For fathers past, present and future, and the people love them.
A Father's Day
That day the alarm went off at 5 a.m. On a normal day that’d be an hour I’d be going to bed. This wasn’t a normal day, and not just because I wasn’t home. I was home, in a way. I was in the town my son lives in, a city on the Canadian prairie. It’s sort of a second home. I was visiting, and I took a motel room, and we were seeing each other and hanging out and this particular morning we were getting up at five a.m. But it wasn’t a normal day.
A trip to see the lad included a drive up to Sheho, a town of 350 on the Yellowhead Highway between Winnipeg and Edmonton.
There is a church there, and a cemetery, and the grandfather wanted to go to the church that day for it was the church’s feast day and there the priest would come from Brandon. There’d be a service in the tiny church and then there’d be a ceremony in the cemetery next door, where the grandfather’s mother and father were buried. The lad was supposed to be the altar boy. He’s an altar boy at the Orthodox pro-cathedral in town, and he was supposed to assist at this event.
The mother didn’t want the grandfather to drive, and in conversations before my arrival I said I’d be glad to go to Sheho, and that I’d drive if necessary. This was what the mother wanted. She didn’t think her father was up to driving anymore. The day before the trip I saw the grandfather and his new station wagon, and we talked, and we decided he would drive. I didn’t want to insult the man, nor argue his daughter’s case, as it wasn’t mine to argue. I was going to be a passenger. I’d keep an eye on things.
With arrangements made, and the alarm now having performed its duty, it was up to me to shower and shave and get ready to go in a manner to set an example with the youngster. I needn’t bothered. He was up, dressed, and ready long before I’d turned on the hot water tap in the bathroom. He was good at getting up, and getting ready. He was trained well. I needn’t have worried, and by the time I was ready, we were on our way to the grandfather’s, who wanted to leave early so we’d have time for breakfast on the way. That was how it turned out, too. By the time we reached the town of Ituna there was time for breakfast, big and reasonably priced, eaten in an easy manner with the grandfather and father teasing the lad about his entry into the sixth grade the next day and how big he was getting, and how he’d be as big as his dad before long. The boy took it all with a grin. It was clear he loved being with his grandfather and father.
Our small party arrived at the church grounds just as the service was starting. In Orthodox churches, separating the congregation from the altar, there is a great screen decorated with icons and images from the life of Christ and his Apostles. Behind this screen the priest was hearing confession. There wasn’t enough time for the boy to find out if he was needed as an altar boy. The service began soon enough as the priest, finished with confession, walked out wearing his gold vestments and began the opening prayer. It didn’t appear that the boy’s services were required after all. The boy sat next to his grandfather, and as the service began, it was clear that there were going to be more people than there would be room in the small church, even as they took seats in the vestibule of the church. I decided to spend my time outside, listening as the service progressed, listening to the choir respond to the priest’s supplications. The average age of the choir, much like that of the congregation, was about 65 to 70 years old. Even with the Dumanski’s two boys, aged 3 and 18 months, and the boy, it was clearly an older crowd at the church.
Sheho is the Cree word for prairie chicken. When Ukrainian immigrants came to the area at the turn of the last century, when the province was still the Northwest Territory, such creatures lived in the scrub tree thickets and groves, along with the prairie dogs, pheasant and quail and deer. It was tough, dry, cold country. The land needed to be busted up and plowed, grain planted and harvested and be shipped East to the food companies so a nation could be fed. An immigrant’s part in the whole process started with a homestead, 40 acres, a good horse, a mud house, or if you were lucky and had the right type of trees on your land, a house with four strong walls and a roof, raised and set before that first bitter prairie winter set in. And a man knew his best friend was the horse he was tethered to, the two of them busting land that would help the family last another year.
Taking on land in plots close to the Yellowhead Highway meant a man had land close to the road traveled by the characters that typically went back and forth on roads, peddlers and agents and such, people who had news to tell, and so a man didn’t feel so cut off from the world.
A community would build a school and a teacher would come and be paid by funds raised by the families, or in livestock and vegetables. Many of the people standing and sitting and listening to that priest celebrate that feast day in that old church, 97 years after its dedication were students at such schools who lived their lives on such homesteads, educated in a time and place far removed from the new country and a new century they’d not yet gotten used to.
The grandfather had grown up on the hardscrabble land, his father working land here and there, wherever a deal could be made for something better, hedging a bet and working out of bad luck, mostly. Older brothers worked the land, he and a younger sister tended to the animals before school. There were four or five years of that before work became a serious thing.
The service began its second hour, the Orthodox liturgy lingering over the mystery of the Christos. The late August sun began its work in earnest, heating a land with wheat, canola, oats, peas, timothy, alfalfa, ready for the combine, the reaper, the header. The land was hard and thick with grasshoppers. Late-summer rain brought mosquitoes quick on the attack. It was hard to remember they were God’s creatures, even when standing in a church yard.
The after the service the congregation assembled outside and the priest blessed the church, the land and then the procession up the small slope to the cemetery south of the church. The grass was freshly mowed and weeded and some plots had fresh flowers. Despite the walkers and canes the procession was something like a children’s walk, the old men and old women with grandchildren and great-grandchildren of their own visiting the graves of their parents, their aunts and uncles, their brothers and sisters.
Kuzyk, Romaniuk, Melnychuk, Shevchenko, Svoboda, Wiesliu, Dymanski. The graves bore names I didn’t know, and I knew I was a visitor to the place, linked to the land there by the blood of a son who was Ukrainian and a Canadian as well as a German-Irish American.
I stood there, watching the procession, the priest praying the prayers of the living for the souls of the dead. And that’s when I realized these grandfathers and grandmothers were at once aged and at the same time they were children visiting their families. That's what was really going on. It was a special day for the people who loved that church, who had their families buried here. They wanted to be there on a holy day and say hello to mama and papa, and tell them they’re still trying to be good boys and girls, doing what the Bible said, to honor thy father and mother.
I bent over and whispered into my son’s ear, “take a good look at all these grandmas and grandpas. You know who they really are? Children, coming to visit their mothers and fathers. When they come here they are children again.” My son looked at me and laughed a small laugh at the idea. I don’t know if he understood what I said, or whether he laughed at the idea of all these old people being young.
Before heading home, the grandfather wanted to show the boy the house where he grew up. It was only a mile or so from the cemetery, on a gravel lane, behind a grove. The old man and the boy got out of the car and walked across a field of ripening oats. I stayed in the car, and watched the two cross the field.
I knew the grandfather, nearly 80 now, liked these visits with the past. And I could easily see him as a lad no older than my own son, crossing that field after school, or with a pole with a few fish from the stream north of where I stood.
We live solitary lives at our own peril. Some of us are put on Earth lucky enough to know the goodness and the love of parents who bear us, and we try to live our lives as our parents did, and their parents did. Some of us remain single, and some go on to have children who go on to live the lives they are meant to live. And if they are lucky they fondly remember a loved one, and a visit to their resting place seems as natural as the desire to sit and talk once more.
My cousin once said it wasn’t really Christmas until he was with his dad. I know what he means now. My special time of the year is when I’m with my son. It doesn’t matter if we spend the day at a cemetery, or reminisce with an old man. It’s better that way, I think. Some memories are treasures too fine for wrapping paper and bows.