As I turned 68 this last May, my own father celebrated his 88th birthday a few days before me. How lucky am I to have my father alive, aware and as healthy as one can be at his age? Very I would say.
Both my parents are still with me and as I am entering the twilight of my life I watch them walk together as they have for almost seventy years towards the end of theirs. Being French Canadian the history of my family on both sides goes as far back as the Canadian Mayflower can go. My mother’s Bilodeau family settled in the 1600’s in a French settlement in the Province of Quebec known as Trois Rivières (Three Rivers). A hundred years later, my father’s Vallee family followed and settled along the same River. But they did not meet there. Instead, their ancestors travelled thousands of miles across Canada to a little farming settlement in St. Lina, Alberta where my parents met in school and married in August of 1941. Always a thorn in my father’s side that my mother’s family made it to the shores of Canada first! He is a very competitive fellow!
After their marriage, they followed my Bilodeau grandparents to the west coast of British Columbia but Dad missed farming. He had grown up close to the land all of his life and it had long been his dream to have his own. After I was born in 1942, they went back to St. Lina where the hardest years of their lives together took place. Dad had bought what he thought was a great little piece of land to farm but no matter how hard he worked that land it never gave him much back. The house was nothing more than a log shack which was drafty and cold in the winter and hot as an oven in the summer. I can remember growing up so poor I never had a pair of shoes that fit. To this day, my toes are permanently curled because of that, but I never complained.
See I never knew we were poor! Living on a farm with my three brothers and two sisters – life was good! We were always up to all manners of antics that drove my mother nuts; but my father? He made sure we all knew how proud he was of our courage to try new things. Come to think of it when he did disapprove of what we did – like the time I stole one of our Clydesdale horses and he caught me riding it into town – a sore butt was something to boast about!
I can remember winter months when Dad was gone. There was no money to be made off the land then so he would take the train into British Columbia or up towards the tundra line where money could be made in the forests. One year he came home badly hurt. A saw had almost taken his arm off but it never stopped Dad. As soon as he could, he was off again finding ways to keep his family fed.
He tried his best to make a living in St. Lina but in the end the only thing that land turned out to be good for was growing rocks. I think I must have picked and piled a million of them off that land. Next day Mother Nature would give birth to a few hundred more and we would start all over again.
It was a poor life but an awesome life. One winter we had gone to Mass for the Christmas Eve service and Dad bundled all of us down in the back of the wagon. I was an altar boy that year so it was a big night for me. I got to wear a suit that was too big for me along with shoes shined so bright you could see your face in them (that were of course too small). It was an exciting night and I can still I can still feel the bite of the winter cold as we made our way back home. The moon was so big that night it seemed to follow us no matter which way Dad took us. In fact, I ended up keeping my head under the blankets because it scared the heck right out of me.
When we got home, I told Dad of my fear and how I felt shame that as the eldest son I could not be braver. He told me a story of one night when he had gone into town to ‘play pool’ with the boys. On his way back, he had to pass the graveyard, but every time he took a step, he heard someone moaning! Scared him so bad he ran all the way home only to find out the next day that someone’s cows had broken out of their fence and taken up residence in the graveyard! I think I was six when all this took place. Then he told me he had been sixteen years old when that happened to him and I was the only one he had ever told about how afraid he had been – of a cow. Dad always has a way of making me feel better.
Dad tried for about fifteen years to make a go of it on the farm but finally ended up losing it. So we headed back to British Columbia and were a nervous bunch of kids. See we only spoke French and that was a problem because we were moving to an English area of Vancouver. Dad had already thought things out and there was a funny looking box in the living room with knobs on it he told me to ‘turn on.” First time in my whole life, I had ever seen a television. It was to be my first love and that summer all of the Vallee kids learned English by watching all the shows we could from sign on until sign off. By the time we started school we were just as English as the rest of the kids thanks to Dad.
All through my life, he has been the strongest influence on me. When my first marriage fell apart, it was Dad who advised me to keep the house we had bought. So I did. I think my first wife and I had paid twenty thousand dollars for it. When I met and married Linda, I sold that house for over two hundred thousand dollars to buy another one. Best advice I ever got in life was always from my father.
He was not someone I ever thought I wanted to be like and yet every day I find things I do and say are like sitting down and talking to him. It is funny how your parents become an actual part of your way of speaking and doing things. People say I am more like my mother but if I give my kids one half of the good advice my father gave me during my life – I will be happy.
I hope to have no regrets come the day Dad is gone. I spend as much time as I can with him but of course, to him it is never enough. With a wife, seven children and seventeen grandchildren my wife and I are blessed to have both sets of our parents still with us but we are always wondering if we do enough for everyone. Especially our parents.
I recall a close cousin of mine saying at the passing of his father that “I am now officially an orphan.” Marcell was 62 at the time and his father 90 so it was a statement that struck me as being a very odd one. Until I thought about it again. I cannot imagine I will ever be an orphan. My father will always be my father no matter where we happen to be. In this life or the next.
I know I am lucky that every couple of days I can pick up the telephone and at the end of that conversation, I get to tell my Dad I love him. In fact, I think I will give him a call right now and ask him for his take on that hockey game last night. He loves the Vancouver Canucks and Boston wiped our nose last night. Dad will have the answers. He always has. Funny thing is now my kids think I have all the answers too. It must be something I inherited … from my Dad. I hope so.
Merci père et Happy Day de pères. Je t’aime
Thank you, Father and Happy Father’s Day.
I love you.