Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Memories of my Dad

Eight things I loved about my Dad, or learned from him



One thing I remember about childhood is holding my dad’s hand.  His was so different from my mom’s:  strong, thick, and calloused.  Whenever we had to walk any distance, he would hold his hand out and I never refused it.  There was so much security in holding that hand.  When I held that hand, nothing could ever go wrong with the world.



My dad was known for his calm demeanour.  He was always quiet and laid back;  this was true to a fault, as it meant my mom ended up doing most of the discipline when we were young (and I realized at some point how unfair this was to her, but that was just the way it was).  Through my childhood I can probably count on both hands the number of times he raised his voice to me – and in most of those rare instances, it was probably because she told him to.

Mom:  “Dad, say something!”

Dad (sternly):  “Here!”

That was the end of it.



Over the years I’ve thought many times about my childhood summer vacations.  But it was only recently that I realized how much work my parents went to to give us a travelling vacation.

We had a Coleman hard-top tent trailer for summer vacations;  it was a modern marvel for us at the time, but no instruction manual hinted at how much work was still involved to travel with and live out of this type of trailer.

My mom didn’t drive, so on summer vacations my dad did all the driving, and then much of the set-up.  Upon arrival at a campsite, he had to figure out the optimal spot for the trailer, and then park and level it;  this was something no one could help him with.  The trailer had fold-down supports but he always had to supplement them with wooden blocks that he had made to both even the height and spread the weight, else there was a risk of the trailer sinking into the dirt or sand.  We then helped crank up the top, pull out the beds, fasten the canvas over the beds, fold up the sink/stove and fold down the door, seal the cracks against mosquitoes, and set out our suitcases – but in the meantime my dad was setting up at least one tent;  family was too big for the trailer if everyone came on the trip.  On some trips we also used a dining tent.

Then there was cooking – sometimes fishing for dinner, which again, my dad had to arrange (boat rental and taking us out on the lake), and then cleaning the fish, obtaining firewood, and starting a fire.  For cooking there was the propane stove in the trailer and an additional Hibachi outside, but we always had to have a campfire as well.

On early trips we would pack up the following morning to move on;  after one 3-week trip of doing this every day, my parents decided that with all the work involved, we should stay at least two nights in each spot to give us a chance to relax and recover.

Through all of those trips, all of the driving (some not far outside of Toronto but once to PEI and a couple touring New England), all of the set-up, my dad never complained to us.  Do parents still make these kinds of sacrifices for their children?



My dad rarely got angry.  He would get irritated in heavy traffic and more than annoyed with other drivers (his advice to each of us as he taught us to drive:  “Everyone else on the road is an asshole”).  But he almost never got angry with me – even when I felt it would have been justified.  His peaceful disposition at times mystified me.

One year at the beginning of summer, we had to do the usual check of the camping trailer.  Before vacation time, it had to be opened, aired out, and set up to verify that everything was in good working order.

We cranked it open and pulled out the beds, and then discovered a problem with the canvas over one of the beds.  The canvas cover had elastic enclosed within the bottom edge so it could hug the bottom of the bed and ensure nothing/no one would fall out.  Somehow the elastic had caught or snagged on something, and the canvas wouldn’t pull out.  My dad quickly saw the problem and, as always, he had an idea of how to solve it.  He said to me, “Don’t pull on it”, and ran back into the house to get tools.

Throughout my childhood I looked up to my dad;  there was nothing I wanted more than to please him.  As soon as he ran inside, I set about solving the problem myself.  I would have it taken care of before he could return;  he’d be so impressed.  I did exactly what he had told me not to do, and started to pull on the canvas.  The elastic snapped.

I ran to the door to tell him what had happened;  as I opened the door I met him coming down the stairs.  “Dad, it snapped”, I told him.

A look of exasperation came over his face, and he started to chastise me:  “Oh – I told you not to…”  And then he stopped.  He just stood on the stairs looking down at me for a moment.  And then in his usual, gentle voice, he said, “Ok.  Let’s go fix it.”

Even at a young age, I never understood where he got his patience.



A friend recently told me I was “resourceful”.  I took that as a nice compliment.  No one had ever called me that before.  But it made me realize that if I am indeed resourceful, it is something I owe to my dad.

I would guess he had learned resourcefulness being on his own at a young age (he was living on his own by his mid-teens).  In my childhood I spent a lot of time helping him out with tasks and chores around the house;  as the youngest, I was always available while my older siblings were out with their friends.

When problems arose, I never remember abandoning anything.  Dad always knew what to do, and when there was no apparent solution, he’d invent one.  He would always rig something with available materials.  He never gave up.  There was always a makeshift, stop-gap solution.  To this day I look at problems as challenges, and often enjoy looking for unconventional ways around any roadblocks they present.



