A few weeks ago, I got an email from Heather Hartley (a wonderful woman who is good friends with my parents) about my dad’s upcoming birthday – somehow, he is turning seventy (!!!), despite the fact that he will be eternally about fifty in my mind. In any case, there is apparently a German tradition in which retiring academics are presented with a Festschrift – a collection of letters or essays from colleagues reflecting on the honoree’s contributions to the field. So Heather proposed that in honour of my dad’s birthday, we create a similar book, but with letters not just from colleagues but also from friends and family. So, me being…well…me, I decided that I would blog my response and then include the post as my contribution to the book.
To be honest, it took me awhile to start this post. It wasn’t an easy one to write – not because I couldn’t sit and talk to you for hours about how cool and awesome my dad is, but because it’s hard to choose which stories and memories to share. After much deliberation, though, I think I’ve narrowed it down to just the highlights, as it were.
So forgive me if I’ve missed any of the key points – it’s grading season, after all. But here, in no particular order, are the things about my father that I am most thankful for.
His playful spirit: My dad has always talked fondly of one of his grandparents in particular: his Spiel Oma, or play-grandmother, who, from what I can gather, was always down to play. When my sister had her first child a few years ago, it became obvious that my dad was on a mission to be the next Spiel Opa, and he is certainly right on track: his latest project is setting up one of the rooms in the basement as a Lego room, ostensibly for my nephew but also, I think, for his own amusement.
And when I was growing up, my dad was just as good at playing as he is now. He taught me to love board games of any sort and was always up for a round of something, even if he had lots of work to do. Our favourite non-board game (well, probably just my favourite) to play was “Going to California,” a game that seemed mainly to involve my dad pretending to drive the bed, laden with my stuffed animals, to California. He would frequently pretend to fall asleep at the wheel (in retrospect, sort of a dark game I suppose), only to mime exaggerated braking upon “waking up,” but I think this was actually just a ploy to get me to agree to him stopping at a pretend rest stop for him to take a quick nap (and the nap part definitely wasn’t just pretend).
His hilarious disregard for the rules: For my dad, rules are more like guidelines; he has always been (as my mother would say) a bit of a “scoff-law” (rumour has it he may have hidden wine in with the spare tire in the trunk in order to get it across the border – but then, who wouldn’t bend the rules in the name of drinking good wine). He taught me to drive at thirteen by taking me to an empty, snowy parking lot and making me go as fast as I dared before slamming on the brakes so that I could “see how the ABS worked.” We then did donuts in the snow to check out the turning radius. When I got my learner’s permit, I remember him telling me to get on the expressway because it was a faster way home; being the rule-obsessed kid that I was, I informed him that I wasn’t allowed to drive on highways without my driving instructor. My dad told me that if someone pulled us over, he’d put on a German accent and pretend he couldn’t understand the rules. (Of note: his love of fun does not extend to rollercoasters, as we learned while riding the not-so-scary Nightmare on Boblo Island).
His strong political beliefs: Although my parents only recently became Canadian citizens and therefore were only recently afforded the right to vote in Canada, my father has long been a staunch supporter of the NDP. We were always the house on the block with the giant orange sign, and my father would donate to the party and support them in any way he could. He is a strong advocate for equity, although I am only now realizing the extent of his commitment to social justice issues. And as I have grown in my own capacity as an activist of sorts, my dad has never hesitated to tell me how proud he is of my work. Last year, I tweeted an article about white privilege and was trolled quite extensively because of it; after I blogged about the experience, I called my dad to let him know, lest he stumble upon the post and read some of the nastier comments. His response? Good job! You really must have made them mad – I’m so proud of you for speaking out about this! …. after which he proceeded to gleefully read the mean comments aloud to me, exclaiming about how I’d really hit a nerve.
