Friday, March 18, 2011

HEART FELT: FOR PAPA (Lyman Roddick 1921-2011)

(Thinking of Uncle Lynn, Mum, Uncle Dale, Ted, Samantha, James, Leigh Ann, Faryn, family. And Nanny, of course.)

When I was twelve or thirteen years old, at my grandparents’ house on the boulevard in Fort Erie, I found a paperback copy of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE in a box of old books in the basement. This wasn’t the plain red edition that we all would read in high school; this was an older version, one that proclaimed on the cover the dangerous contents inside. Having read my fair share of Stephen King and Clive Barker, the odd profanity failed to frighten me much, but something else gave me pause: the book’s pristine condition. It looked like it had just emerged right from the Fifties through some sort of wormhole. I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. After all, I had found it right there in my Papa’s small basement; he kept everything, from spare tools to old cans, and they always somehow looked more fresh than the newest of goods.

Once, when I was twenty, when they were living in Brockville, I helped my grandparents move down the road to a smaller new house. Another basement discovery – boxes of TIME magazines dating back to the thirties. Hundreds of them. Having cultivated my own collection of cardboard boxes full of a thousand and more plastic-bagged comics all throughout my childhood, I said to my Papa that his stack was quite cool. He answered: “You’re the only person who’s appreciated why I’ve kept them all these years!”

That wasn’t quite true. Papa was an eccentric, and we all knew it, even though his life at first look seemed so much like the men of his time. After growing up in small-town Ontario, he fought all over Europe during the Second World War, returning to Canada with his young British bride, inadvertently ensuring my own (and my mother, uncles, brother and cousins) very existence on earth. After retirement, instead of kicking back on the couch, he decided to build us all a new cottage; well into his seventies and eighties, he could be found climbing far up a tree that stretched straight into the sky. Even though in his sixties he’d suffered a spill from a ladder while working on the garage, I never worried he’d stumble or fall from the branch of a tree; anyone who would even attempt such a climb at his age must possess some kind of rare grace.

His opinions were many, and he let them be known. Cross-talk with his brother and children over dinnertime meals always reached a decibel higher than comfortable conversation suggested. There were usually all manner of new magazines and old books scattered throughout each room of the house, Canadian history and politics in particular, a favourite lament. Once, crashed out on my bed, I was flipping through the latest issue of Macleans’, ‘Canada’s Newsweekly’, and came across a particularly opinionated letter. When I saw that the writer was ‘Lyman Roddick, Brockville, Ontario,’ I did a genuine spit-take; even far away from the table, his voice could be heard. Indeed, when I first moved to Japan, before the internet slyly invaded our lives in impersonal ways, I used to receive care packages from him -- newspaper stories and clipped-out articles of interest that he thought I might like, some passages underlined in deep red, with a wry comment alongside.

I last saw him on the day before Christmas, in his small room in the Veteran’s Wing of Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. He sort of knew who I was. Time had taken him away from us. He was never the most demonstrative of men. When I was a child and even well into my teens, we always said hello and good-bye via a hardy handshake. At some point in our lives, a small shift in affection broke down certain walls, and on Christmas Eve I bid him farewell as I had done for a decade, with a short, heartfelt hug.