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Ode to Dad: Three Memoirs

The kindness and generosity of fathers.

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Ode to Dad: Three MemoirsIllustrations: Meredith Sadler

Chicken Suit for the Soul
One dad’s attempt to ease summer-job suffering

By Bruce Grierson

It promised to be the best job so far that summer-which wasn’t saying very much. 

I’d been scanning the “casual labour” postings at the local employment office, vowing every visit to take something, anything. Already I had unpacked shipments of underpants, been pulled through an active sewer on a rolling sled to seal cracks with a bucket of caulk and a trowel, and delivered flower arrangements in a car so small half the buds got crushed when you closed the hatchback. At 18, you take what you can get. 

That’s why this particular gig looked so beguiling: “mascot.” To celebrate the grand opening of a new Edmonton location in the Red Rooster convenience store chain, the employer needed to catch the eye of passing motorists and was offering two days’ work to a self-starter who would bust a few dance moves on the corner. 

I fit the suit. I got the job. 

The outfit had clearly been washed fewer times than it had been worn. The oversized head-more chicken than rooster-was sculpted out of wire and foam and sat heavily on shoulder pads, which had been shined and flattened by sweat and compression. The moony eyes didn’t line up with mine. 

It was mid-July. Even the mosquitoes were sluggish. A high-pressure system had settled on the city, and forecasters were calling for record-breaking temperatures by Sunday. The suit had no ventilation. There was no relief unless you removed the head, which was allowed only during one of two 10-minute breaks, out of public view-lest any children be forever traumatized by the sight of decapitated fake fowl.

It didn’t take long for the welcome party to show up. Kids can smell the stress hormones in sweat even upwind, and soon half a dozen preteens were orbiting as I staked out a spot on the sidewalk and tried to get into character. “Hey, chicken!” one kid taunted. This was a part of town that might charitably be called “emerging.” These were tougher kids than I was used to. “Hey, chicken legs!” 

My best defence was to concentrate on the job. I improvised a dance that involved standing on one leg and helicoptering the other leg and the opposite arm-er, wing-more or less in sync. It wasn’t particularly roosterly, and it certainly wasn’t manly. Immediately, I could feel a change in the energy of the kids. They were homing in on a new frequency of vulnerability.

The first rock hit me in the back. I figured they were aiming for the head, and I actually reoriented to give them that bigger, softer target.

No cars slowed. A manager briefly emerged from the store, was hit by a blast of heat that lifted his toupée, then quickly darted back into his air-conditioned cave. During break time I closed the door of the store’s stockroom, removed my head and hyperventilated.

That night at the supper table my dad said grace-the same grace he had grown up with as a missionary’s son, murmured quietly to himself in wartime mess halls and now trotted out for his four kids (who were mostly just glad it was short). Then he asked me, “How’d it go?”

To everyone’s surprise-but mostly mine-I started to cry. I described the heat, the stench, the rocks, the sticky pavement under my chicken feet. 

“And the worst part is,” I said, “I have to go out there tomorrow and do it all again.” 

My father was quiet for a full 10 seconds. Then:  

“No, you don’t.”

This was unusual. Dad had always believed we kids should keep our commitments. The store had hired me in good faith to be a chicken (rooster), and it wasn’t cool if the chicken (rooster) didn’t show up. 

“What do you mean?” I said. 

“I mean, you’re not putting on that suit tomorrow,” he said. “I am.”

Dad had wiry black eyebrows and, under them, the kindest eyes. He was 60 years old. “Look, we’re about the same size,” he said. “Who’s to know?”

“We’re only lent to each other,” the short-story writer Raymond Carver once said. We get to have moments, and all we can do is savour the best ones as they happen: here, now… gone. The part of me that relished imagining my father out there doing the twist or the bus stop, maybe even kind of enjoying himself in the anonymity of the costume, was hard to deny. But there was no way I was letting him be the chicken. The fact that he was willing to be the chicken was enough. The gesture blew new strength into me. 

The next day went well. Nothing was different, but everything was. At the end of it, I deposited a cheque for $86 and felt like a king.

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Man at Work
A eulogy for a brilliant craftsman and even better father

By Dave Girard

If you wanted to get to know my dad, you just needed to look at his hands. They were large and leathery, stained and scarred from the merciless demands of his brain. They were rarely idle, and they made the words “skilled” and “rugged” back away without a fight. 

Dad’s hands were the reason I learned to value the evidence of time and toil on people’s faces. In my fath­er’s universe, you would be congratulated for a new set of lines under your eyes because they told a story about love of ideas and late nights chasing that next great thing. In my father’s world, fool’s gold was a face well-preserved by a lack of hard work.

As a result of his insatiable desire for learning new things, Dad was one of the smartest uneducated men you’d ever meet. He left high school because formal education got in the way of his ability to work with the ideas he already had and urgently needed to develop. His ability to reverse-engineer and solve problems shamed people with more credentials. Throughout his career, degree-toting managers and union bosses hated him because he made everyone look bad: he worked too hard and too well. My mother often said my father would have been dangerous with an education-but he was dangerous because he didn’t have an education. In the days before the Internet, YouTube and open-source learning, my father became a well-paid engineer with no engineering schooling. That was dangerous.

This isn’t, however, the story of a recluse whose accomplishments were merely job-related. Family was always his first priority-it’s just that he often expressed his love for us through work. He built me my first tool box and my first drafting table. He helped me turn a shack into a painting studio and replaced the bad wiring in my new home. He built furniture for my sister, Sue, fixed an apartment for my stepsister, Tammy, repaired our cars and rigged up a slowed-down golf cart for his grandkids.

