Points North

By James Fife

I recently experienced a striking reminder that life can have more to it than meets the eye. Sometimes the realization that people are not always as we perceived them can be painful and disturbing. But the same process also gives rise to instances where a person surprises us by revealing a side we failed to see before.

Because of the particular arms-length negotiation protocols in Canada, we knew nothing about the former owners of the home we were looking at or why they were selling the place. But once we put in a serious offer, and it was accepted, information began to be exchanged. We learned that we were buying as part of an estate sale.

This naturally meant that we would never meet the former occupants of our new home, as the transaction was to be conducted through proxies of an executor who was living hundreds of miles away. All we knew was that a child of the former owner (let’s call him Father X) was selling the home and much of its furnishings after the father had recently died. Since there was going to be no contact between us and the seller, we knew there would be no chance to learn anything about the personal history of our new home, anything that would give a sense of depth and continuity. We knew we would be making our own “history” in it, and so it would become home-like soon enough. But we did want to know some of the back story, something that went beyond what we could glean from inscriptions in the books left behind, the one photo, and the unforwarded mail that still arrived in our box.

Now Marilyn is not one to be deterred by such piddly obstacles as a total lack of contact and a virtual black-out of information. She is highly adept at using the Internet to uncover the minutest details about the most obscure topics. So she went to work and quickly learned that Father X was actually a fairly involved person, someone who was very active with events, civic organizations and the local arts scene, as well as being politically oriented. This was all very encouraging to me: he sounded like someone I'd have been happy to meet and would have had much in common with. I began to feel that I was indeed poised to sort of carry on the “tradition” of Father X. From what Marilyn uncovered, I felt inspired to be like him, to get involved with the community and roll up my sleeves. At least I was willing to vicariously adopt him as a fellow spirit, and I was pleased to feel that there was some sort of mystic continuity in the fact that we, of all people, bought his home and could honour the way he was and the causes he championed.

The thought inspired me to think I would like to learn more about him and maybe write an article about that very continuity and passing of the torch. We had Marilyn's online research as a start, but that was just facts, nothing personal. There were locals who knew him, but we hadn't had a chance to meet them for long enough to get the scoop.  We were back in San Diego at the time I was planning to write this up, so to get to the best source of this information, I wrote to the child of Father X. I explained my idea and that I would like to write an article about the father. I asked for some details and impressions about him. And I made it clear I was expecting to write a fairly glowing account of him, based on what I already knew.

But then there was silence. No answer at all. Not a "No, thank you," let alone an explanation for an unwillingness to participate in a project that would only have the effect of stirring positive memories in the community for those who knew Father X. I thought that was very odd. Perhaps it was just a communication breakdown, but I began to wonder if the total silence reflected a strong desire to not even address the suggestion I had made.

Time passed, and we eventually made our way back to James Bay. This gave us a chance to follow up with some second-line sources for the history of Father X. We met former acquaintances who had known him for years and even witnessed his final days. What we learned from these people surprised and disturbed us. We found out that it was maybe not so unexpected that my letter went unanswered, as it appeared from several accounts that there may have been some long-standing feud or hard feelings. There was, according to the reports, an apparent distance of some duration that kept father and child apart for years. There was, as far as was observed, little physical contact between them: although a grandchild would arrive for a short stay now and then, the adult offspring never or seldom appeared. Even in the final illness, when Father X was clearly on the last lap and the family so informed, the neighbour who was looking in on him and reported the father's failing state sensed the children’s reluctance and hesitation to rush to the bedside. Such reports suggested to me the existence of a coldness and distance deriving from a history of some grievance in the past, a history we naturally knew nothing about. So, we were astounded to find that Father X, whose public persona appeared so outgoing, so expansive, indeed giving and generous, was perhaps more complex than that, and there was a hidden story we would never know that showed he was perhaps not those things to all who knew him. I realized then there was a stark division between the public man (who must have seemed to the world a caring person) and the private one, who I now inferred harboured some potential for serious enough meanness to foment a years-long break with the closest people who knew him.

In contrast to Father X was Father Y. While we were in James Bay last, an old friend of mine died of cancer, something anticipated months ago, but coming quite suddenly when it reached the end. We were here in Victoria when she died, so I had only second-hand reports of events. But from what I heard, the friend's husband—I’ll call him Father Y—acted in a way also unexpected and revealed a different side of him. I have known Father Y for decades, and I have always liked him, while realizing he was a very different person from me. He was generous and outgoing, but he was also rather conservative, and with the flavour of conservatism that elevates the Self over the needs of others. You know, the kind that believes all deprivation in one's life is earned, and if you have a miserable lot in life it's because you have not 'pulled your socks up,' as the British say, and made the effort to better yourself. That attitude, I have always felt, serves as a justification for self-satisfied apathy toward the world around you. He was one who would view an act of charity as a sign of weakness or an unforgivable coddling of the self-indulgent. So, I have always looked at Father Y as someone who was pretty self-centered, even though likeable, and withdrawn and non-empathetic. So, when I learned of his wife's death, I imagined in my mind that Father Y would be rather distant and not much use to his two grieving children, as he would take some hard-line attitude that it's up to you to get through this and show some gumption. The sort of defensive blather one hears spouted from the type of person I deemed him to be.

Was I wrong. From the reports I got, Father Y surprised everyone by being very supportive for his grief-stricken daughter, helping her deal with the sudden loss of her mother. And he gave a moving and yet humourous eulogy for his wife at her service, again showing an empathy and awareness of others' feelings that I would not have expected from him. 

The comparison of the tales of these two fathers struck me as an important lesson I unfortunately have to re-learn repeatedly: things are seldom what they seem. On the one hand, what we knew of Father X suggested he was a generous, involved, active supporter of others that we admired and even wanted to lionize and emulate. But his private life was possibly not all that, perhaps giving rise to implacable grievances that survived even his death. I thought Father Y was closed-off and unsympathetic toward others, but his public attitudes did not match the way he rose to the occasion in private life. 

So which attitude is better, I pondered. Would I rather be caring to the world, and a bane to those closest to me, or disengaged from the misery of the world, but then be full of heart to the ones that matter most? Or, seeing that both attitudes can vary independently so that they can exist, side-by-side in one person, do I make the effort to combine them in myself, and try to embody the best of both? Or is asking that question the same as answering it?