His love of baking: This is perhaps somewhat atypical, but my dad was always the baker in our house (somewhat surprising, since his first attempt at making streusel reportedly involved slathering on a layer of butter, a layer of sugar, and a layer of flour, without mixing, resulting in a burned mess of a cake topping). He makes, hands down, the best chocolate chip cookies ever, and it’s always a treat when he sends a care package with some inside. But the best part of baking with my dad is that it is something of a ritual; it’s almost less about the product and more about spending time together. When we were kids, we’d often make cinnamon rolls for my mom – on Mother’s Day, her birthday, and Christmas morning. We’d make the dough the night before, and then my dad, my sister, and I would slip downstairs in the early morning to prepare the rolls. We each had specific tasks: my dad rolled the dough, my sister melted the butter and made the caramel sauce, and I mixed the cinnamon and brown sugar (I was young, ok? I’ve since become much more useful in the kitchen). Everything came together at the end, as we spread the butter on the dough and sprinkled on my sugar mixture, then rolled and sliced the dough and worked quickly to transfer the pieces to the pan before the filling oozed out onto the counter.
As we grew older, my sister and I increasingly took on larger shares of the roll-making responsibilities, but the ritual element still remained to some extent. I’ve made cinnamon rolls a few times at my own house, but it’s never quite the same in a different place: I can’t joke about the time that my sister and I accidentally put the “refrigerator roll dough” in the garage to rise during the summer months, because we generally made rolls in the winter when the garage was very much like a refrigerator; I can’t complain to my dad in frustration about how hard it is to do anything on the very crowded kitchen counters, where something is always in the way; and I can’t enjoy the familiar feeling of that early morning stillness spent quietly working together with my dad and sister.
Even the more negative memories hold their own charm. Each Christmas, my dad and I make brown sugar spritz cookies; they are unbelievably delicious, and a Christmas staple, but they are made using a cookie press. Our cookie press is about a hundred years old and temperamental as anything: making Spritz cookies generally involves a good deal of swearing and results in blistered hands from turning the press handle. But a few years ago my sister got a newer, easy-to-use press; when we learned how simple it was to use, my dad and I briefly discussed buying one, but it never happened…partly, I suspect, because it would have taken the joy out of laughing and swearing loudly over the trays of camel and heart shaped cookies.
His eternal optimism: One of the best things I’ve learned from my dad is a sort of “Go with it and get it done” attitude in which you deal with things as they come. Although I am not nearly as practiced as he is, I do pride myself on my determination to do what needs to be done; unfortunately, for me this often unfolds as grim determination, while my dad always seems to be able to smile and laugh in the face of just about anything.
While there are many examples of my dad’s eternal optimism (see, for instance, the dozens of times I nearly missed my train back to Toronto because of someone’s optimistic ideas about how long it took to get to the station), one of my favourite memories is of being home at Christmas and, of course, baking with my dad. For some reason (most likely due to our shared optimism about how much one can actually accomplish in one day) we were baking in the middle of the night, long after my mom had gone to sleep. As we were heating up the oven, some mystery substance on the bottom caught fire, and I remember my dad just calmly closing the door to the hallway where the smoke alarm was and saying something like, Well, it’s a self-cleaning oven – no problem, guess it’s just going to get clean! (And he was right, as usual).
And finally, his unending kindness: I am most certainly biased, but my father is easily the nicest person I know, and I suspect that a lot of people would agree with that assessment. When we started planning my dad’s birthday book, I sent out emails to lots of his former colleagues, students, and friends, many of whom I’d never met. Without fail, the responses I got were positive and enthusiastic: Of course I’ll write something – your dad changed my life!
That my father inspires so much respect and love from others – even those with whom he hasn’t spoken in years – is evidence of his caring spirit. And this is not just apparent in the letters we received about him; it is obvious everyday. My mother suffers from a rare form of Alzheimer’s which has left her blind and with decreasing ability to speak or remember things, and yet my father still insists that she live at home. Caring for my mother is a full time, often difficult job, and yet my dad does it willingly and with a positive spirit. And while he receives some assistance in the way of respite care, he also has the help of dozens of friends and neighbours; while you often hear stories of Alzheimer’s patients whose friends just stop coming by as the disease progresses, I have seen the number of regular visitors grow over the past years. This is partly because of their love for my mother, of course, but I think it is in large part a testament to their deep respect and care for my father. I’d like to think that his kindness is so deep that it inspires the same in others.
So thank you, Papa, for all this and more. And here’s to many more years of cookie baking, Lego building, late-night crossword puzzling, Sunday dinner eating, rule bending, wine drinking, and general goofy behaviour.
Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag. Ich liebe dich.