My Father

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by L.G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

  With my father’s 93rd birthday looming on the horizon the important event begs more than a little attention not only to my father, but also to my paternity, specifically the descent from my father, that inescapable stamp of lineage. It hardly bears remark that one’s own character is more closely associated with one’s pedigree than we might at times care to admit. To this extent at least even the casual examination of the ancestral line makes it more than a family picnic.

Without engaging in either a eulogy or a curriculum vitae (for such details so often do little but disguise the substance), there is, I believe, useful instruction to be derived from a broad examination of the distinguishing features of one’s kinship. After 93 years of living my father has discernible traits which are virtually engraved upon his personality – and likely upon my own as a result. I am increasingly aware of comments from close friends and family such as, "You’re becoming just like your father!" Quite apart from any debate about the appreciation of such an observation, I think anyone with half a wit would accept the truth of the inevitability no matter what were the intervening circumstances of one’s development. Some elements of our personality are just too deeply embedded in our being to be distorted by social convention.

One of the earliest recollections I have of my father is his reaction upon learning that I was determined to study philosophy for my undergraduate degree at Glendon Hall, Toronto. After a pregnant pause – and after having removed from the table the possibility of my pursuing a major in economics instead – my father simply replied, "Well, it’s your bed; you make it, you sleep in it!" At the time I merely interpreted this retort as illustrative of a lack of interest in the heady subject of philosophy, but otherwise that my father was preferring to defer to my better judgement on the topic.

While I won’t say that in retrospect either of us was especially right, I have since learned that the more important thrust of my father’s comment was that he guarded himself from interfering in my pursuits. From time to time I have regretted that, on other matters, I hadn’t had the advice and guidance of a more experienced person, but in the end – admitting the facts as they then existed – my own driving self-determination was probably such that I would never have entertained altering my chosen path in any case.

My father’s "hands off" approach to child rearing could be interpreted by some as neglectful, but the little I know about the subject inclines me to think that controversy can be far more damaging in the final analysis. To imagine that "conversation" as opposed to "controversy" can easily exist between father and son, especially when dealing with a teenager, is wishful thinking, made all the more poignant if one acknowledges the likelihood of similarity between the parties.

The upshot of this is that I too tend to teach more by example than instruction. I find that I am keenly aware of the possibility of affront if one seeks to impose one’s wishes on another. Again it is no accident that my father was employed abroad in diplomatic embassies for the Government of Canada.

All his life my father had an avid interest in planting things. I say it in this way because he wasn’t only a gardener (though he did that on a grand scale), he also planted trees, hundreds of them. I have heard it said that it is a wise man who plants trees. While I confess that I have never really shared this particular trait (in fact the one tree I did plant met a sad end when I effectively ignored it and it died of thirst), I have cultivated an interest in planting seeds of other sorts.

No doubt as part of the same inherited characteristic, I am highly aware of the importance of germinating improving thoughts among others, not only the younger generation, but among friends and associates. Similarly it is part of the tradition of our family gatherings that my father, at the end of the repast, will invariably address everyone in attendance, touching briefly upon his or her more desirable qualities with a view to encouraging their continuation and enlargement. It is always an uplifting moment for those in attendance, a pleasing combination of acknowledgement, gratitude and reassurance.

 Lately my father has betrayed an unsurprising preoccupation with what he calls the "end of the road", the destiny from which there is no division. He hammers the nail by reminding himself that there is only one way to go. This "dreadful subject" is in many ways an enlightened object of consideration. For some who are afflicted with imminent death from disease, the prospect of leaving the planet motivates them to do some wonderful things. For others who have technically nothing to fear, the mere recognition that we all have an expiry date is sufficient to prompt a more participatory engagement with life and living.

Whatever the posture one adopts, it is no doubt true that in the middle of the night the contemplation of one’s future can at times be unnerving. Even if I were to imagine that finality is not my current concern, the unavoidable corollary to my father’s condition is that it affects me as well. However one characterizes loss, it is still loss. All one’s life is spent in the pursuit of provision for one’s needs, not their deprivation. I can only mollify the concern by accepting that in the end nature teaches us how to die.

Recalling that my father faced some extraordinary challenges in his life, first during World War II when his amphibious aircraft was shot from the sky in the North Atlantic by an enemy submarine and later in the Belgian Congo during the uprising when he was attacked by ruffians, I am assured that he’ll continue strong in the face of any adversity. Hopefully some of that will wear off on me too!

 Happy birthday, Mr. Chapman, from the staff of the Millstone