The red light was flashing on my answering machine when I arrived home that warm summer evening. I casually dropped my tennis bag onto the kitchen floor, wiped the last few drops of perspiration from my forehead and pressed the play button. The machine quickly accessed the solitary message and replayed.
"Hello, son. How are you doing?" My father politely paused allowing for a non-existent answer. "You won't believe this, but I have bought a smartphone!"
I raised my eyebrows at this surprising admission. Father was obviously aware of the reaction his revelation would have on me for he continued...
"Yes, I know I swore I would never own one, but your mother has been pestering the hell out of me to get one for so long now that I had to do it to protect my sanity—or should I at my age say senility? Anyhow, before your confounded machine cuts me off—and I might add I will NEVER own one of those—I'd better get to the point of this call which is: I need help figuring out how to use this phone. Would you mind lending me some of your expertise? So long, for now, son."
I smiled. At 80 my father still saw the humor in day-to-day existence, especially his own. It wasn't too late, and my parent's place was only a few minutes away, so I decided to drive over right away without calling back.
While I was waiting in the driveway to make sure the garage door did not close on one of the cats, I was aware that something felt different. It wasn't until I had driven down our street and turned onto the parkway that I realized what was bothering me: this was the first time that my father had ever asked me for help.
I have one childhood memory of father that stands out above all others—he knew everything. It didn't matter what question I posed; he always had an answer. He used his knowledge, which seemed boundless, to involve himself in a number of projects that he always had on the go.
When I was 10, he built a speedboat for me. He did not have any commercial plans. He just drew up a few sketches, bought some lumber, a considerable number of brass screws and a good maritime glue and proceeded to build the boat in our basement.
A number of weeks later it came time to remove the finished product from our home. I remember looking at the doorway, then back at the boat and asking if it would fit through. Father said not to worry, he had thought of that. When we picked up the boat and carried it outside, it fit just perfectly through the doorway.
I was amazed. I was amazed because I knew that I would have built the boat and not for one moment considered the fact that it had to fit through the doorway. I was so impressed by his insight on this particular matter that it completely eclipsed all the planning and workmanship that dad had put into the building of the craft. But, come to think of it, I can't seem to recall him asking me if I wanted a boat, and I know for certain he never asked me to help him build it.
When I arrived at mom and dad's apartment I pulled into the first available parking spot on the street. There were no visitor parking spots for this particular apartment block and when you entered the front door the lobby was always rife with a stew of odors. I did not like apartment buildings. This one was no exception.
Mom and dad used to live in a beautiful home that fronted onto the Lake of Two Mountains. The two mountains, part of the old Appalachian chain, are now nothing more than weathered hills, but they nevertheless dominated the expanse of water in a protective sort of way. It was always peaceful there and every summer evening the sun would set on the far side of the water, providing each evening with its own unique, and often spectacular, sunset. I grew up in that setting. It was tranquil and enchanting.
The house itself was a compliment to its surroundings. It was so because dad had built it himself. He had started out by preparing elaborately drafted layouts of each of the three floors. For months, he and mom poured over the blueprints discussing, revising and sometimes arguing. Eventually, dad achieved a design that satisfied mom and still manifested the vision he had been carrying.
The manual labor began with the removal of forty-two trees. Only those trees on the house site were removed. Dozens more were left... some just a few inches from the roofline. The basement was excavated with one shovel and a wheelbarrow. Cement was prepared with the help of a rented mixer and the foundation was poured one load at-a-time. Two summers and one winter after the first tree had been felled the framing and wiring were completed.
The electrical inspector arrived early one Saturday morning. He explained that after seeing the location of this inspection, he had decided to make a day trip out of it—hence his arrival on a Saturday. His first words after entering the makeshift door were to ask who had done the framing of this house. My dad, in a matter-of-fact way, said that it had been he. To this very day, I can still clearly see the look of admiration in the inspector's eyes as he explained that he had never seen such a well-framed home before. He even went as far as to suggest that dad take some pictures of the framing so that if ever the house went up for sale, dad could show any prospective buyer how solidly it had been put together.
It took five more years for father to finish the house. When it was complete, everything from the majestic views provided by every room, to the bold granite exterior, was a testament in my mind to the infinite abilities of this man.
I moved from the home in my mid-twenties and had been living out west for a number of years when out of nowhere, my father called to say that they had sold the house. It seemed the harsh climate back east had claimed another victim. Dad was fed up with sweltering summers and endless winters of bitter cold, punctuated by mountains of snow that drifted in from the lake. They were moving out west to enjoy a more temperate climate.
It did not take long for them to arrive. Just two weeks after the surprising phone call, mom and dad arrived driving a green van that contained their prized possessions. Everything else had been sold or given away. The only reminders of the place I had called home for so many years was a photo album containing sixteen pictures. Twenty-five years have come and gone since I last saw the grey stone house with a panoramic view of the lake. I have never been back... though I have often thought of doing so.
Mom was surprised to hear my voice over the intercom. Apparently, dad had forgotten to tell her he had called me. She buzzed me in and left the apartment door ajar as she always did when she knew I was coming up. I entered the small living room to find her sitting on their modest sofa next to dad. On the coffee table lay a brand-new cell phone. It was a top-of-the-line model. Dad had outdone himself.
Father stiffly arose and slowly walked toward me. He held out a gnarled right hand, which when shook, revealed more about his age than I cared to acknowledge. He smiled and cocked his head to one side, affording his hearing-aid better reception. We exchanged the usual pleasantries on our health, the weather and the state of our respective automobiles. It seemed to me that each time I visited I had to speak slower and enunciate more clearly than the time before.
