Dad, get out of his chair."
J. Côté Robbins, 1981
He was not a very tall or large man; five feet six inches and not weighing
more than 145 lbs. in his heaviest moment of life. He was aged beyond
his years and so thin that his clothes hung on a scarecrow frame.
If he were to meet you for the first time, he would fold his arms, stand
in a hip-stance position thrusting out one foot, listen to all that you
say with only necessary comments. He claimed shyness, but when needed,
he could say plenty. It was an effort for him to converse with strangers.
When outsiders would leave his presence, his turmoil was great. His
circle of people was limited to family and old acquaintances whom he had
known a long time.
His life began in the early part of the century and often he lived the
old days. I believe the years' events shape people; I look at his
life and what it had been and I wonder what molded him. Was it his
father? The depression years? Whose philosophy is responsible
for shaping a mind? He mentiond his school years often and people
who were in his class. Education was important to him. His
school tales were vivid and material memorized years ago could be recited.
It would have been interesting to see what more than six years of schooling
would have done for him.
By 1928 he was in business paying land taxes for his father by selling
vegetables door to door. His father, an agricultural wizard, received
orders for his early corn in April. Some of the moneyed families
were willing to pay $1.00 a dozen in those lean years. "Whatever
for?" I ask. I am indignantly answered what quality meant to some
people. "They ate only the best and were willing to pay for it."
His advice, which he got from his father, when it came to purchasing power
in general was "When you buy something, always buy the best. It will
When I was a girl, my father told me he was a pilot. I thought I
knew his entire life. Here, finally, was some mystery and adventure
lurking in my family! But I was suspicious. "When were you
a pilot?" I asked him. "Oh a long time, " he said. And I didn't
even have to fly a plane." "How can you be a pilot without flying
a plane?" I asked. "When I worked on the farm," he replied.
"I'd pile it here and I'd pile it there."
The vegetable and flower gardens, lawns, and animals were established as
companions from very early on in his life to his last days. I have
many mental images of his relationship with the earth. Lines I had
earlier written: "A man's hands formed the earth/strong/grasping
the dirt, moving and forming a plot." The habit runs deep of forming
a bed, sifting the dirt through the fingers to check the quality of the
humus, planting, watering the plant as a friend in thirst, and harvesting
the produce in your arms as a child close to breast. Once, while
visiting me in my home, he told me my plants were talking to him.
"What are they saying?" I asked him. "Mr. Cote, give us a drink,"
he replied. My father often spoke in code or double meaning.
When my mother had passed away, he showed me a picture of flowers he wanted
to put on her grave, marigolds, pansies, and others. He sent me to
a cousin, who was a florist, to purchase the flowers. I came home
with an assortment that was close to those in the picture. In my
minute knowledge about the variety of flowers at that time of my life I
wondered what was wrong when he became visibly upset and shaken and then
told me I had brought the wrong color! It has been a long row for me to
hoe to even attain a fraction of his growing power. Now the common
complaint is that I bring in too many plants into the house for next spring's
Everybody wants to go back to the farm and nobody knows why. Every
Sunday my father would pile us into the car "pour prends un ride sur les
terres." Oh no, not again. He was always looking for a farm
to move us to. His dream was to be a farmer. Farm Journal was
his magazine of choice. And until that moment, within the confines
of the city limits, my father kept animals--goats, chickens, pigs, dogs
and cats. Never any cows--although he dreamed of owning a dairy farm.
Any farm, actually. By the time I was seven or eight I had seen the
insides of many barns because there are a lot of Sundays in a year.
Until recently I never knew why because I never knew the history of these
people. These were farming people, country people who had left their
farms and land to work in the mills. Even though both my grandfather
and my father worked in the mill, they led a double existence--they kept
a farm. They were the lucky ones. They had land on which to
do it. Big vegetable and flower gardens. Strawberry patch.
Black berry bushes. Cherry tree. And later, the gardens became
lawns--seeded, rolled in spring and mowed. It would take us a week
to mow the lawns. I never understood; I took the vegetables and flowers
for granted. They had always been there. I had no idea what
they meant--historically. I could not know what these people had
to leave behind when they entered the mill until I had to leave my own
gardens to enter the work place. Then I remembered.
