My father was a quiet man.
Every weekday morning, he got up early, and in the silence and emptiness of the morning, he slowly, methodically polished his black shoes and the brass buttons and belt buckle of his Canadian army uniform. I never knew what he did on base. He never talked about work. Years later I would joke that he must have been a spy. He would have made a good one, my pale, thin, ordinary-looking father who knew how to keep secrets.
On warm evenings, he sat alone on the front steps, smoking a cigarette, gazing somewhere off in the distance. I thought him wise. Better, I thought, to think deep thoughts in silence than to reveal oneself with absurd chatter, like my mother. Still, I puzzled over what he liked…who he was…if he loved me.
The summer I was sixteen I was away from home for six weeks, working as a mother’s helper. I didn’t talk to anyone in my family all that time. The evening I came home, my Dad said “hello” to me; then, during dinner, “please pass the beans.” That was all. Years later I made it into a funny story, except that he should have said more and someone in my family, anyone, should have heard the stories of my first time away from home alone.
But I was quiet too. My mother liked to tell a story of me when I was four. A friend of hers had come to visit. I did not speak a word. After some time, the woman asked, “Can she talk?” My mother sputtered, “Of course she can talk. She just won’t, that’s all.”
I believed my father cared for me, though he never said so. I saved up bits of evidence as my mother saved snippets of string to tie together.
He and I rode together when I was a girl. He would talk enough to say where we should ride and how we should ride and take care of our horses. But we didn’t chat. Once I asked him, innocently and out of the blue, what a gelding was. He gave a brief, honest answer. My mother would have been evasive. Though I didn’t say another word, he cared about me, I decided, because he answered my question.
When I was a senior, my parents took me shopping for a prom dress. My mother and I were ready to settle on a so-so dress for twenty dollars. He said no, it wasn’t pretty enough, and he suggested a beautiful dress, aqua with embroidered chiffon layers. It was thirty-five dollars, a lot of money in those days. Proof again, I decided, that he cared about me.
When I went away to university, he wrote me only once. In fact, it was the only letter he wrote me in my entire life. It was odd. He said that he was being sent to Moncton, on the East Coast. On the way home, he’d be changing planes in Montreal, spending several hours there between flights. He didn’t mention the airline company or the time and flight number, and he didn’t write about anything else. I read the letter several times. Since he had never written me before, I felt certain he must be telling me he’d like me to meet his plane to spend time with him at the airport.
I didn’t have a car and the airport was far from the university. But I was able to get there very, very early in the morning by taking several buses. I met the first plane that landed from Moncton that day. I watched as every passenger got off the plane. I met every other plane that landed from Moncton, scanned every face until it was night and no more planes were scheduled to land. He did not come.
I made my way back to the dorm, arriving late at night. I was exhausted and confused. Why did he write the letter if he hadn’t meant for me to come? Where was he? Had I somehow missed him? I don’t think that I ever felt so much like an abandoned waif as I did that long day in the airport in Montreal.
In the weeks that followed, no letter came from him or my mother explaining what had happened. I never mentioned it either. If I had misunderstood, if he had not meant for me to go to the airport, I might make him uncomfortable by bringing it up.
Years passed. I never mentioned it, ever, to my father, but I never forgot it, either. I never mentioned it to my mother until the last months of her life.
“Do you remember the time Dad wrote me a letter saying he’d be coming through Montreal?”
“Well…,” my mother said casually. “As I recall, his plans got changed.”
I didn’t say anything else to her. But something didn’t quite make sense. Why did my father write that letter in the first place? And why did he never explain what happened?
Frankly I don’t pretend that I ever guessed what my father was thinking. I knew even less about his feelings. I clung to that image of my father as silently thinking lots of deep, wise thoughts. Never did I think of him as a man who brooded or felt insecure, and surely it wasn’t shyness that prevented my father from talking to me.
Long after my father died, I had a thought sharp as a stab wound. Had my father written that letter hoping for a letter back from me to let him know that I wanted to see him, that I wanted to meet him at the airport, that he could plan on my coming? Had he expected me to ask him what time he’d be arriving? And when he didn’t get any letter, had he changed his travel plans?
Perhaps he never mentioned it to me in the years before he died because he was too embarrassed or annoyed or hurt by what he took to be my indifference? I had not even responded to his letter.
Or maybe he did what I had done: never mentioned it because he didn’t want me to feel uncomfortable by bringing it up.
Like father, like daughter.
I was such a quiet girl.