Even its manifestations
were clichéd. After we progressed through the “Don’t
you dare talk back to me” and “I’ll smoke
if I f#%$ing well want to” phases, we simply didn’t
talk. From the age of 12 till I left home to go to university,
all our interactions had to go through a third party, even the
simplest dinner time request — “Would you ask your
son to pass the salt?” — vetted by my long-suffering
mother. Newsmakers are always noting the unbearable tension
every time Misters Netanyahu and Obama have to interface; imagine
the same hostilities repeated thrice daily.
There was but one
exception to this internecine estrangement: Cars. More accurately,
the repairing of failing automobiles. Mom didn’t know
a lug nut from a flywheel puller and, much more importantly,
was — and, Lord, let us always give thanks for mothers
— sensible enough to know that, were there going to be
some thawing in our frostiness, it would probably involve spark
plugs and crescent wrenches.
At first, it was
a simple matter of pragmatism. There was but one car in the
Booth garage, it was often 30 below zero in early morning Sept-Iles,
Quebec, and I wanted to get to hockey practice on time. If that
meant occasionally handing a spanner to the most despicable
man on Earth, I took solace in the fact that he was the guy
laying on the icy driveway with no gloves on. Yes, I was that
big a dick.
You probably know
the rest of the story for it too is clichéd. There was
some (slight) easing of tensions — isn’t it amazing
that the older a son gets, the smarter his father becomes —
as both of us sought even the faintest of common ground. Oh,
there was still no interaction round the dinner table, but at
least there were more than just grunts as we tinkered around
the growing Booth coterie of internal combustion engines (a
Vauxhall Viva meant my mom had her own set of wheels, our hand
mower was traded in on a used Toro, and a Honda minibike adopted
repair became a surrogate for a real father-son relationship,
our interaction a metaphor for the real conversations we knew
we would never have. “Pass the 3/16ths” became his
way of saying “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Do you think the voltage should be this low?” was
my way of saying “I respect your opinion.” I know
exactly how pathetic it sounds but when you haven’t spoken
a civil word to your father in five years, you’ll take
what you can get.
interesting about all of this automobile-as-bonding surrogacy
is that my father had no particular interest in cars. Oh, in
his youth, he tinkered with Chevys, Cadillacs and even a Lincoln
Zephyr, but in grown-up life he was pragmatism personified.
There were some oddball cars — a rare-as-hen’s-teeth
’59 Ford Taunus, not to mention an equally weird and wonderful
Epic Envoy — but the common denominator was always that
they were reliable and cheap. Car repair was not a passion for
my father, only a necessary economy. He didn’t replace
the starter motor on our 1966 Plymouth Fury III out of devotion
to internal combustion; he just wanted money to buy new golf
clubs. He didn’t put fibreglass on the rusted hulk that
was our ’64 Biscayne because he loved Chevys; it’s
just that the cost of a new car would mean putting off that
vacation to South Carolina.
And yet cars became
the “currency” through which we were able to exchange
at least some semblance of affection. Truth be told, to this
day, discussion of my test cars remains a large part of our
daily dialogue. He still doesn’t really care that much
about automobiles. But, though the need for “safe”
conversation is long gone, old habits die hard. (And I, now
a good father’s son, bone up on the latest hockey news
— Babcock will help the Leafs, we concur, just not right
away — before our daily phone calls).
But — and
yes, it is pitiful that it has taken me so long to realize this
— this car-as-metaphor shtick doesn’t cut it anymore.
Dad is 86 years old and every day is a gift. Like anyone who’s
lived with — and failed to confront — such a schism
in their personal life, I long for closure.
I could probably
sneak an “I love you” in as we’re ordering
breakfast at Rockin’ Johnny’s next Sunday morning.
He could pretend not to hear just as I would then make believe
I didn’t say it. Or I could buy a particularly poignant
Father’s Day card and hope that he, as always, doesn’t
read it. But that would be the same 40-year-old cop out.
On the other hand,
if a little tacky schmaltz challenges even one more 57-year-old
emotionally-stunted, starting-to-feel-his-own-mortality car
nut to step up to the plate, then I suppose all this cheesiness
won’t have been a complete waste of newsprint. So, even
though he knows it, even though he’ll harrumph and feign
embarrassment, here it is as loud as I can shout it: Happy Father’s
Day, dad, I love you.
No cars involved.