A Walk With My Father

old-man-and-young-man-walkingOne evening in the summer of 1999, I was walking with my father. We were returning home from The Swan, a local pub in the coastal town of Stranraer, Scotland.  My brother and I had come with our families to visit my parents.  It was the first time we had seen them in the three  years since they had returned to Scotland from the United States.  

A chill air surrounded us as we walked through the close streets of the town.  It was June, but the weather was still cool and damp, and as we made our way past darkened store fronts I told him of my impending divorce and my concerns about moving out of my home and setting up a new household. I was worried about my ability to care for my children on a diminished income and how to provide stability, despite their changing environment?   We walked for a few moments in silence and then he uttered the words that haunt me still.  

In his thick Scottish brogue he said, “My father died when I was 14.  He never gave me anything but the back of his hand!  And I was happy to have it.”

In 1969, by the time I was 12 years old, I had watched nearly every episode of Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, Andy Griffith and My Three Sons.  With research conducted via after school re-runs and prime-time family viewing, I considered myself an expert on the structure and function of the American Nuclear Family.  Of course the head of the household was always male, a sober white-collared engineer or architect, strong but kind, firm but fair. Mothers, if there were one, for mothers could often be replaced by curmudgeonly old uncles, maids or a trusted man-servant, were always of the beautifully coiffed, perfectly appointed, stay at home, and supper on the table variety.  Children, one to three were an acceptable number, were handsome, respectful, and constantly getting into the type of problems that could be resolved within 30 minutes allowing ample time for commercials.

No childhood indiscretion was so calamitous that an appropriate solution could not be found within the bounds of a good firm talking to. There were no spankings, no angry fathers yelling, no children made to feel terrified or inadequate for their ignorance of the far-flung consequences of an un-made bed or a bad report card.  No standing stiffly with an outstretched hand in anticipation of the quick snap of a leather belt and the steel resolve not to flinch and suffer the consequence of another.

I cannot remember an incident for which my father apologized.  It wasn’t in his nature.  And how can we learn to avoid mistakes unless we learn to recognize them for what they are?  We are after all, nothing more than the sum of our experience.  We learn from what we observe and choose to imitate or ignore the example of those that hold influence over us.

My father mellowed with time, especially in his later years. I had long ago forgiven him for any perceived injustices when on that long walk home he told me of the loss of his father at such an early age and of their broken relationship.  But in 1969 without the benefit of foresight and with the dauntless indignation that is the dominion of all 12 year old boys, I thought my father had simply grown up without a T.V.

 

The Thief in the Attic

hiding

Unnoticed and uninvited, the Thief took up residence in my father’s attic. He had infiltrated with such stealth, for years no one suspected he was there. At first,the trickster stole only little things, picked them up, moved them about. My father would search for something in one place and it would be found in another. These misplaced items were easy to ignore.

“Oh it’s not important, it’ll turn up somewhere”, he would say and sure enough, a few days later, there it was. But then it would be lost again.

But the swindler grew more daring and my father became increasingly concerned as more of his riches began to disappear and so we suggested that he consult an expert in this type of criminal activity.

“Ah yes!” said the specialist.  “There is definitely a burglar in your house.  I would say that he’s been there for quite some time now.”

“What can be done for it?” my father inquired.

“We can try barring the doors and windows.”

“Will that keep the bugger out?”

“No, no.” said the specialist,“The rascal is already in your loft, there’s nothing we can do about that.  I’m afraid you’re going to have to live with him for now.”

“Ach!  Then what bloody good will the bars do?” asked my father with much irritation.

The expert responded wryly “It will slow him down as he removes your possessions.”

My father and I agreed this was not a very satisfying answer at all.

The barriers were installed and for a time, my father’s assets seemed more secure. But after a while the thief learned how to get around the obstacles that had been set up against him and once again my father’s articles began to vanish. In a few short years he had lost most all he had acquired throughout his lifetime, his place so bare it was unrecognizable. As a last resort, my father moved into a new home but to his surprise he found that the scoundrel had preceded him, and furthermore, many of the other people who lived there had also been robbed of their holdings.

The nefarious villain pursued my father now with relentless fervor, stealing from him with increasing frequency and boldness.  With cruel audacity he began replacing my father’s dearest possessions with items completely unfamiliar to him.  “Whose picture is that?”my father would say, or “where did this come from?”

Eventually, the vile miscreant had stolen every last thing of value and with the balance of his life depleted, my father teetered, fell and broke his hip. Several days later in his single act of kindness, the Thief crept into the hospital room and stole away his suffering.

The thief has been glimpsed but twice since my father’s death.  As the last of the old man’s things were being boxed for charity, the culprit was spied skulking room to room, filling his gunny sack with the meager fortunes of those already harshly dispossessed. He was seen again at the memorial service where he was recognized as the architect of my father’s long farewell. Despite having stolen so much from so many, his appetite for plunder was insatiate and as he scrutinized the solemn gathering for any future acquisition, our eyes met and I turned quickly away.