This post is personal.
So many things reminded me of my father in recent weeks.
He comes to mind, unannounced, when I’m in my garden. Of course he does. Kaz was a horticulturalist who worked for the Borough, then City, of Etobicoke. I’ve heard it said that you garden to eat, or you garden for esthetics; I’ve not yet committed, but my father was the former. Two weeks ago, I installed an arbour in my vegetable garden, so that my cukes and beans can climb without stringy labyrinths.
My father just used the chain link fences surrounding the property. He had no time for prettying up the vegetables; the tomatoes had to be tied, the kohlrabi to be pulled out, the radishes thinned, and the beans planted in succession over a month. My vegetable garden is more romantic; I’ve been told that a house is French if there is a rose bush in the vegetable garden, wine in the cellar, and Boursin cheese in the fridge. I’m not French, but: check, check, and check. I imagined my father’s snicker as I installed the purchased arbour; he would have fashioned one out of abandoned scrap metal. His smirk I have inherited; I felt it pass over my face, with a strong wave of our time together in his garden, as I installed the arbour.
He came from a farming family in Poland. His vegetable patch(es) in my childhood backyard doubled the size of my current one. I remember one summer when he planted seventy-five tomato plants; my mother warned him to never do that again, because two 5-Litre baskets of tomatoes made their way into the kitchen each day at the height of summer. That was the summer I learned how to peel tomatoes with my teeth and eat them like apples, sprinkled with salt and pepper, for breakfast. And so my father, after just one year of retirement, took a job at York University in the greenhouse.
@dawnbazely tweeted a photo of that greenhouse last week, and petrichor filled my memories of his work there. Often he would bring me (on his days off!) to make sure the experiments were attended to, and I would play with the mimosa plants, try to steal a banana, and beg my father to keep the budding Annona squamosa out of the hands of the pushy Australian academic who regularly barged into the greenhouse and stole what he could scavenge. I never met him, but always resented that the custard apples got away from me because of the purloined fruit. Thank you, Dawn, for bringing those memories back.
And a few weeks ago, I reacted to a tweet of a woman who proudly shared her husband’s Canadian citizen swearing-in ceremony. He had been a refugee and she alluded to the people her husband had left behind.
My father was a P.O.W. I’ve shared this photo on my blog before.
That’s his fingerprint in indigo.
He was a prisoner for four years. My father lost his parents during World War II, both to illness. The Allies freed his camp and he began making his way back to his home in Konin when he learned of the Communists taking control of the political situation in Poland; a physical prison for four years was one thing, but to be a prisoner in his own nation was too much for my father; he returned to Berlin before the political situation became difficult and finished high school and horticulture school there. He heard of an opportunity for displaced persons to earn a chance at freedom in Canada, and he left West Germany in 1950. He never returned to Poland. This woman’s husband reminded me of my father, and the sisters and farm and the memories laced with guilt that remained with him, even though he never saw any of them again.
My news feed evoked some memories as well. I had written of the Kurdi family a few years ago; it was almost impossible not to think of their little boy’s body on the beach when the story of Oscar Alberto Martinez and Angie Valeria surfaced. Teaching English in Canada has afforded me the opportunity to meet refugees from different countries over the years; their stories are courageous and always tinged with survivor’s guilt; the most recent refugee story I heard was not from a student, but from my neighbour. I knew that she had come to Canada as a Boat Person, and she shared her story with me, so matter-of-factly, as we enjoyed her grandson’s birthday party. At ten years of age, she left Vietnam and she and her family sailed to a safer place, Hong Kong harbour, where they lived on a barge for three years. On that passage, she watched a toddler fall overboard from the vessel. All the passengers were aware that the captain could not turn around because they had to avoid a nearby whirlpool. She watched the toddler disappear under water.
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I ran this past weekend, and instead of my usual skip over a Leonard Cohen song, I chose to listen: Democracy. I mentioned in my last post that I avoid Cohen due to the emotions it exhumes. But as @earlyest’s words were still in my head, I listened. My perspective of Democracy has always been framed in a negative light – the marching beat and the first verse unsettle me. This time, I felt the song’s optimism. Even though we read and hear the inane and asinine verbal diarrhea spewed by the American president, it’s hope that brings people to this continent. It’s what brought Martinez and his daughter, my neighbour, my dear friend Huong and her family, and it’s what brought my father here, too.
Several memories always return unbidden at this time of year from the weeks before my father died. One of them is foraging. My father taught my sister and me how to
steal help ourselves to otherwise rotting fruit in our surroundings. In my aunt’s garden, hanging over the privet hedge, were branches that my mother warned us never to touch because they were poisonous. My father’s contrariness induced him to eat these berries and teach us to eat them as well, always within my mother’s sight-line but just out of hearing. The bloom on the berry and its apple-y/blueberry taste compels me to pick service berries each year. I confess I enjoy seeing strangers go past and warn me of the poison I am consuming.
The year that he died, I had foraged enough to bring home. My father, a diabetic, helped himself to a few and mentioned that they would do well in a pie. I baked a pie. My father, who had not eaten any sugary dessert in my presence, ever, consumed a piece and pronounced it “not bad”. My lexicon contains this phrase; I use it whenever my children do something I’m especially proud of. They know what I mean, as did I.
And finally, the verbena. Kaz’s desire for cacaphony in the flower beds used to hurt my eyes; he thought nothing of mixing red with orange and yellow, scattered with hints of pink. Much like his vegetable beds, the flowers were planted in unyielding rows of symmetry. I thought I saw a weed among the flowers; I yanked it out and threw it on the compost pile so it would not mar the rank and file.
Gently, he approached me and asked, “Were you weeding in my garden?” No one could misunderstand the possessive form.
“Yes.” Not aware of my error, I missed the tone.
“That was not a weed; that is a botanical specimen.”
“That was a flower?”
“But it’s so tall and the leaves are so ugly and rough.”
“It’s tall so that you can easily lean over and catch the scent. The leaves are rough to protect the plant from infestation. You weeded verbena. And left the purslane, I might add.”
Afraid of my father’s disappointment, I apologised. He waved me away, saying, “I replanted it before it wilted. You’ll change your mind when it blooms.”
I can’t tell you if I love Verbena bonariensis because my father convinced me of its beauty, or because my father was convinced of its beauty.
My father died the week after this conversation, on July 9th.
I planted verbena in my garden in 1999. It has reseeded itself for twenty years.
My grief undulates; sometimes, he is a lifetime away. At other times, the sadness is so recent. I am not yet the age my father was when I was born, but as that age approaches, I understand the patient, intelligent, witty man more than I did when he was alive. I hope I’ve learned all the lessons he hoped I would. I’m grateful for the surge of memories this year and for noticing what triggered them.