On a summer vacation, travelling through New England, we had to stop for gas and some food supplies.  We got off the highway in a small town in Vermont or New Hampshire.  My dad pulled into the nearest gas station, and I went with my mom into the neighbouring grocery store.

In the store, the staff and other shoppers all stared at us.  I don’t think they had ever seen East Asians before.  We just got our supplies and got out as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, my dad was stretching his legs, standing beside the station wagon.  The attendant, who was pumping gas, could not hold back his curiosity;  he finally asked my dad, “Hey… are you CHINESE or something?”  My dad answered, “Yeah.  You know… we eat you for dinner.

I’m guessing that town was never the same after we left.

Racism (1)

I was put in Japanese language school when I was about 9 years old.  I highly resented it.  It ran from 9 AM to noon every Saturday morning;  I was missing all the Saturday morning cartoons on tv.
The school was badly run and something to be endured.  The one perk was the annual Christmas party, where we were treated to a McDonald’s lunch and a bag of candy.  The party combined the Scarborough and downtown branches of the school and was held at a venue large enough to accommodate both crowds.  It was a bit odd being thrown into a space with the crowd from the other school who we didn’t know, but we just hung out with our own friends.  The parents socialized while we explored the space and ran around until it was time to eat.

At one of these parties, I kept noticing in passing that among the crowd of children, mostly third-generation Japanese Canadians, was a pair of Caucasian children, running around and playing in our midst.  They must have been friends of someone at the other school, or perhaps they were even enrolled in the school, which I thought was a bit odd.  I had a child’s sense of injustice at their presence.  The party and the bag of candy were the only tangible reward for enduring these lessons the rest of the entire year.  The thought that someone might be getting the reward without paying their dues annoyed me.

I was passing my dad at one point, and I pointed out the white kids and asked my dad, “Why are they here?”

My dad gave me his typically thoughtful but brief answer – with a laugh:  “Why not?”

He didn’t give it any more thought and kept moving, but left me standing there – with a significant realization about inclusion and exclusion.  “Of course”, I thought, feeling quite stupid.  Why not?  Why was I putting any thought into interfering with someone else’s fun, and why exclude based on race/appearance?  The language school (much like the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre’s activities and programs) were open to everyone.  They were not meant to keep our community separate, but to share our heritage with the rest of the city.

There would be many more conversations about race and discrimination during my childhood (mostly with my mom), but with my dad – perhaps because he was a man of few words – I gleaned a lot of insight from short exchanges like this.  I think back on this periodically, and realize that some of life’s most profound lessons are communicated from parent to child with few words – sometimes none.

Racism (2)

My parents had been born and raised in Vancouver.  Like many second-generation Japanese Canadians, they didn’t talk much about their experiences during WWII.  Being rounded up and put in prison camps and losing all of your material belongings doesn’t leave a lot of happy memories.  The 1977 centennial of the beginning of immigration from Japan to Canada got many talking, and was the beginning of the fight for an apology and monetary compensation for my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and for the younger generation this was when the stories began to be told.

I learned about the release from the prison camps, and that for four years after the release Japanese Canadians were still not allowed back to the west coast.  It wasn’t until many years later that I wondered why no one in either of my parents’ families decided to move back to Vancouver once the opportunity was available.

One day I asked my dad if he’d ever considered moving back.  It wasn’t a big deal and I hadn’t thought it would be difficult to answer.  My dad’s brow suddenly furrowed and he looked as though he wanted to say something, but he was silent.  The answer finally burst forth:  “There’s got to be something wrong with a place where there are no black people!”

And with that, the conversation was over.  I found it fascinating that his upbringing and attitude toward the city where he was born could be summed up as such.



Coming out as a gay man is probably never easy.  I eased into it, first telling more casual friends and acquaintances, then close friends, then family.  I figured my siblings would be more tolerant, and telling my sisters and brother was pretty painless.  I was more concerned about my parents.  I had hopes that my mom would fit the accepting-mother stereotype (“I love my son, no matter what” – as commonly portrayed in popular culture).  It was my dad’s reaction I was most worried about.

Though he had never complained, I had always felt I wasn’t the son he might have wanted.  I wasn’t good at sports and avoided them;  I didn’t do all the “boy” things.  I never had the “Field of Dreams” game of catch with him that I know he would have loved.  I didn’t expect an explosive, end-of-the-world rejection to coming out;  I was just terribly afraid he would stop loving me.

I visited my parents and sat down with them to tell them.  My mother’s reaction was as I had expected;  she said they had wondered because I hadn’t been dating, so it wasn’t a complete surprise, and she had no problem with it.

But it was my dad who took my hand in his, and with a gentle smile, reassured me: “Everything will fall into place.”

On that day, I learned never to assume that you know what people think, or how they will react to your actions.  They may surprise you.