On December 5th my father would have been 98 years of age. In his memory I am posting this personal essay.
Thoughts on My Father
by Ruth Zaryski Jackson
The Priest swings the censer in a wide cross over the coffin and discordant harmonies of the Ukrainian Orthodox service fill my ears. Musty incense wafts into my nostrils as six pallbearers carry Dad’s casket out the chapel’s side door to the hearse which will take his body to the crematorium. I weep as I follow. I weep for my father who has left us finally and forever. I weep for the father I had and for the father I missed having.
On the 21st of January, 2000, during the first sub-zero blizzard of the season, my father died. He’d reached the millennium, but his heart stopped three weeks later. He was 88.
We moved Dad to a nursing home only five months earlier when Mom could no longer cope. She nursed him at home for years as his mind became more and more tangled. Was it Alzheimer’s or toxic metal exposure during a long welding career?
In the end his lungs failed him. A smoker from the age of 10, he’d given it up reluctantly in his 70s when diagnosed with a black spot on his right lung. Years later he forgot he’d stopped, started up again briefly, before forgetting again. The damage was done.
Major surgery prevented me from visiting for two months after Dad moved. I saw him only twice before a flu epidemic closed the nursing home to visitors. Before I could return with his Christmas pyjamas, he died.
Our life-long relationship had been distant. We didn’t clash openly, but rarely engaged. I learned early to get on with my life. I was a baby when he left for 18 months to work on construction of the Alaska Highway. He visited just once during that period when I was 14 months. The family story is: as he was leaving again, I held onto him tightly at Union Station, crying and wouldn’t let go. When he returned he found my personality at 2 ½, defined by my mother and the residents of our rooming house.
Born in Galicia (now Ukraine) in 1911, Dad spoke Ukrainian at home, Polish at school and later learned English. His own father had been absent for 7 years during WW1 then the Civil War which followed, and returned when Dad was 10. As his father attempted to discipline and make a man of him, Dad rebelled, and at 16, emigrated alone to Canada. He never looked back, except once, when he cried upon hearing in 1947, his beloved younger brother never returned from the war.
Dad reported growing up in a “reasonably happy” family with 5 siblings. In 1914 WWI broke out, eventually disrupting his schooling and casting a pall over village life. They dodged flying bullets, billeted soldiers, and hid in cellars. He played war games with friends during the quiet times. In the fabric of his early life, fear dwelt below the surface. The tumultuous history of Galicia made Dad a political animal and, given other educational opportunities, he might have become a lawyer or a politician.
Few early photos of my father survive. On his passport, he appears younger than 16, a prominent widow’s peak above hooded eyes and full lips. He looks determined with youthful bravado. In another, he sits on a dock with arms crossed displaying wiry strength, wearing his bathing suit, black socks and dress shoes. In my earliest memory his hair had already thinned. He remained trim and muscular throughout his life, dressed well when he wasn’t working in coveralls and prided himself on tasteful suits and Daks shoes. He wore a Humphrey Bogart-style fedora during the 1940s and 1950s.
“Eric,” he told my son when he turned 16 “I going take you to buy good suit for very good price”.
And he did.
Dad was fiercely proud of his family, but unsure in his role as father. After several missteps, Dad grasped his role as husband, but needed Mom’s guidance to negotiate the nuances of living. He understood “bringing home the bacon” but left child-rearing to Mom.
“Wait till your father gets home!” she’d warn us when she reached her wit’s end.
I resented Dad’s willingness to strap us on her word alone. In my youngest brother Dad found a mirror image of himself and quickly judged and disowned his son. Despite Mom’s attempts to mediate, Dad stubbornly held fast to his disappointment.
As a friend, his loyalty to those from his village exceeded all expectation. A dying friend moved into their living room and my parents cared for him. My father, as Executor, carefully carried out the man’s wishes, dealing with a resentful wife and daughter abandoned in Ukraine. With his white-collar neighbours, he offered manual skills and connections to the trades. With his grandchildren, he was affectionate and playful, the way we’d wished he’d been as a father.
As I listen to the eulogies, I try to reconcile others’ perceptions with the man I knew. He seems loved by many, but as a child, I often wondered if he loved me. He never expressed it until one day I pressed him, fearing he might not survive an ulcer operation.
He held Old Country prejudices yet in his neighborhood he got along with everyone. Religion was a touchy subject. Raised Greek Catholic, where church formed the basis of village life, he resented Poland’s attempts to convert them to Roman Catholicism. He had a love-hate relationship with Poles, yet some of his friends were Polish. I never knew him to attend church except on rare holidays yet, as death approached, he announced he wanted the full Ukrainian Orthodox funeral service: cantors, incense and all.
When I reflect on my father today, I wonder what of him I carry inside? Physically, I resemble my mother. Inside, I hold some of his tendencies: loyalty to friends and family, responsibility and stubbornness. We also share similar opposite traits: sociable and introverted, nervous yet confident. Perhaps I am my father’s daughter after all.