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My Father

Making the Most of Life He didn't Want

By Gail WyliePublished about a year ago 8 min read
My father as a young man, before his marriage.

It was a night I have never forgotten. I was in world I had never been part of. Careening at high speeds down the highway with four young men from our community, who were drinking as much beer, as fast as they could, between the liquor stores we stopped at on our way back to the city. I was returning to my dorm at the university after celebrating Thanksgiving at home with my parents. I had accepted this ride via my best friend from high school. It wasn’t that I didn’t know everyone in the car. After all, we had all grown up in the same small community. But I had never had the opportunity to be with them in this kind of circumstance. To put it bluntly, I was terrified.

Thankfully, we made it, without an accident. I breathed a sigh of relief as we pulled up in front of my dorm, after dropping off my friend at her residence. As I was about to get out of the car, the men stopped me. All four started talking at once, apologizing for their behavior on the road. They said that this apology was necessary because of my father; that they knew that I didn’t grow up like this, because of him. They claimed that he was the man they respected above all others, because he was so firm in his beliefs. Not only did he share them openly with the community, but he lived them completely and fully for everyone to see. So many, they claimed, put on one show in public and then did the opposite when they thought no one was looking. But not my father. He was someone you count on fully. Someone to respect. This was this first time I had actually looked at my father through the eyes of someone else in a positive way.

The old Oliver tractor, with I am my sisters riding with my Dad

You see, my father was never considered a success, not only in the community we grew up in, but also in my extended family, where the amount of money one had was the major measuring stick. He was born on a homestead in the north, the oldest of two children. He remained on that homestead for the majority of his life, taking over the farm while we were children and sticking it out until we had all graduated from high school and left home. But my father was never a farmer at heart. Yes, he did the job, raised the crops, tended to the animals and managed to keep the family financially afloat throughout all those years. But it wasn’t the life he wanted to live. Instead, he was carrying on his mother’s dream as landowner. He did his best for all of us without complaint. I am sure it wasn’t easy for him.

The local reserve army of our region.

My father came of age during World War II. One of the major disappointments in his life was that he was not allowed to become a soldier and go to Europe to fight. As the only son of a farmer, he was expected to stay home and raise wheat, something that happened on every farm throughout our country. The world had to be fed. One son had to stay home. However, he was allowed join the reserve, a group designated to protect Canada, if the war ever reached us. They trained in the winter, when the fields lay idle. He claimed it was one of the best parts of his life.

Dad as a volunteer Viking in a community parade.

This was because my father knew that he was on earth to serve mankind and he talked about this with us children, long before it became a popular topic of discussion. He was servant of others in all sorts of ways; not only looking after my mother, us children, and his parents but also neighbors and the community we lived in as a volunteer. He stepped in and farmed alongside a boy who lost his father to hepatitis as a young teen, while the rest of the community turned their backs. He spent hours as a volunteer in the community, working for the co-op, the curling club, the Sons of Norway, the school and the local Church. No job was beneath him. No job to difficult to try. He taught us all the importance of sharing our talents with others.

Not only did he serve mankind, but he also served our earth in his own unique way. He planted trees wherever he lived, hundreds of trees that have outlived him. He protected patches of wild flowers and often replanted them in new areas so they could spread. He rescued baby birds who had lost their mothers somehow, keeping them alive as best he could, some more successfully than others. One situation he had to deal with each year was cutting hay during the same time that mallard ducks were hatching their eggs. Far too often, he managed to cut off the head of the mother duck who had hidden her nest in the hay field. He would pack up her eggs and bring them home to hatch behind the wood stove. One of my favorite memories is watching a line of wild ducklings follow him around the farm. As children we were expected to find the wild food for them so that they could survive once we set them free. In this way, we also became caretakers in our world.

Outstanding in his field

In the midst of this, as a farmer, he recognized the dangers of focusing on profit using fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides on one’s crops, relying instead on traditional farming methods such as summer fallow and manure, to protect the soil. This, of course, was one of the reasons that he wasn’t as financially successful as many of our neighbors and family members. But it did teach us that we are part of the world, the whole world and our job is to take care of our planet as best as we can.

