Father’s Day. For me this year I have my daughter Hanna back in Calgary after half a year in Europe, en route either to New York or Montreal (or both). Today (Saturday) is actually her birthday. Some years, Father’s Day and Hanna’s birthday fall on the same day. But this year, just being a day apart, it feels like a special confluence of dad and daughter celebrations. Having her here is all the gift I need. Our tradition is to celebrate Father’s Day and her birthday with a sushi dinner.
Of course, Father’s Day cuts both ways, as it were, and while I love celebrating it with my daughter, I can’t help but think of my own father this weekend. My dad, Leonard Stickland, pictured here in a photo probably from the early 1940’s, passed away in 1995. That’s a long time ago, almost as long as Hanna has been alive. They say time is like an avalanche, it just keeps gathering momentum and moving faster and faster, and they’re right about that.
Om any account, I have a little time to myself this summer and so have embarked on a number of writing projects, including finishing a volume of poetry and noodling around with a new play. At the same time, I have been writing a short story about an incident from my childhood. It’s been years since I’ve written a short story and I am enjoying the process immensely.
In this story, which is a nostalgic and meandering thing, perhaps straining the designation of being short at all, I tell a little story that involves my father, and so in his memory, I thought I’d share this excerpt here. It might well be entitled, “Wolfe.”
As the son of an English immigrant, my father, like his father, no doubt, could never understand let alone tolerate the existence of the French in Quebec and other parts of Canada. Had not things been settled once and for all on the Plains of Abraham all those years ago? Had General Wolfe and his British troops not prevailed? At all of our Christmas dinners and other formal affairs in our house, my father (a man of few words, it should be noted) would rise to give a toast to family and friends, invariably raising his glass and saying, with deep emotion, “To Wolfe!” And we would all demurely respond to the toast with a “To Wolfe” of our own. I don’t think I actually knew what I was toasting with my apple juice until I was well into my teens. Before that, I probably thought my father, who hated dogs, had some deep and inexplicable affinity for the animal.
Long after my dad had passed away, I happened to find myself in Quebec at a translation residency, where a play of mine was being translated into French. There were a number of plays being translated back and forth from English to French and from French to English, and we all bunkered down in the beautiful summer home of the late Bill Glasgow in Tadoussac, Quebec for a week or so.
Such a gathering of artists and intellectuals in Quebec where language was of paramount concern would of course be a charged and potentially politically explosive situation. At the time, Quebec was particularly obsessed with its national identity and the language issue. In fact, this was around the time that the province came within a hair of voting to separate from the rest of Canada. As the only person there present from western Canada, where we all supposedly hold red necked, anti-Quebec sentiments, I sometimes felt myself on the hot seat, having to demonstrate to my hosts and fellow translators and translatees that not all westerners are latent racists and English supremacists. I am neither, and think I did a good job of changing these preconceptions in the minds of my fellow artists from Quebec.
On the way back from Tadoussac to Montreal, we were traveling in a van and stopped in Quebec City to drop someone off. When we pulled up to park, I saw a tourist sign pointing towards the Plains of Abraham. Of course I was reminded of the battle, and General Wolfe, and my late father’s toasts at so many of our family gatherings. Almost before I realized I was actually speaking out loud, I related this story of how dad would begin all of our festive occasions with a solemn toast to his beloved General Wolfe.
My story was met with a resounding silence. It was raining and the only sound to be heard was of the raindrops pelting against the van. I thought to myself, my god, a week of good will undone by a stupid reminiscence of my dad, throwing up once again the whole French-English situation. Steam on the insides of the windows, the rain tricking down outside, as time seemed to stop. Yet, the gods were on my side. Once what I had said registered, and it took a few moments because it was so outrageous, someone began to laugh. And then someone else. And soon we all were laughing heartily, and for that moment, at least, centuries of animosity seemed to wash away.
Years later, while at a residency at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, my friend Linda, who had been the den mother of the residency at Tadoussac and driver of the van that day, who is one of the most respected translators of dramatic work from French to English in the land, looked across the dinner table at me one evening, solemnly raised her glass, and said quietly, “To Wolfe.” It was a glorious moment, recalling our beautiful time in Quebec a decade earlier. “To Wolfe,” I replied and we touched glasses.
My dad, needless to say, would not have seen the humour.
Thanks for reading. Happy Father’s Day, everyone. Happy birthday, Hanna!