Recently we celebrated Father’s Day. I’m the father of four, and only after I became a dad did I understand my own father. Oh, the memories: happy and sad, joyous and tearful. I remember when he would wash his hands after work and before dinner, trying to remove the ground-in dirt and oil from his calloused hands. His skin was always so tough. I can still recall the scraping sound of the razor on his evening stubble, still see the darkness of the water in the basin after he had cleaned his face. Like yesterday, like now. I would stand next to him as he washed and he would chat away, telling me tales of his own childhood and letting little drops of moral tuition fall into my lap. Simple, and quite marvellous. “A promise is a promise.” It was. He never broke one. He was my father.
He drove a London black taxi for more than 40 years. It was a job that attracted waves of poor young men after the Second World War, a job that paid a decent wage if you were willing to work a 70-hour week and not complain or give up. When I was small and we were driving back from soccer matches he would sometimes pick people up who were hailing cabs along the way. He wasn’t supposed to, not with me there. But I was six or seven and sat in the hollow space next to the driver’s seat where the luggage was stored and where he had placed a special little seat. I was barely noticed.
I could never understand why the passengers treated him with such contempt, such patronizing disregard. He was “cabby” and “driver” and “you!” No, he wasn’t; he was my dad. But he smiled and said nothing and did his job. They weren’t good enough to walk in his shadow. I knew that, and he knew I knew that. Which is what really mattered.
And then he told me more stories from his past, such as about the times he boxed for the Royal Air Force. Oh, the pride. And about how his German cousin had gone back to Berlin in the 1930s to rescue his family. The family did not escape and the cousin never came back. A long time ago, said my father, and not for you to worry about. He winked, a wink full of confidence. Never again, he said. I believed him. He was my father.
He always looked so strong, so able to protect me, so powerful. Powerful enough to cry when he felt the need. I heard him weep when my grandmother died. Confusing. How should I react, what should I do? Just be there, as he was for me. He came into my room, saw the fear on my face and recited a short prayer with me for my grandma. He kissed me, held my hand and then drove me to school before putting in his ten hours. No grumbles, no moans. Of course not. He was my father.
I remember his sheer joy when I went to university, the first in the family to do so. Of course he took too many photographs when I graduated and of course he didn’t understand the Latin that was spoken before the meal. Who cares? His wisdom was born long before the Romans imposed their language on the world. He felt a little out of place, but all that concerned this working man in a smart suit was that his son would not follow in his footsteps.
“Do you know why I work such long hours?” he would ask me. “So that you won’t have to push a cab around and tip your hat to everybody.” Then he’d pause. “So that you won’t have to.” Not said with bitterness but with resolution. There is dignity in labour, he told me, but shame in sloth.
He didn’t come on vacation with us to the English coast very often, just didn’t have the money. He stayed behind, ate his cheese sandwiches when he got home, and worked. We’d telephone him and tell him we loved him. He already knew. When my first child, Daniel, was born, my dad said little. Just sat and stared and smiled. A circle had been completed, a story had been told, a great knight had won his battles. He spoke through his eyes. And what eloquence he had.
I miss him so very much. He was my father.
Rev. Michael Coren is an award-winning Toronto-based columnist and author of 18 books, appears regularly on TV and radio, and is also an Anglican priest.