My father demonstrated the importance of recognizing one is part of the whole by treating everyone he dealt with in the same way. It didn’t matter if you were the pastor of a church, the president of an organization, or a politician, you were at the same level with him. Baldy Swantson was a man who gone to school with my father. He had been one of the men who had fought in Europe and survived. However, he had major injuries, one of which was in his skull, where a metal plate had to be inserted to keep him alive. His hair never grew again. Now, we don’t know if it was this plate that resulted in Baldy’s choice of lifestyle or if was the PTSD developed through his experiences during war. Whatever, Baldy chose to live on the streets and to survive by begging for money. Watching our father interact with Baldy in the exact same way he interacted with everyone else in our world was one of the strongest lessons we learned from him. We are all equal, a lesson for me that has been so powerful in my work in the field of autism.

My father was a very sensitive man. For one birthday, when we were children, we found a perfect card for him. On the front it said “Happy Birthday, Daddy. We love you.” Inside the was a Kleenex, with the words “and now here is a tissue to wipe away your tears.” For there were tears every time emotions were brought out into the open. Thus, we had all developed ways to avoid them by becoming silent, instead of sharing them with each other. As an adult, I decided that I needed to make sure that he knew how much I appreciated him, no matter how hard it was. We were driving back to his home from a rental property I owned, where we had spent the day cleaning it up for the next renters. I gritted my teeth and told him I loved him and then began to describe all of the things that I appreciated that he had shared with me throughout the years. The tears started to flow for both of us, as soon as I said those first words. They kept on flowing, all the way back to the city as I forced myself to keep on talking in spite of them. In many ways, this was one of the toughest things I have ever done in my life. In the midst of that, it is the one that I am most thankful for. He developed lewy body dementia shortly after we had this ride. We never had the opportunity to have an in-depth, private conversation again.

I am sure that this level of sensitivity made it much harder for him throughout the years. Who knows how it impacted him to watch our uncles driving into the yard with a new car every year, knowing he wasn't doing the same for our mother. Or listening to them talk about the price of all of the herbicides and insecticides they were pouring onto their fields in order to reap as much profit as possible. And at the end, after turning the farm over to my brother, watching his in-laws take over and do the same to the land he tried to protect all those years. Standing by one's principles takes courage. Something not many have.

The principle that the young men were referring to in the car ride at the beginning of this piece had to do with alcohol. My grandparents had a hard, strict rule of not using alcohol, to the point of also refusing to grow malt barley, because they didn't want to be part of causing anyone pain. We have no idea why they were so strict about this, but it was a value that my father also carried on throughout his whole life. This meant that we, as children, never had to see him in drunken rage, or be embarresed by his behaviour in the community when he wasn't in complete control of himself. We never had to worry about our Christmas's or other celebrations being ruined by the overuse of alcohol like so many of my friends did. It was a gift like no other.

It's not that he ever preached about any of these values or even shared them out loud with anyone other than us children. Instead he lived them, a silent witness of how to live a good life. We lived in a community that was basically split in two. Half of the population were involved with the community church, while the others definitely were not. The four young men I was traveling with were from second group. They had grown up with parents who spent their time in bars and at dances. Many of the congrgation of the church shunned them for these activites, but not my father. He treated them exactly as he did everyone in the church, without having to become like them. And that's how the respect was earned.

At a certain point in my married life, my father came to me and confessed that he didn't know if he could take it any longer. He was so tired of trying. All he wanted to do was run away and do something new. I remember feeling so sad at the time, as I knew exactly what he was talking about in the midst of also knowing how this would impact everyone else in the family. I told him I would support him, no matter what decision he made. In the end, he decided to stay. Another of my favorite memories is watching him at his 50th wedding aniversary, surrounded by family and friends with a sweet smile of satisfaction on his face. At this point lewy body was beginning to take it's toll, but he was still with us. In the midst of living a life he didn't want, he knew he had done good. And I did too. I only hope I can look back and feel the same when I reach the end of my life.

Fatherhood

About the Creator

Gail Wylie

Family therapist - always wanted to be a writer. Have published books on autism. Currently enjoying trying my hand at fiction. Loving the challenges of Vocal. Excited to have my first novel CONSEQUENCES available through Amazon.

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    Gail WylieWritten by Gail Wylie

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