On days when the Best of Dads decided to drink, his eyes reddening and then glassing over, the six of us could count on any number of lectures, diatribes, scolding’s, and my personal favorite, indoctrination. This of course was determined by the specific type of alcohol consumed, for instance beer or rum, the amount imbibed, and the percentage of alcohol. Beer usually meant a light scolding, but rum tended to unleash a free for all and generally not in a good way.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my father. I attribute the very best of me to what he taught and showed me about life. No person is all good or bad, each one of us capable of rising to astounding heights of philanthropy and kindness, or descending into base and reprehensible behavior.
The supper table is where we became his convenient captive audience, and as such the perfect forum in which he could pontificate. Like all children of my era, we were subjected to the infamous, ” When I was a kid” story. It was the ultimate parental card to pull because nothing in our apparently privileged and candy ass lives would ever be able to trump the hardship supposedly endured by him during his formative years, a child growing up in abject poverty on the bald faced, Saskatchewan prairie.
Being a first generation Canadian born to Ukrainian immigrants pretty much guaranteed him years of relentless teasing by nasty Anglo kids in the one room school house he and his sisters attended during the dirty thirties. Having a thick accent due to Ukrainian being his first language made him vulnerable to countless Bohunk slurs, and teasing. Being skinny as a snake didn’t help matters, either.
According to my father, they were so impoverished (the impoverished part at least being true) that he and his two sisters had to take turns attending school because there was only one coat owned between the three of them which was shared on a rotational basis. During the winter months my grandfather would harness up one of the horses because sheer distance made it impossible to walk once the snow arrived. The snow apparently fell just short of their eyebrows.
Years later when I asked my Aunt about the one coat shared between the three of them, she rolled her eyes. ” Oh for the love of God.” she said. Apparently my father told gigantic whoppers as a kid which spilled over into adult life.
He was your classic liar liar, pants on fire.
According to his version of things, in summer they walked to school, and yes indeed it was five miles up hill both ways. Before leaving for school he had to feed the chickens and milk the cows.
We shifted uncomfortably in our chairs as his glassy eyes roamed intensely over our faces, daring us to challenge his words.
How could our childhoods possibly compete or measure up? We each owned our own winter coats, although one fall we did lose all six of them while they were being dry cleaned. Someone had apparently broken in and stolen every last one.
But that was then. Apparently children’s winter coats had real value back then. Nowadays no self respecting thief would even consider leveraging himself out of bed for such a pathetic haul.
The way my father told it, he never had a grade fall below an A. Geometry, Science, History, English, you name it, he aced them all. How he had time to study after riding the horse home five miles from school uphill both ways, and then attending to the evening chores of chopping and hauling wood, unharnessing the horse and putting it back in the barn, as well as settling the cows and chickens, was a feat worthy of the Guinness Book of World Records.
If it was rum that he had imbibed in great measure before supper, he would begin taking our inventory. It was highly confusing because on days when the Best of Dads supped with us, we were the smartest best behaved little Cossacks in the world. But when he was looking through the blurred end of a rum glass we were swiftly demoted to lazy good for nothing, city bred bourgeoisie. Ravens were apparently smarter than us.
Suppers where he attempted to indoctrinate us with the communist manifesto was interesting, but tense. He claimed to be a card carrying socialist, lauding the virtues of both the Russian and Cuban governments. The two youngest siblings said nothing, having only developed speech in the past two years. They were mostly concerned with not knocking over their glasses of milk. The rest of us listened with varying degrees of interest.
My mother had no power within the marriage. Her job was solely to keep the peace. When she figured we had reached our limit of stories from the Russian steppes, she begged him to allow us to eat our meals in peace. More times than not he ignored her entreaties, and she finished her meal in silence.
He told us that religion was the opiate of the masses and thus all things vaguely smacking of Christianity were forbidden in our household. Our mother was now a lapsed Catholic as a result of his edict, and our father thus decreed that none of us were to be baptized. Woe unto us if any of us died as unbaptized infants relegated to purgatory for all of eternity. From what I understood, doing hard time in eternity would not be a picnic. My mother being passive aggressive feigned solidarity until our father would leave on one of his extended flying contracts. No sooner would he be out of the house, when my mother would scurry about hanging crucifixes above all of the bedroom door frames. Upon learning of his imminent return, the crucifixes would swiftly be removed and hidden until the next flying gig.
My father belonged to the school of thought that children were to be seen and not heard. When we visited other people’s homes we sat on their sofas in dead silence, not daring to utter a syllable or even think about rocking. People commented on our exemplary behavior.
Of course the day was going to arrive where I would eventually grow up and have children of my own.
The day would also come when my children would demand stories from when I was a kid. I had it all planned out in advance.
” Well”, I would say casting about for incidences of hardship and deprivation that would rival those of my fathers. “When I was a kid, we had to walk five blocks to school because in those days no one drove their kids around. We had to play outside and create our own fun. Once all of our winter coats were stolen from the Dry-Cleaners. The only junk food we were ever permitted to eat was at Halloween, Christmas, and Easter, because Grandma never made dessert. We wore hand me downs, and had to change out of our school clothes as soon as we arrived home from school. There was only one bicycle between the six of us, and we weren’t allowed to leave the table until we finished our rigatoni, which I hated. We were forced to take a spoonful of cod-liver oil at bed time, and we had almost no toys.”
At this point they would stare at me, clearly bored and unimpressed. The dry cleaning story would only elicit a yawn. I was going to have to do a lot better than this if I was going to kick it up a notch and rise in their estimation.
I would look at them solemnly saving the best for last.
” We had so few toys that we had to create out-fits for our Barbie dolls out of toilet paper, and because we had no Ken doll, we were forced to use my sister’s stuffed penguin”