At seventeen he began his employment at a local mill that was to last thrity-nine
years. This was to be the culmination of his lost education.
He prided himself on his understanding of the workings of all the machinery
within the pulp mill. The understanding of the machinery and the
people within the mill allowed him to understand the world at large.
Each experience you related to him or working of a certain mechanism he
had knowledge of it. At times it was maddening.
He told doctors how certain broken machines could be repaired or relates
the mechanics of the machines beside his hospital bed. I tell him
about an exciting part of a movie and he tells me that what I am telling
him was an impossible feat. The mechanics of steam does not allow
the actor to give a long dialogue as he closes a valve while steam is hissing
out on his hands.
He liked to build things. He entered a new building and always checked
out the architecture (archie-tecture). If he came to your new home
he always asked to see the basement. He needed to know what kind
of a foundation the place was resting on. Somehow a strong foundation
was a test of your ability to judge a good or bad situation. You
wouldn't want to live in a house that was structurally weak.
His favorite joke he never failed to mention happened when he and I were
building a ceiling out of old barn boards and beams for the living room
at camp. He always pre-constructed, tore down and rebuilt on site.
One morning as he and I finished piecing the ceiling, he sat down with
his then continuous cup of coffee and cigarette, myself soaking in the
sun, thinking about all the places he'd been except the one where he sat
for the moment, I commented, "I bet this is the first time you ever sat
on a ceiling." He cracked up. Rarely did this man ever crack
up laughing. Now, that was his kind of joke--dry and dead as sin.
After that whenever I went to camp, he never failed to remind me of my
sixteen year-old self, "remember the time you and I sat on the ceiling?"
He always had my mother buy him honey-dip donuts because it reminded him
of a honey-dew weekend--honey do this and honey do that.
I spent my sixteenth summer with him; I was his carpenter's helper and
fishing partner. My father did sons--not daughters. Once on
the lake, Great Pond--Golden Pond to you, movie fans--I pointed out the
beautiful sunset. He turned around quite shocked and said, "Mon Dieu,
maudit pas fin, I never saw that before in my all my life." "What
do you mean you never saw it? How can you miss the sunset? It's right
there! I thought he was lying or joking. "I never saw the sun
like that," he said most solemn. I knew then he was serious.
"Je n'avais pris le temps. Je travaillé trop fort tout temps."
And the next night I found him sitting in his chair starring at the sun.
"Now what are you doing?" I asked him. "I'm taking time for the sunset."
My first oil painting I did that summer was just your basic run-of-the-mill
bordering on the surrealistic sunset with your token mountains reflecting
in a pool of water haphazardly. "You can have this if you want,"
I told my father. I left the painting to dry and then the thing disappeared.
A few weeks later, up comes my father from down cellar with this painting
framed in the barn boards and he hangs it over his chair. "Oh, dad,
why do you have to hang that dumb picture there?" By the look on
his face, I could tell that was not the right thing for me to say.
"Ça m'appartient à moé and I want it there."
According to the layout of the painting and the landscape at camp, I pointed
out to him the sun was setting in the North. "I don't care," he growled.
Twice he saved my life. One time when I was drowning and another
when I was choking on corn flakes. The corn flake incident happened
in the spring of the year and I was eight years old. We had gone
to camp to open it for the season--start the well, get the stove going.
I became hungry and all I could find to eat from over the course of the
winter was a small individual size box of corn flakes. I lay down
on the bed to read and eat. One flake "went down the wrong tube"
as they say. My father was working on the oil burner stove at the
time and I sat up and kept pointing to the box, but could not utter a sound.
My mother, finally realizing what was happening, told my father "my God,
Ray, she's choking." The man could move fast. He lifted me
up by the arm, brought me outside, stuck his oily finger down my throat
and I am here to tell you about it today.
Consequently, I am paranoid and petrified about choking. I was with
my father just before he died, they had brought in his supper tray as well
as his medication in pill form. The food I could make into something
he could swallow, but I looked at the pill and I was concerned that he
would choke. "Can't you give him this medication in another form?"
