Cigarette Burns and Paper-Clip Chains

The oldest purely good memory that I have of my father is of a summer day when I was about five or so.  It was just he and I, as it was for a few years until my brother got older.  He had taken me out that day to some sort of city fair where we then stopped and got cotton candy from a vendor.  The sun was shining so bright I remember having to squint my eyes, and I don’t remember much beyond his hand holding mine and the corner of the cotton candy cart.  But then we got our picture taken together by a photographer who pressed it onto a badge for me to hang around my neck – a memento that I still have to this day.  It is faded and scuffed, but still intact; proof-positive that this day happened and was not just part of the idolatrous fantasy I concocted about my father at that age.

IMG_1312 - Version 2In some ways, it was a very sweet time for him and I, when I was five.  I had him all to myself and I enjoyed the attention from this man who, although he’d been around for the first few years of my life, I had few consistent memories of.  At five I only saw him a few times a year, and when I did there would be gifts and outings to do fun things.  He liked to show me off to his friends and take me to work.  My dad’s girlfriend (now my stepmother), was a beautiful Japanese girl of only 21 who would paint my fingernails pink, and who seemed incredibly exotic.

I remember only a few random events from those visits.  Once, after making an early morning trip to the bathroom, my dad came around the corner, completely nude, only to find me waiting for him.  I wanted breakfast.  He completely overreacted and screamed angrily at me to go back to bed, embarrassed.  (In an unfortunate coincidence, this scenario was repeated with remarkable similarity a few years later while my brother and I were in the care of a sitter – we were staying overnight while my mother was in the hospital.  The middle son, a boy of a year older than myself was in the bath.  I waited in the hall for him to be done.  When he emerged from the bath, naked and shocked to find me there, I was chastised by his mother and accused of being a pervert because I had broken some rule unfamiliar to me that required children to wait in their bedrooms until they sensed the bathroom was free.)

My father was a chain-smoker.  It was what killed him eventually, if indirectly and not as young as we imagined it would.  At five years old it was before the coughing had started much, but he certainly always had a cigarette going.  In my eyes at that age, it was just part of him, rather than being separate from his dad-ness.  One day in public I reached for his hand without looking and the lit cigarette in his fingers burned my hand.  It hurt – but it was more the shock of the unexpected pain combined with him yelling at me for not being more careful that stung.  Looking back, I’m sure his reaction was just due surprise (like the bathroom incident) and in this case, guilt over having burnt me – but the incident only ended up adding to my already tentative nature with him.  I fretted more and more about doing the wrong thing each time I saw him.

My oldest memory of him is actually from three years earlier, soon after my brother’s birth.  My parents were undergoing a separation and there was a fair bit of acrimony at the time.  In an impulsive move that I don’t think he had fully thought through, my father burst into my mother’s place and swept me away to his apartment on Walmer Road (near the famous Casa Loma in Toronto).  My memory of the incident once again presents itself in a series of vignettes:  Seeing my mother running down the stairs after my father, upset and I don’t know why.  Riding in the back of my father’s old Rolls Royce wrapped in a blanket.  Sitting the next morning by the window of his apartment, playing with a string of paperclips made into a necklace, while he called and made arrangements to return me to my mother after discovering I had peed in his bed the night before.

Thus ended the less-than-dramatic story of my kidnapping.

/rk

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