Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Fathers. Trying, trying, trying.

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Fathers. Trying, trying, trying.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Of course F. Scott Fitzgerald was talking about all of us when he typed those beautiful final lines to his novel, The Great Gatsby. And by that I mean I certainly recognize he wasn’t speaking exclusively about fathers or men, or the particular cargo we carry with us across the days of our enterprise. But I will tell you that’s precisely how that line has always rested with me, more than a closing epitaph from Nick Carraway to Jay Gatsby, it apparently sums up the always difficult love of men for other men and our shared lineage in this seemingly endless fumbling at manhood and fatherhood.

Something about that haunting line from The Great Gatsby recently made me think of Father’s Day in the way your mind brings forth the melody to a song but can’t quite form the lyrics. There was nothing specific; it was all simply taste and smell and intuition. F. Scott Fitzgerald captured an essence of manhood that can hardly be explained: the love men show for one another when society necessarily wants from us something much less ambiguous. The fact President Obama’s deeply touching and perfect hug with Joe Biden during the funeral for Mr. Biden’s son made headlines gives you some indication of the miles we have yet to trudge.

I think of the endless effort involved in this grand endeavor we call Fatherhood – providing stability, protection, shelter, the simple but imperative delivery to safety of these helpless beings we bring into his world – and this is where I find such common ground with my grandfather and his son. While I worshiped the ground my grandfather walked on, I believe my father had somewhat of an uneasy relationship with his father because his experience was completely foreign to mine. My father’s childhood was of the lean 1940s and early ‘50s, not my golden days of the 1970s – bigger cars, no seat belts, greater affluence, drive-in movies and The Six Million Dollar Man and Wagon Wheels.
You see, I met my father’s father at a point in his life when he had burned through the whiskey and the anger and the stress of failing businesses and the humility of asking to run a tab at the local grocery store, the shattering effects of being raised in total poverty by a mentally unstable Boer War veteran. My father simply knew a different man – a man who was doubtless far, far from perfect.

I sometimes try to imagine knowing my grandfather in his 30s, for I have pictures that tell a silent story: a lean and muscled man’s man who I would never choose to correct in a pool hall. Quick humour, quicker temper. Fast with his fists. But I only know that when he was in his 60s, he would have built my father a 5,000-square foot deck if it were what my father had needed at the time. He wanted to always be doing something for us. Fixing, repairing, upgrading.
Like all children of the mid-1940s, I believe my father must have spent the better part of his life in the far-reaching shadow of the wounded men of that post-war generation – my tough great-uncles George, Graham, and Jimmy who beat back the top German regiments in the streets of Ortona, Italy. Men who spoke little, who angered quickly, who drank far too much and laughed and fought and delivered justice in the smallest disagreements, who struggled to make ends meet well into their advanced years.

What my father could not have known as a child, or during the most difficult times of his own middle life, was the fact he was not only cut from the same cloth, he was built with the same mechanisms. My dad hardly ever sat and talked with me about the mysteries of life, but he was there every single time I needed help. Every single time, without fail. When I was lonely and calling from a sweltering phone booth at army camp, he was there to share the calming man’s vocabulary of weather and mechanics; and when I called from jail during the lowest moments of my life, I mean when I was really in serious trouble and had become a victim of my own young man’s anger and confusion, he drove hours to steer me through the fear. No judgment, no Father’s-Knows-Best advice. He was just there. Like my grandfather who couldn’t express his love except through the building of decks and kitchen counters, the rigging of fishing gear, my father felt most comfortable in the delivery of obligation. A demonstration of total allegiance: few words, but all action.

And that is what I love about being a man: we simply do. We endlessly frustrate the women in our lives because we seek solutions and application where simply listening is required, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I always want to be that solid presence in my daughter’s life – unwavering, constant, ready to deploy. Tell me who and where and when, and I will be there. I can swear it.

I understand my father and his father before him so much better as I reach the age of 43. If only we were marked on effort and intent. I smile now as I recall the tough moments when I so expected my father to somehow intuitively understand, interpret and respond – to review his Father Manual and provide informed guidance. It now seems to me not only laughable but an unfounded resentment between fathers and sons. Let’s let one another off the hook shall we.
I can tell you with naked honesty I stand utterly confounded at the centre of my daughter’s amazing and swirling life, wondering where and when and how I should intervene. I trust she knows she can count on me. Call day or night and I will be there to perform whatever task is required. Leave it with me, I will get it done.

A few thousand years of civilization hasn’t eased the burden men carry with them across the minefield of fatherhood. As old Fitzgerald said, we beat on, ceaselessly, against the current, always tied to the very past we believe we have escaped simply through our birth date. But we are bound forever in this task, fathers and sons. And always will be. And always should be.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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C.B. Forrest

C.B. Forrest is the author of the literary crime novels The Weight of Stones and Slow Recoil.

Go to C.B. Forrest’s Author Page