This Thankful Thursday is a bit of a special one. And a difficult one as well. This day I’m thankful for my dad, Ernie.
What is there to say about a guy whose life that touched so many and who saw so many things. My dad didn’t have a lot of formal education but was one of the smartest people I knew. And more importantly, he was one of the kindest. He was old-fashioned but got along with people from generations from Gen Z to those older than himself. He taught me how to live by setting the example.
He and his dad came to North America from their native Switzerland when he was still a teen. The Land of Opportunity to the south was probably their intended destination, but landing in Canada and taking the train they happened onto the suburbs of Toronto and made a home there. My dad had to learn a new language and try to find work at the same time, no small task even in the ’50s. I was always proud of how well he learned English and how much he enjoyed reading (until in recent years his eyesight made that a challenge) which led to the part of him being one of the smartest people I knew. He did both, the new language and the work, remarkably well, soon settling in at the bustling GM factories in town. He worked for years on the line and in smelly paint booths before working his way up to the better, more relaxed jobs. Usually with his buddy Bert. One of those tiny stories that make life interesting – a real life Ernie and Bert. Who’d believe it? After 30-some years of that, he retired and followed his other passions – collecting coins, gardening, traveling and helping out. His factory job was more or less replaced for several years by a volunteer one at A Place Called Home, a shelter and training center for homeless people near him.
Now, neither his life, nor my relationship with him were always storybook perfect. As a small kid, he was often absent. In no small part because he and my mom had a strained relationship at best. Dad provided, and provided well, but wasn’t at home as much as some dads. I loved the time we spent together when I was little – we both loved trains and set in on building a dynamite model railroad layout. It never quite got finished but we had fun. I’m sure I would have liked to have had more of those times with him when young, but I cherish the ones we did share and perhaps value those later on in life with him all the more for it.
Things changed when he re-married the real love of his life, Chris, a lady who’d lived around the corner from us when I was young. Chris shared his faith and his love of travel and growing things, and spent over 30 happy years with him before she passed away last fall. She softened him and helped him look at life a bit differently; he in turn took care of her in an unspoken lesson of how to love your significant other, even when she was ailing. In time, Chris treated me as her own son, “step” or not. Both of them offered me good advice when I was lovelorn or broke and love at those times and the better ones. Over the years I came to learn what mattered to him, and he tried to do the same. I looked out for new coins for him, and even one new quarter I could send him made him joyful. He was never much of a sports fan outside of the Olympic times, but when I stayed with him for a little a dozen or so years back, he’d sit with me and watch my Blue Jays baseball on the big screen, cheering on the Toronto blue-and-white even if he didn’t quite get the complexities of the game.
Dad had a ready smile, and usually a ready Werther’s candy he’d give to any helpful store clerk, waitress or bank teller. He loved collecting, always looking for a nickel he didn’t have in his album or an unusual stamp. About three decades back, he began collecting egg cups. Every time he passed a yard sale or junk shop, he’d take a look for an unusual egg cup they might have. He put together more egg cups than I had ever seen, or I reckon most egg farmers ever had dreamt of. Cartoon characters, porcleain, plastic, ones with paintings on them, ones that were travel promotions. In recent years he became fond of Paddington movies and began collecting teddy bears… probably something he didn’t have a chance to do growing up poor during the War in Europe. Times were tough as a child of the ’40s over there and he never forgot that, or the value of a dollar. It might have been why he so loved gardening, growing veggies especially, because he remembered when his family couldn’t afford such luxuries from a store all the time. Then again, like me, he just seemed to like to be out on a sunny day, enjoying the sights and sounds.
As he got older he got chattier. I loved listening to his stories when I’d phone him, even ones he’d sometimes tell me twice. He loved hearing about my life in the States and was always my biggest fan when I did something halfways interesting or successful. Last time we spoke a few days back, he was telling me of getting his Covid vaccine and looking forward to the pandemic ending so he could maybe visit me in Texas, meet my love, Cinnamon, and then go back to Switizerland one more time.
This is a tough column to write because Ernie passed away suddenly and unexpectedly Sunday night. A heart attack took him swiftly; hopefully he is now with his Chris again, somewhere out there. That gives me reason for solace. I have the hurt which will fade, but the memories and lessons which won’t. Be thankful for your parents too this Thursday. I doubt they’re perfect… but they are yours.
What is there to say about a guy whose life that touched so many and who saw so many things? So many more things than just this…but at least it’s a start.