Before everything, before all else in my universe, there was my dad.
One half of The Stuff That Made Me. My earliest memories of him are fragmented but oddly specific: the exact smell of Old Port pipe tobacco, somehow the only smoke that doesn't make me gag; tickle fights I'd always lose, accompanied by an indescribable chuffing series of syllables Dad would sound out that would drive my mother bugshit; Dad boosting me up so I could see Niagara Falls over a barrier twice my height.
Liberally sprinkled throughout my childhood were camping trips, always at Oastler Lake Provincial Park, at a specific campsite with its own private beach that my parents seemed to have permanently reserved. Nearly every summer weekend we'd make the two hour run up to Parry Sound, or Parry Hoot as my Dad calls it: the town he grew up in and recently moved back to. Every time we'd go over the big white bridge spanning the Moon River at the southern gateway to Parry Sound District, he'd honk the car horn and I'd think, we're almost home. We'd drive past the Canadian National Institute for the Blind camp and Dad would infallibly tell me to "wave at your friends". I'd oblige. It was years before I found out what "C.N.I.B." stood for.
It was in Parry Sound where my dad would drop his city shell and be himself. The place has an almost-mythical sheen on it in my memory, and is one of the few small towns I'd consider relocating to if life circumstances ever permitted. We'd pile into our blue Ford Maverick with the 1970 model Trailmaster tent trailer hitched up, and barrel up the "Four-Double-Donut" (the King's Highway 400) and highway 69, and those weekends were my own personal idyllic family memories, the essence of my childhood.
My parents fell apart in 1977 and from then on my childhood was bifurcated, split between the drudgery of home life and the promise of weekends (and, once or twice a year, entire weeks) with Dad. When I was young (as opposed to the old and immature I am now), I appreciated Dad for all the things he bought for me. I can date precisely the moment I dropped all that and really loved the man for who he was and is.
Until I married, if I went somewhere exciting, nine point seven times out of ten it was with Dad. Disney World, 1984. Venezuela, 1986. Cedar Point, 2003. A myriad of other places. If they were within driving distance -- and Dad drove for a living, so a lot of places were -- there'd be music playing. Roger Whittaker, all those trucking songs like "Give Me Forty Acres" and "Six Days On The Road", or CHAY-FM out of Barrie, playing easy listening and giving little Kenny the musical taste of a grandpa. The dulcet tones of Roger Whittaker singing "River Lady" would just make me more excited for the fun to come.
But the place that sticks most in my memory is neither exotic nor "exciting": Depot Harbour, Ontario.
I've written of the place before. Here it is in all its decrepit glory. It's on Parry Island, not far at all from downtown Parry Sound, but a world apart. Walking through the old townsite, looking at the steps to a church that no longer exists, I was all but overcome with a sense of awe, almost of weight. I could feel the history of the place seeping into me somehow. God alone knows what I'd be like anywhere in Europe, but that excursion was a gift from my father I have never, ever forgotten. There, he passed on to me a love of history and a sudden understanding that I come from somewhere: that generations of people lived lives I can barely imagine, and Dad was the final link in one of the chains leading to me. More on that at the end.
In the summer of 1979, two years after the marriage of my mom and dad died, I was sent out to greet a man named John. He was helping our tenant (and live-in babysitter) move. "Hello, you must be John," I said. His impression was of a polite little boy; mine was of a giant.
Mine was much closer to being correct. I was a holy terror of a kid. Mom did the best she could, but she could only do so much working three jobs. I had next to no social skills and other children don't exactly help you where you're lacking in that department. John came to learn my true nature right quick...and still married my mom anyway, less than a year later. They remained married until Mom passed away in a fire, and he took on the awesome responsibility of raising me.
He didn't have to do that.
After Mom passed, John moved on. I don't begrudge him that one bit: it's his right. I have little doubt John saved my life, or at least a life worth living...and I completely understand and accept that I no longer have a place in his life.
My dad could have done the same. He's got a family now, more of a family than I can give him, and this makes me happy. He maintains ties with me and that makes me happy, too. We don't see eye to eye on everything, but I'd be worried if my kid thought exactly the way I do. I love you, Dad. Please don't forget that.
Happy Father's Day to fathers and father figures everywhere.