Friday, September 23, 2005

A Daddy in Aspic

I caught a glimpse of my father the other day, which is a pretty neat trick seeing as he’s been dead for ten years.
I claim no special powers – I’m not psychic (though I did predict J.D. Fortune would win Rockstar INXS, but to be honest, that could have been a fluke), I am not a Ghost Whisperer, neither am I a Medium, nor one prone to intimate communication with The Almighty.
I am not a busty TV star or the President of the United States, but I did recently have an experience that brought me into full living, breathing contact with the reality of my long dead dad that has left me feeling shaky and unsteady days later.
And like most earth-shattering encounters, the circumstances could not have been more prosaic.
I was at a cocktail party as the guest of a friend who had recently purchased a condo in an as-yet unfinished development in North Toronto. Very swank and with all the mod cons, the event held in the corporation’s model suite was designed ostensibly for the future neighbours to meet and mingle, though as it soon became clear, it was actually purpose-designed to send a not so subtle message that discounts on ‘luxury upgrades’ would be offered to owners who roped in hot new prospects for the crack sales team. (A sales team whose crackling energy looked sharp enough to wound. Those folks were not fooling around.)
Still, it was a chance to support the friend and get a glimpse of her future condo’s future potential – and not incidentally to sample as much domestic wine and delish hors d’oeuvre as you could liberate from the attractive gay wait staff; what those caterers couldn’t do with a sprig of asparagus and a loop of chive I wouldn’t even begin to speculate.
There were tiny rare roast beef shavings sitting cockily atop miniature cornbread cakes, garnished with just a dot of fragrant aioli. Goose liver on some sort of miraculous buttery organic triscuit, topped with a trembling golden cube of aspic. And as for the bite sized mini mountains molded of braised shitake mushroom and sweet onion, well suffice it to say that you wouldn’t have wanted to come between me and them. Not and retain your dignity and all your fingers that is.
And thank heaven the food was good, because I wasn’t buying and there were certainly no romantic prospects circulating; apart from the tuxedo-clad, likely gay cellist plinking and sawing earnestly in the prettily decorated den (or second bedroom! or office! or gift-wrapping nook!), besides the friend and myself, virtually everyone there was of an age that suggested preservation in aspic might make an increasingly attractive alternative to further deterioration.
They were old is what I’m saying. Old and rich and practically counting off the seconds to the end of the current Toronto season, so they could wing it to Florida for the next.
All too soon the wait staff were absorbed back into whatever holding pen they’d originally emerged from (the source of all that was savoury and good) and the developers and sales team lined up in front of the miniature architectural model in the foyer so they could sing the praises of the development that by our listening constituted our payment for the supper.
Bah, blah, blah.
I never feel so completely adolescent as when I’m left stranded in a room full of grown ups listening to guff like this. I’m sure there was value in the various missives, but all I got out of it (in between trying to crack up the pregnant woman shifting weightily from one foot to the other right next to me: I wanted to see her bursting through the firmly rooted crowd like floodwater through a Louisiana levee in a headlong beeline to the bathroom) was that those who chose not to frogmarch relatives, friends and other suckers into the gaping maw thinly disguised as realtors, would be punished with cut-rate mismatched marble floors, paper thin granite countertops and the leftover wallpaper samples that would scream: ‘so last year!’ to the lonely unfortunates forced to make do with the 'Basic Plan'.
I don’t know how long the speeches lasted because somewhere in between elbowing the pregnant lady and trying to silently pop a piece of gum out of one of those blister packs that tend to explode like a gunshot in church (I simply did not have enough to share with the rest of the congregation) I saw my father.
Right in front of me, close enough to touch – I could almost imagine I smelled him: a combination of fabric softener (his housekeeper always put too much Downy in the rinse) and the Pear’s soap he preferred, subtly imbued with just a hint of medicinal mentholatum.
Above the collar of an Oxford blue cotton shirt (itself tucked into a pair of pressed khakis, held up by a tightly buckled belt – he’d never had any sort of bum to speak of) it was surely the back of his neck; a thick and ruddy affair holding up a giant bald head (the Wilson’s have giant heads, it’s a fact) ringed with a pure white fringe of hair, choppily trimmed and in desperate and immediate need of another.
I’d have known the back of those ears anywhere (after all, I was the one who had trimmed and styled his remaining strands…) all pink and bursting with a wild and wiry grey growth.
And his pate – a few stray hairs still clinging pathetically to his softly tanned scalp, the age spots and freckles like familiar landmarks on an otherwise blasted landscape. I could see the pores and the texture of his skin and the dynamic life force that in comparing the living to the inanimate is somewhat similar to identifying the real turtle soup from merely the mock.
I wanted to touch him.
I wanted to grab him and breathe him in and feel the solid warmth of life and energy. I wanted to look at his worn and funny face and deep into his faded blue eyes and I wanted to tell him so much that had just that moment occurred to me.
I thought I had done my grieving long ago, but I realize now that recently that grief was just as easy and tender as missing an old photo or home movie: a one or two dimensional twinge at the most. A softening – but a comfortable reaction, easy and familiar and nothing like this stab of reality that threatened to overwhelm me to the point of public humiliation.
I had difficulty swallowing and hot tears were building behind my eyes and I couldn’t believe I might very soon be reduced to a sobbing, braying heap in the middle of an expensively outfitted pretend apartment, surrounded nearly completely by elderly strangers. It was just too awful.
Because it wasn’t him of course. It was just some man. Some sixty or seventy-something old article, alive and pink, with blood coursing through his veins and breath sliding easily – so easily! – in and out of his lungs. And in fact beyond the skin colour and shape and shade of his silver tonsure, he was nothing really very much like my father at all.
(For one thing, dad would have let his trousers droop as low as gangsta rapper’s before he’d cinch in his belt. He was above all, a creature well aware of each and every physical comfort and he tolerated neither the chafe nor the squeeze...)
It was the magic of the flesh.
The glow and vibrancy and multi-dimensional corporeal reality of the living that made my past efforts in remembering him comparable to the literary similarities between Beatle Bailey and War and Peace.
I remember and miss him now. Not his memory and not his photo and not even the sly and funny (sometimes rude) and insightful letters he always wrote and mailed to me no matter the advances of technology. I remember the guy who wrote them, and right now, I miss him so much.
Back in the model suite I surreptitiously blew my nose on a cocktail napkin and pushed firmly through the crowd on my way to the exit. I wanted to come home and think about him and get to work on that little deconstruction project I’ve been neglecting for the last decade.
I’ve got to grieve the real man, not the dying or dead or vaguely remembered or charmingly posed and photographed guy.
My memories are emerging from the aspic now, and sharp and bitter as it is reliving this loss, it is also deeply nourishing. And even delicious.

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