When I turned my attention to the new purchase, Father revealed that he had purchased it almost two weeks ago. A twinge of guilt furrowed my brow. Had it been that long since we had last spoken? Unaware of my neglect, dad continued to explain to me how he had slowly been wading his way through the phone's capabilities and had run into 'a few snags.' When I questioned him further, it turned out he had only learned how to create a password, create a contact and take a picture—every other feature of the phone was 'the snag.'
I forced a laugh and made a wry comment about the one-year warranty requiring some expedition on his part. Dad pshawed. I was directed to stow my sense of superiority and get on with the lesson. I bowed submissively and motioned to the kitchen chair. As I was about to launch into the lesson, my attention was caught by the rustling of paper behind me. I turned to see mom sitting cross legged on the sofa, notebook and pen at the ready.
My quizzical look was the only prompting she required to launch herself into a dissertation, complete with chronological examples that began with dad's morning hunt for his dentures, included his undressing last evening and subsequent discovery that the entire day had been spent sans gonch, and ended with his frantic search for home yesterday on the wrong floor of the apartment block. The bottom line of her rant was that dad's memory was not what it used to be. She had to take note of my instructions or all would be forgotten.
Dad's pallid expression remained unchanged as he stared at the lifeless cell phone, ignoring what mom had said, or, perhaps he simply had not heard her.
I recall when dad bought a 1960 Rambler Classic station wagon. He had purchased it from a neighbour for the tidy sum of $300. I asked him if he had bought it so he could take mom to the local drive-in movie theatre, as it was the only car at that time whose front seats folded down. He guffawed and politely informed me that it was to be used to pick up materials that were needed during the construction of the house.
The car's body was in excellent shape. Dad put up with the clouds of smoke that belched out of the exhaust pipe for about three weeks until he had time to change the engine's rings and valves.
I arrived on the scene when dad had just about finished dismantling the six-cylinder engine. The hood of the car had been removed and a large Maxwell House coffee tin sat on one fender—it was completely full of greasy nuts, bolts and washers.
I looked at the conglomeration contained within the red tin and wondered how one could possibly remember what had come from where. I peered over a smudged shoulder and as the last bolt was being removed from the aluminum block, asked, as unobtrusively as possible, how the feat was going to be accomplished.
Dad slowly raise himself from the engine compartment, holding the grungy bolt between thumb and forefinger. He dangled it over the laden tin and deliberately dropped it into the jumble. An oblique smile crossed his face as he pointed a blackened finger to his head. I smiled sweetly, nodded, then headed down to the wharf. I had some serious swimming to do.
By the time the house was finished the only classic feature of the Rambler was its rust. It had become unsafe to drive. Dad asked me to follow him as he drove it to the wrecker. The car leaned precariously to one side and it bounced heavily over the slightest imperfection in the road. But I didn't notice a single puff of smoke from the weathered exhaust pipe as I drove behind.
It took us about an hour to run through the basics of the phone—the time needed to go over each feature about three times, then let dad try it on his own until he had it right. Mom sat quietly taking notes in Pitman shorthand. She got it all down the first time, even though it had been some years since she had used the skill.
We went through some features that were more complicated, but dad was not catching on very well this time. After a few frustrating tries father waved me off claiming fatigue and a need to digest what he had already learned so I decided it was best to quit while we were ahead and come back to it another day.
I could remember feeling that way when dad had taken me to his place of employment and had tried to explain to me what his job had involved. He was then the Chief Inspector of jet engines for Rolls Royce Canada.
At that time the jet engines were taken off the planes and shipped to the nearby Rolls Royce plant where they were overhauled after every one-thousand hours of operation. Dad was responsible for ensuring that each engine had been properly serviced by his crew and was worthy of being reinstalled.
Dad had tried to run me through some of the simpler things he looked for on an engine before giving it his seal of approval. I pretended to understand and nodded a lot, but to me it was all a confusion of metal tubing, multicoloured wiring and turbine blades. I didn't miss the pride in his voice however. Rolls Royce was an icon at that time—years of history, tradition and craftsmanship and dad was a part of it. He ran a flawless inspection department. Not one jet engine failed in service during his eighteen years of service.
It was getting late, so when mom asked me to stay for a cup of tea I politely refused. I turned to say goodbye to dad. He was still sitting on the kitchen chair, his head bent down, staring at the phone he held in his right hand. I wondered if he was having a hard time reading the display because his hand was shaking so much.
I grinned stupidly at mom and made a hasty retreat to the door. As I grasped the doorknob and turned to say goodbye, I was surprised to see dad shuffling down the hall towards me. He put a frail arm around mom's shoulder and extended his right hand to me in thanks. I shook the hand that had created such a wonderful life for me as a child, ignoring the fleshy languor that I now held as best I could. His tired, sallow eyes were happy and thankful.
I wanted to say so much more than a quiet goodbye, but it was all I could muster without showing a tear. I went quickly down the corridor and turned to wave before entering the elevator. I waited until the doors had silently closed before letting go.
I entered our house through the garage door to the sounds of Grieg's "Piano Concerto." My daughter was hard at work practicing for her upcoming Toronto Conservatory examination. I sat on the stairs watching her for a while. Her fingers danced over the keys and her body flowed expressively with the sounds she was creating. She finished the piece with much gusto and I applauded with genuine enthusiasm and admiration for the remarkable talent she possessed.
She turned and smiled.
I was about to ask how her preparations for the exam were going. But before I could get out my question, she returned her eyes to the sheet music and began her next piece. She was back in that other world I knew nothing about.
I sat and watched her for a while longer, like a surreptitious stranger, spying on intimate moments. Then, I slowly arose, working the stiffness out of my knees—wondering what my daughter and I would have to say to each other, thirty years from now.