on a pedestal at one stage in their lives and, when they don’t live up to our expectations, sending them crashing to the floor.
When my cousin Robert died, seeing Dad weep over the casket as he mourned the loss of his nephew and shared the grief of Robert’s own father and mother, I realized that I had judged him far too harshly in the past.
After the funeral, as my extended family thanked Robert’s friends for their kindnesses and made them for a while a part of our clan, I was struck by how human Dad seemed.
This Sunday will probably be golf day. Dad will show off his new oversized driver, and when he hits off the tees he’ll look like his shoes are going to fly off, he crushes the ball so hard.
He’s insisted on no gifts this Father’s Day, and Jimmy and I will have to content ourselves with getting him a beer or two. I’ll stink up the course, and afterward Dad will keep on commending me for the two or three good shots I made.
I won’t tell him that I cried a little after I got off the phone with him last week, filled with dread by the sound of age stealthily creeping into his voice.
I cry at the drop of a hat, just like Uncle Smokey and Aunt Jeannie.