"If he has a problem with it, tell me and we'll ask the doctor to change
it," the nurse said and went away. It upset me to give him the pill,
but I did it and his head fell to one side. My oldest brother was
there with me and I started to run away to get help because I thought he
was choking. I remembered he had saved me once and I had to go back
because maybe I could do the same for him. He had given me life enough
times it seems. But I had no power over his death.
He was of the school where men were the total head-of-household, so his
views were sometimes narrow. If he was doing physical work around
the house and you were elected the helper, you learned to move fast and
stay out of the way. His was not concerned to look behind him to
see if your were there. "Ote toé dans mes jambes, je vais
t'écraser." It was his way of playing a game of chess with
life; you were trained to be two steps ahead of your opponent and always
aware of their next move so you could make yours accordingly.
His boat needs to be sanded and revarnished. He will not think it
funny if you and a friend take it on the lake, out of earshot, throw in
the anchor and sun bathe all morning. Just for our afternoon enjoyment
he found two electric sanders for our own use. My brother went home
from high school at the noon break to eat and play cards with his friends
when they were not supposed to, got caught by the school officials who
told my father that his son was going to be suspended for one week.
My father's response was to take a week's vacation off from the mill to
keep my brother occupied in jobs around the house. His reassurance
to the principal was "after a week working with me, my boy won't want to
skip school anymore."
One of his favorite subjects to talk about was the French language.
His bane was grammar--correct grammar. This man was some upset about
how things were going with the loss of the language. He would say,
"My dogs are smarter than most people. My dogs know two languages."
And he would. He would train his dogs to respond to commands in two
languages--French and English.
After my mother passed away, he called me one day and he was all excited,
"I can't find the sheet with the numbers on it that you typed for me.
You have to come right now with another one. The guy with the oxygen
is coming tomorrow and I have to write a check for him and I can't find
the sheet of paper." No matter what I said, he insisted that I come
right away with a new sheet of numbers--one to one-hundred plus--spelt
out so that he could look at it and be able to write a check. He
did not want anyone to realize he could barely read. I was struck
with cold fear and realization what a terror it must be to not be able
to read. He always insisted we be educated. I keep a journal
today because when I was a girl I would see him write and draw about ideas
he had in old date books he would pick up at the dump. And sometimes
he would bring me home a book to write in too.
He was not the perfect model. He battled with alcoholism for years.
And later presciption drug addiction. After one particularly bad
weekend with him, he bought my mother and I each a pair of earrings and
a card. I hated the earrings and hate them still; I was not willing
to forgive him at that point, now I just don't care for his taste in earrings.
I attended Alateen and Al-Anon meetings learning how to deal with the situation;
I told him when the AA meetings were being held and he told me he would
go for me. "Do me a favor," I said, "and stay home. You have
to go for yourself." He goes anyway. He comes back and tells
me "he does not belong there, he is not a bum. He never lost his
job." Like I didn't know he would feel that way already. I
say nothing. My dream is not yet to be fulfilled. He asks me
what I want for my wedding day. "You, sober," I reply.
The day before the wedding he says to my husband-to-be, "You can't marry
her tomorrow." "Why?" he is questioned. "You never asked me
if you could." He was promptly asked and he gave his approval.
A little late, but better to appease his sense of what was proper than
to ignore it.
When I have called home to tell of the important events--new job, new home,
new baby and he was home alone he always lamented, "maman is not here."
Or even better than that he'd say, "nobody is home." "Oh, yeah?
So when did you become a ghost?" Why couldn't I talk to him?
His final days were consumed by his illnesses. His conversations
circled on the temperature inside and outside, diets, and because of his
emphysema, how labored his breathing was. There was a remnant of
the spirit of what the man once was. Fiery words would spew out along
with the temper. Never one to be patient, he was even less patient.
I did not like to see him get old knowing the bodily strength he once possessed.
Yet, I can face my older days having seen him face his. I say to
myself, I will learn from what he does. I will readjust accordingly;
I will not become as he was and my children will not do as I do.
Or so I imagine. And on and on we go.