In the early 1970’s our family purchased a plot of land on Galiano Island, one of an archipelago of islands off the coast of British Columbia known on the Canadian side as the Gulf Islands, and on the American side as the San Juan Islands. For the first few summers, we would camp in a tent trailer while plans were laid to build a cabin. My dad procured a round prefab building that was constructed by a school and had it shipped to the island in pieces to be assembled. On one of our trips to the island, we were carrying windows for our summer retreat. On our way down the freeway to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, unfortunately, the straps holding the windows on the roof came undone and off fell the windows shattering glass on the asphalt of highway 99. I was ordered to stay in the car watching as mom, dad and older siblings picked up the shards of glass, incurring cuts to their hands in the process.
This was but a small set back and on a later trip, we brought more windows, though not quite the design my father wanted. This time, I recall watching my father tighten, retighten, and tighten again the windows to his roof to make sure they would survive the trip; and survive they did because soon we were sleeping in our round red cabin. The long term plan, however, was to build a small house but ground had to be cleared. Each time we visited the cabin, dad would be out in the sun chipping away at sand stone with a hammer and chisel to clear a hole for the foundation. It never occurred to me that there could be any other way to remove the stone, but looking back I realize this process of slowly chipping away at the stone was very therapeutic for dad. In fact, his last breath was offered on these rocks with hammer in hand.
As a bit of background, my parents were separated in 1973 when I was 5 years old, so most of my memories with my father are on weekend visits and trips to Galiano. I do not claim that my father was perfect. He was a product of mid-century Canada and a veteran of the Second World War. He struggled to express his feelings and had a PTSD temper that would be exacted on his older sons more than it should have; but he was as honourable man as he knew how to be. I should note that my father was 50 years old by the time I entered the scene, and my grandfather was 50 when my father was born. There is a full 100 years between my birth and that of my grandfather who was born in 1868. As you can appreciate, I never met my grandfather, nor any other of my grandparents who died well before I came along. My father died when I was 14 so I never had the opportunity to express my appreciation to him for what love he did offer me.
My most memorable story which always makes my children laugh was when, on one of our many trips to the island, my siblings wanted to stay at the island’s shoreline where the ferry docks to do some exploring before walking up to the cabin. This suited my father fine who had work to do at the soon-to-be-built round red cabin. So when we arrived on the ferry, my dad dropped us off at the end of the dock and went on his way. Although the distance seemed like a tremendous journey on foot, it was in fact just a kilometer by road. While at the beach, being perhaps 4 or 5 years of age, I had the sudden urge to go to the bathroom and could wait no longer. Too young to consider that there were bathrooms close by (and there were several as I now know) I started to urgently walk back to the cabin where an outhouse was waiting for me. My siblings who were charged with my care shouted and hollered at me to come back but all I could say was I had to get back. My bowels were full and all the way back I prayed ‘Please God Please God, let it be a fart’ over and over again. Alas, my prayers were not answered and the outhouse was just a bit too far away for my little body to last. Yes, my shorts carried what my bowels could not. I used the outhouse and realized that I now had to get a clean pair of underpants from the tent trailer. When I got to the tent trailer, however, there was my father looking over the drawings for the planned red round cabin. He picked me up and set me on his lap and shared with me his master plan. Me with my dirty undies and me just wanting privacy to get cleaned up.
Of course, this was a long time ago and I was very young so my memory is not too clear. I suspect that my father figured out the issue, helped me get cleaned up and set me on my way, but how the problem resolved has long since faded from the snapshots of my childhood that I store in my mind’s eye. It was one of those ‘How am I going to get out of this one’ moments, but I look back at this experience with laughter and fondness because, setting my childhood crisis aside, I remember now my father took me in his arms and shared with me his vision.
One of the last memories I have of my father was when he took me to the now built home which was years in the planning. Just the two of us. I was perhaps 13 years old. We visited friends of his from work who also were building a home on the same island, went on walks, and worked on the yard. I don’t recall much of the trip other than a few of the meals, and visits with neighbours, but I later learned that this trip meant a tremendous amount to him and he spoke of it often. I was his son and he loved me, and he was proud of me. I learned that he often spoke of me to his friends and acquaintances, how I played the piano, how smart I was, how much he adored me.
He died on a Sunday in April. I returned from school the next day and as I came into the kitchen, my mother was waiting at the table and she broke the news. I recall going up to my room and sitting to reflect. I did not cry. He was somewhat removed which is one of the ravages of divorce on children, and I was too immature to grasp the significance of the loss, but he was as good a father has he was able to be. His funeral was held at the United Church in Richmond and his ashes where scattered in the memorial garden on the churches property. But my father is not in the garden; to me, he is on Galiano Island patiently working away on the sandstone, longing for me to visit with him one last time. This is where I go to remember and to honour him.
As I reflect on this father’s day, I am grateful for the father I had. He was not perfect, and I only knew him for a short part of my life, but I have good memories. For the past 14 years we have gone camping as a family on Galiano island, and each time I go, I take time by myself to drive past the house my father build. The little red cabin is still there and so are the chisel marks my father left in the sandstone. I will be heading there again this summer, this time with just my wife and my youngest son Jacob. My eldest, Shayla, has moved with her husband and daughter to Northern Alberta, Liam is living in the interior of BC and is soon to be married. Bridget is serving a mission for our church and Emma is just finishing high school and will be working full time through the summer. They won’t all be with us this year, but I hope they have fond memories of the island as I do from my own childhood. It was the least I could do to pass on one small part of my father’s legacy, my attempt to walk in my father’s footsteps.