My father didn’t die in the shipwreck, but it did come first.
Dad was a sailor at heart, so when he retired from the job that brought him to Canada from England he was delighted to be asked to join a tall ship for a special voyage. The skipper planned to sail from Duluth, Minnesota, to Iceland. Dad joined the Sheila Yeates in St Andrews, Newfoundland. By some quirk of fate, the Sheila Yeates got caught in pack ice off the coast of Greenland. She sent out mayday after mayday, but there were no ships nearby to hear her.
Eventually a Danish shrimp trawler with a steel-reinforced hull picked up the signal and came to the rescue. The captain tried to tow the Sheila Yeates out of the ice, but eventually he had to cut her loose, and her crew watched her sink.
My mother called me at my summer job in the box office of the Stratford Festival and said, “There’s been a change of plan. Daddy’s going to Denmark.”
When she called to tell me he had gone from Denmark to England and had surgery to remove some of the cancer that would kill him in the end, she said, “Daddy’s had an operation to remove a little polyp.”
Dad was dead within a year.
When a parent dies, the emotions are complex, but time softens the edges until an unexpected comment or action blindsides you.
I gave birth to a daughter in 2006. She has always known her Granny, my mother, but she only knows my father through my stories. I tell her about family camping holidays, about his attempts to make squirrel-proof birdfeeders, about the time he drove the two hours between Kingston and Peterborough to bring me home when I was at university and fell ill.
One day in school, parents and other family were invited to see the children perform poems and songs. One little girl had brought her grandfather and he was jokey and kind. Walking home afterwards, my daughter said, “I wish I had a grandfather.”
I wish she did, too. A friend, visiting when my daughter was a newborn, told me, “It’s so nice to see your parents with your babies. It shows you what they were like with you as a baby.”
About ten years after cancer took him, my brothers and mother and I set about planning a memorial to Dad. His body had been cremated and the remains strewn at the funeral home; we never set up a marker of any kind. I suggested we plant a tree in his memory.
It still stands in the grounds of the church my parents attended since their arrival in Kingston in the early 1960s—a handsome maple, tall and strong. There are no other monuments to my father’s life, but this one seems fitting enough. One day my daughter and I will go there and collect the keys from the ground and plant more trees.
Mary Steer Taslimi lives and writes in the GTA. Born and raised in Kingston, she had her first piece published in The Whig-Standard when she was 19. She has been addicted to writing ever since, and is currently working on a memoir of time spent in her other favourite occupation, working as an artists' model.
“Family Tree” was originally published on CBC.ca as an entry in the Your Bloodlines contest – true family stories of 400 – 500 words with an accompanying photo.