Dad’s labours of love are too num­erous to mention, but his boat was his life’s magnum opus. After building our house in Old Chelsea, Que., he made a wooden racing-style boat hull in our basement and outfitted it with a 454-horsepower Chevy car engine. My parents divorced when I was young, and we lived with our mother, so Dad treasured our camping trips and excursions to the lake. I got to spend my summers pulled behind a roaring motorboat my dad built-it didn’t get any better than that.

My relationship with my father deepened in recent years-I grew to understand him in my genes. The giddy feeling I get when I develop my own custom tools, an appreciation for solitary work, and my career as a painter, art director, 3-D artist, coder and tinkerer are my father’s gifts to me. His ability to be a loyal friend, a voice of reason and a force for good are qualities I try to emulate. 

However, my dad’s biggest lesson was about humility. When someone would admire the boat-a boat that even the crankiest of coots would agree was a beautiful work of engineering and craftsmanship-he shrugged off the compliment with a clear disdain for egotism. I could show Dad some simple computer script and he would say, “You got me beat,” like I was the one making magic.

Dad described his father as incredibly hard-working, and it terrifies me to think of what that looked like, given his own work ethic. It does explain why my grandfather was financially strapped: doctors’ bills combined with ulcers back before there was public health care in Ontario. I remember my grandfather’s workshop, littered with empty antacid containers. 

But my father had his own ills. In the end, the only thing stronger than his will to create and love was his need to escape his depression. John Leslie Girard left us at the age of 67 on the blackest of Fridays in the darkest of ways, outwitting even our best efforts to keep him alive. If Dad wasn’t so good at what he did, he might have failed on his first attempt and given us a chance to help him. But my father was successful, even in his tragic failure. 

I debated writing about Dad’s suicide because it might tarnish great memories. But to deny how people like him died is to deny how they lived: suffering and in need of our help. 

I am eternally grateful to my stepmother, Ivy, for loving Dad unconditionally and for trying to save him from himself-I know it was a full-time job. To my father, I have one last thing to say: Dad, you left a hammer in my studio. I promise to put it to good use, but I may end up with blackened fingers-I’ll be hammering with tears in my eyes and a broken heart.

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Family First
Father-daughter lessons in priorities

By Kate Carraway

Probably the best thing I’ve ever read about dads is by writer Gavin McInnes. A few years ago, on his blog My Dad Homies, McInnes wrote, “I asked my dad what he wanted for Father’s Day, and like all dads who never abandoned their children, he said, ‘Nothing.'” 

I don’t know exactly why, but that line felt and still feels entirely right and true. My father, much like McInnes’s, never wants anything. I have the kind of dad who is so into his family-which now includes six grandchildren, in addition to my two older sisters and me-that asking for some particular thing on Father’s Day would be kind of beside the point, or just missing it. 

I always had the sense that my dad was different from the majority of fathers on TV, or at school, or wherever. The most common dad archetype is someone who, while not necessarily a bad guy, seems exhausted by his family’s presence and demands, and who is eternally desperate to be away, relieved, separate. I like and appreciate the comedian Louis C.K.’s hilarious and darkly sweet take on devoted fatherhood, but he doesn’t appear to be having much fun, I guess. Another, near-opposite contemporary-dad trope is the kind of father many of my friends have: the anxious, overprotect­ive cheerleader who is embarrassing and adorable and so, so excited to dance at your wedding. 

My dad is great (as is my mom, but her special I-love-you moment was last month), but not standard issue. He’s really more like a self-effacing, benevolent friend; as a kid, I always had the feeling that he, my mother and I were really good buddies, with shared interests and in-jokes. (My sisters were teenagers by the time I hit Grade 1, so I thought of them more as mystifying blond apparitions.) Unlike the distant patriarchs or corny hoverers, my dad’s thing was-and is-to take what might be considered a less egocentric approach. All those drives around town and all those homework sessions happened because things needed to get done, and because he appeared to want to do what needed to be done. He also seemed, with my sisters and me, and seems, with my nieces and nephews, to have an uncommon empathy for what it’s like to be a kid, and how being seen and being known is the most important thing, even when you’re small. 

It’s unusual to find representations of the kind of dad who just does his job. Maybe that’s why I like Ron Swanson of the sitcom Parks and Recreation. In a recent episode, Ron, an old-school individualist and new father, is hoping to spend a day alone in the outdoors away from the non-stop chaos of family life. Instead, he finds himself taking Andy, a hapless 30-something colleague, to the dentist when he falls off a jungle gym. After, Ron calls his wife and says that he’s coming home to help her, observing, “I’m a parent. I’m always on duty.” He’s not resigned or prideful. He’s realizing that what he actually wants to do is also what needs to get done. Ron Swanson probably doesn’t want anything for Father’s Day, either. 

Historically, I’ve thought that having the kind of dad that I do might have made one part of life more difficult: a consistently good father sets an example that most guys my age-who, to be fair, grew up under wildly different social and cultural circumstances than our dads’ generations did-can’t live up to. I can forgive them wanting to play games on their phones and watch Internet TV and work at home in their pyjamas and call it a job (I do all of those things, too), but the truth is that only a small percentage of guys I’ve met are more humble and committed to helping others than they are selfish or needy. 

Lately I’m beginning to wonder if I should view my father less as an example most men my age can’t live up to and more as an influence: instead of comparing other kinds of dads and other kinds of guys to the dad I have, I should try harder to incorporate his influence into my own self and my own way of doing and being. Doing what needs to be done can be viewed as an opportunity, rather than an obligation. To want nothing other than for your family to be good and happy and fine is maybe the point of it all.