My non-Hallmark dad

If there is such a thing as a Hallmark card Father’s Day kind of dad, mine was not one of them. He was a big man — six-foot-four — with a loud voice, a short temper, and a penchant for profanity. He was the kind of dad that friends were afraid of.

“Wanna come over to my house?”
“Is your dad home?”

One of my brothers recently recalled the time many years ago when he was playing with some neighbourhood kids dowDad_mom_1967n in our basement (we lived in the west end of Toronto at the time) and Dad arrived home unexpectedly. I suppose my mom must have been there — the boys were young and my parents wouldn’t have left them alone at that age — but when dad got home, everyone scurried like centipedes out back doors and through yards; one kid even climbed out a window.

Not that my dad would ever have hurt them. He was a yeller who just about raised the roof at times, but he never laid a hand on us (excluding, of course, the pre-pubescent across-the-knee spanking — You’re gonna GET it! — that was part of growing up in the 60s and 70s and now is referred to as corporal punishment).

No, Dad was simply intimidating. Adding to his size and temperament were the fact that he was a perfectionist writer — he’d worked in newspapers, then TV, and eventually magazines — and he was a reformed alcoholic.

Yes indeed, an all-around easy-going guy.

Just walking around the house, for example, he often would stop to pick up flecks. Bits of nothing on the carpet that, aside from being everywhere, would go unnoticed by most people — but not him.

In the same vein, he would pause at the kitchen counter or living room coffee table and spot some bit of something that a dishcloth had missed, and would spend several intense seconds scraping at it with his thumb nail.

He hated much of what was on TV, especially bad sitcoms with laugh tracks. There were certain programs, in fact, that were simply not allowed on TV in our house, even if he wasn’t watching it.

“Why can’t I watch Mr. Belvedere?”
“Because I said so.”
“But why?”
“Because I hate it! That’s why.”

He had a thing about bodily functions — especially farting. Which always puzzled us because my mother found it hilarious. A good fart joke — heck, the very sound of flatulence — would have Mom in stitches.

Dad on the other hand… We still laugh at the time when, out on a highway somewhere, my youngest brother Anthony made the mistake of letting one go in the car. My dad caught wind of it, and promptly pulled the big blue Buick station wagon (“The Blue Lemon” was his CB handle — operative word being “lemon”) off the road and onto the shoulder.

“Get out.” Those eyes, glaring into the rear-view mirror.
“But dad—”
“NOW, goddamnit!”

Richard and I were one part sorry for Anthony, another part relieved it wasn’t one of us, and a third part delighted that this little soap opera had presented itself in the middle of a long boring drive to Are We There Yet. Was Anthony going to get out? Where would he go? How would he get home? How far was home?

And where was my mother, you might ask? Sitting in the front seat, no doubt, not liking any of it but knowing that this was Dad blowing off steam and that he would never dream of actually leaving one of his children behind at the side of a highway. But he was damned if they were going to fart in his car.

Anthony did get out, and Dad did drive off, leaving The Lone Farter in his Keds and Wranglers to pound the gravel for a hundred yards or so. As I recall, my dad drove just far enough to make his point — whatever that was — and then turned around.

“Get in. And don’t ever do that again.”

It goes without saying that my dad’s temper bordered on legendary. However, he also had a side to him that, to my mind, more than made up for the outbursts and eccentricity.

He was an optimist, and got a huge kick out of “the little things”. A great cup of coffee. A well-stocked fridge. An impromptu outing — even if it was just to Ziggy’s at Yonge and St. Clair to… restock the fridge. Food played a big part in my dad’s life; it was one of the ways he got off booze, and later became a passion for him, inspiring much of his writing and love of cooking.

He was a motivator — a fighter. The fact that he’d quit drinking — twice, the second time sLittle_dad_1937uccessfully — was a testament to his willpower. When I went through a bout of depression in my late teens, Dad was right there, helping to talk me out of it.

And despite his apparent gruff exterior, he had a soft heart. I particularly remember the time he showed up unannounced at the dry cleaners where I worked part-time as a teenager. It was a Friday, 7pm. I remember that because he thought closing time was 7, and had forgotten that on Fridays it was 8. He said he had come to pick me up which, out of the blue, was a little odd, though not out of the realm of possibility. With another hour to go, he said he’d come back, and left. He had acted oddly, and had seemed a bit upset, but the whole exchange had been so brief that I didn’t get a chance to process it and question him.

At 8 o’clock, he returned. This time I could definitely see his eyes were red. Dad? Crying? What the hell was up? It was only then, after I’d cashed out and closed the store, that he told me our cat Midnight had been hit and killed by a car. Dad, who’d initially been against having cats but had relented when Mom simply brought one home, had ended up falling in love with them. And Midnight in particular was a favourite. One of her quirks was her love of cars. She loved riding in them. There were many times Dad would pull up to the Jane subway station, after being summoned to pick us up, and there was Midnight (she was an orange tabby, by the way; my dad named her) sprawled across the dash.

I will think of Dad this Sunday (and his birthday, in fact, is Tuesday), though I will celebrate the day with the other father now in my life: my husband. Though not as temperamental — or quite as tall — Steve definitely has the same soft heart. To all the soft-hearted dads out there, we love you, and happy Father’s Day.

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Walking Miss Daisy

For most of my life I’ve been a cat person. And don’t get me wrong, I still am; along with Daisy our dog, we have two cats, and I dote on them every chance I get.

