By Mary J. Breen
My father was a man ahead of his time. My mother loved telling the story of the first time she visited his family’s farm in Ontario’s Ottawa Valley. The year was 1938. It was a hot summer morning, and my father was nowhere to be seen. She finally found him in one of the outbuildings, stripped to the waist beside a blazing cook stove. He was heating up the heavy irons, getting ready to do the sheets. “There are only two people in the world I’d do this for,” he told her, “my mother and you.”
My father thanked my mother for every meal she cooked and every button she sewed onto his shirts. Throughout their marriage, he did the dishes with her every single night. He would say that since they both had worked hard all day, there was no reason why she should do more work while he put his feet up.
When I was born six years later, she discovered he was not only a very good husband; he was also a very good father. I’m sure my father never thought of himself that way. He would have said he was the amateur, whereas my mother was the pro. After all, she was a woman, and she’d spent years as a primary school teacher, hence she was the one who was good with children. But he was wrong.
In those days, nobody talked in terms of giving children unconditional love. Nobody told parents to hug their kids every day, and nobody told them to catch their kids being good, but these are exactly the things my father did. I don’t know how many times he told me, “You’re such a good child.”
It was years before I realized that not all fathers played countless games of rummy and cribbage and euchre with their kids, and not all fathers played catch for as long as their kids wanted, and not all did watercolours and took their daughters fishing and on long walks in the woods, and not all fathers put their kids to bed nearly every night, first saying their prayers together, then reading stories, making up math puzzles and history quizzes, and listening. He was always ready to listen.
And very few fathers endured makeovers.
I know that all children have intense and often wacky passions. I had a compulsion to collect stamps, and another to collect the enormous icicles that had fallen from the roof of a nearby factory. I also had a brief fascination with learning Braille.
I was about eight when I was caught up in my hairdressing phase. Soon all my dolls were bald, and I needed new subjects to work on. I had no sisters or brothers, and the cat wouldn’t sit still, so I asked my mother. She would have no part it. She washed and set her hair once a week, so messing with her hair was not an option.
Then I asked my father, and, as nearly always, he said, “Sure.” That was the way my parents were with me: he said, “Well, why not?” and she had a million reasons why not. He put a towel around his neck, found his Time magazine and his cigarettes, and sat down at the kitchen table. My mother bustled around sighing her disapproval while I gathered the tools of my trade.
No scissors were allowed-they’d seen my dolls-so all I had were a comb and, after lots of begging, my mother’s aluminum wave clips, bobby pins, and pencil-sized rollers with little red balls that clipped over the ends. For styling lotion, I thought I’d use something my parents always relied on in times of need: Minard’s Liniment.
Minard’s Liniment was-and still is-creamy white, thick, sticky, and intensely pungent with camphor. I gooped blobs of it onto my father’s head, and went about putting a kiss curl here, and a roller or two there, topped off by a series of Marcel Waves like my mother’s. I was too impatient to wait, although with his hair I doubt it would have mattered. A few minutes later I removed the hardware, and now his hair was greasy, sticky, and smelly, and it hung just as it always did, only limper and straighter thanks to the liniment.
This is where stories like this have a bad ending: father’s hair starts to fall out in chunks; father’s hair turns green; father’s head breaks out in nasty rash, and child is punished for hair loss, green hair, rash, and ruining father’s reputation because of the ruination of his hair. But in my story nothing bad happened. Nothing at all. My father just smiled, touched the side of my face, and went to put his head under the kitchen tap. For me, it was just another bit to add to a collection I didn’t even know I had-nuggets of proof that I was lovable and, even better, loved.
I was his only child, but I wasn’t the only one to benefit from being in his orbit. When I was a teenager, long past my hairdressing phase, I would see my father sitting outside in the summer shade with his magazine and pipe. Soon I’d see little kids from the neighbourhood gathered around him, hanging on the back of his chair, swinging and twirling and telling him their stories.
Sometimes I’d see a little girl with her hand in his hair, flipping it round, pulling it forward, and letting it fall back, limp and straight as ever. This always made me happy, as I knew that soon she’d get to have my father look at her and smile, and even without any words, she’d know things were good.
Neither my kids nor my grandkids knew my father. If only they’d been so lucky.