But Daisy is… well, words do not quite do justice to how I feel about this dog. Let me say right off, too, that generally speaking, when it comes to animals, I dislike overt sentimentality. Tear-jerker videos. Poetic emails. All the front-page stories about the pandas arriving from China. Gag. While I think part of that stems from having Brown as a last name, I think it’s also to do with the fact that, in the past year, I’ve had a bit of an awakening where industrial agriculture is concerned, and I have trouble at times reconciling our adoration of pandas with how we treat roughly 95% of our cows, pigs and chickens.

But now here I am… about to contradict myself and get all mushy about my dog. On that note, let me tell you a bit about Daisy.

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Daisy’s original name was Hermione. (No comment, other than to say someone liked Harry Potter way too much.) We got her from the Toronto Humane Society. We had been thinking for awhile about maybe, perhaps, possibly getting a dog — we had two cats already — and, finally deciding that we couldn’t stand our daughter’s long face any longer, we caved.

So we hopped on the THS website and nosed around. And then down we went to the shelter at 11 River Street.

Just to look.

Of course, you don’t go to the THS just to look. You don’t go in there with the idea of maybe, perhaps, possibly getting a pet. You get one. Period. One of them. Any of them.

We knew the minute we walked in on Friday June 5th, 2009 and heard the dogs barking that we were done. There was no way in hell we were going to come away without taking a creature home with us.

Hermione, it turns out, had been found on the street. A scruffy little terrier mix from, we figured, some sort of a high-rise, because when we got her home, she had trouble with the stairs. She wasn’t quite sure what to do with them, and she was especially hesitant of the stairs down to the basement — they have no risers. To this day she’s still not keen on them. (Mind you, neither am I — they give me the creeps — but that’s a story for another day.)

We also figured she had lived with a loud adult male who had yelled at her, because if Steve so much as raised his voice, she got all anxious and tried to lick his hands and face to placate him. (Now she knows him for the sucker he is, though she still doesn’t like loud men. Mind you neither do I — my father excluded.)

For the first few days we had her, Daisy (the name was the first thing to change) hardly slept for fear of us leaving her. The minute we moved, she’d wake up and follow. Her eyes actually were bloodshot. (I didn’t know animals could get bloodshot eyes.) Eventually, as she became more comfy in her new digs, she started to relax and catch up on her Zzzzs.

Particularly interesting was her issue with food. She wouldn’t eat when she knew we were going out, and overall, she seemed to have very little appetite during the day — instead preferring to wait until evening to hungrily gulp down her breakfast. We eventually deduced that she probably was given food as a distraction before being left alone for long periods of time. She’s still a bit funny about food, and might normally be labeled a picky eater, but we like to joke that she’ll never lose her girlish figure.

Before bringing her home, we had worried what she might be like with our two cats, Fred and Munchkin. Munchkin in particular was a concern. Now deceased, she was quite geriatric at the time; one good chomp from Daisy and she’d be toast.

We discovered — and still marvel at the fact — that Daisy turned out to be the most incredibly gentle dog, one that borders on timid with most other creatures.

Except maybe squirrels. And rabbits. I’ve had the leash yanked right out of my hand and watched that red handle disappear down the street and around the corner after an encounter between Daisy and a rabbit. Thankfully she’s never caught one. (I’ve had many incidents in my life involving cats and birds. “SWEET PEA! SWEET PEA! DROP IT! NOW! Oh God… too late.”)

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And speaking of leashes, we come to… the W word. Since having Daisy, I’ve learned that all the jokes about dogs loving walks and every walk being the best damned thing are in fact true. Daisy lives to walk. Walkies are it. There is nothing better. As we like to say on her behalf: “A  W-A-K-L in the P-R-A-K. Yes, I know what you’re spelling, and I would L-O-E-V that.”

And she does. From the pre-walk stretchie (bum in the air, front paws extended) and the first blast out the door (complete with perfunctory barking) to the final trot home, tail up and left ear flopping, she gives it 110 percent.

On an average day, we’ll walk around the block, sniffing trees, saying hello to cats, greeting neighbours, and generally checkin’ out the hood.

When we have more time — on the weekend, usually — we go to the park. Oh, the park. The park is heaven. Utopia. Mecca. All wrapped into one. It’s where we run leashless (if no one’s around) and chase sticks and balls. Where we poke our heads into large shrubs and sniff for minutes at a time at (I don’t want to know). Where we explore tree stumps and pine cones and the bleachers behind the baseball diamond. Where we roll in things we shouldn’t (“DAISY! GET UP!”) or steal the deflated soccer ball someone left behind. And it’s where, when we’ve had enough, we plunk ourselves down on the cool grass under a shady tree and pant, just enjoying the day.

Recently Steve told me about a woman he worked with who couldn’t understand the whole notion of having pets. Not “didn’t have time for them” or “didn’t want the work of looking after them”, but just couldn’t see why anyone would want to have animals around.

Woman, what makes you tick? Isn’t that like not wanting sunshine, air and dark chocolate?

I know some people might read my observation and think me naïve. I would say they’re missing out. Simply put, animals make us better people. They teach us compassion, make us less self-centered (especially helpful on crappy days) and they’re generally good for the soul — as made evident by the gazillions ofImage studies on the rehabilitative benefits of creatures, from dementia patients whose sense of recall is sparked by an encounter with a dog, to physically challenged children who ride horses for therapy.

Personally, at the risk of sounding über-syrupy, for me I think it comes down to mutual comfort. I know I’ve made a difference in Daisy’s life, and when I look down at those beautiful brown eyes and see such unconditional love — every day, no matter what — well… she has more than made a difference in mine.