4 min

Thicker than water

Dad taught me the truly important things

Everybody always says I look just like him.

Every once in a while my grandmother hauls out the second oldest photo album from her closet and opens it on the kitchen table next to the cut crystal bowl of sugar cubes and the matching cup that holds the little silver teaspoons. She slides the teapot aside to make room and squints over her bifocals. If I have brought a friend with me, this is the part where she makes them try to pick out which face in the faded black and white photos belongs to my father.

My dad has three brothers. They are wearing matching plaid shirts, or bathing suits, or Cub Scout uniforms, or hand-me-down pyjamas and holsters for their cap guns. In the background there is a Christmas tree, or a lopsided front porch, or a wall tent, or a brass statue of a war hero from the summer the old man took them to Winnipeg to see the army base and to learn some respect for the soldiers who fought and died so the rest of us could sit around and read comic books and not eat the peas or the broccoli he worked all day to pay good money for.

It is always easy to find my dad’s face in the photographs. I look just like him, but without the ears. My grandmother named him Don, after his father, she tells my friend. This is the part where if it is raining or her knees are bad, she will confess that she never really loved the old bastard, that he was never half the man his sons turned out to be.

More and more, I find little bits of my father in me. Not just around the eyes or in the shape of my jaw, but how I can’t stand to have less than half a tank of gas in my car because you never know; how I hate cheap tools and dull knives and loose screws; how I own 20 pairs of the exact same underwear; how I can’t stop looking for something until I find it, even when I’m late, even if I don’t need it until the day after tomorrow. I have to know where it is–a place for everything and everything in its place.

My smokes are always in my left pocket, lighter in my right. I can’t sleep if the dishes aren’t done, can’t read only half a book, and I never turn off the radio until the song is over. I like a little bit of egg, potato and bacon in every bite of my breakfast. It is a finely tuned ratio, constantly being weighed and adjusted throughout the meal. There is nothing worse than winding up with only hash browns in the end. Always let your engine warm up before you drive anywhere and cool down a bit before you turn it off. You can double the life of a motor if you treat it right. Driving fast burns more gas and is hard on your brake pads. Besides, you just spend more time waiting for the light to turn green. Don’t go grocery shopping when you are hungry.

All of these things I learned from my father. Most of the time I do them without thinking of him, but every once in a while I remember: these are inherited habits. Other fathers might have saved their bacon until last, or ran out of gas, or hired someone else to build their house. Other fathers might have worn dress shoes to work instead of steel-toed boots. A different kind of dad might not have taught me how to weld. A man with sons might not have let his daughter drive the forklift.

Who would I be if he had been someone else?

A couple of months ago I had a gig in Calgary. It was an all-queer spoken word show at a sports bar downtown, right in the middle of the hockey playoffs–strange but true. I was wearing a dark blue shirt with thin stripes and a sky blue tie that subtly highlighted the secondary tones of my shirt. The waitress liked my stories and kept slipping me free scotch on the rocks after the show. I had about four stiff drinks in me when this huge guy in a Flames jersey grabbed me by the necktie and pulled my nose right into his chest hair.

“Your tie is all fucked up. Where’d you learn that? Nobody ever taught you how to do a proper double Windsor? Fuckin’ disgrace. Come here, lemme show you.”

I tried to explain that I had been drinking and was thus unable to engage in activities that required concentration or hand/eye coordination. Plus, it was dark and my tie was fine anyways, but he pulled my substandard knot loose and laid a drunken death grip on my right shoulder.

“I’m in the fucking mafia. The fucking mafia knows how to tie a tie. You going to argue how to tie a tie with the mafia, or you going to shut up and watch me do this right?”

I mentioned that I had read somewhere that the real mafia never admits that there is a mafia, and that Calgary wasn’t known for being a hotbed of organized crime, and that the odds were neither of us would remember any of this in the morning anyway, but he insisted.

I ended up getting a non-consensual 30-minute lesson in manly attire from a guy with one leg of his track pants accidentally tucked into his white sweat sock. He started with the double Windsor knot demonstration and went on to sum up the billfold versus money clip conundrum for me. He was pontificating on the merits of French cuffs when his buddy interrupted to announce they were all leaving to go catch the peelers.

I woke early the next morning, dry-mouthed and blurry. I pulled a clean shirt and a different tie out of my suitcase and was amazed when my fingers remembered what tying a perfect double Windsor knot felt like. I don’t remember who taught me the wrong way to tie a tie but I know for sure it wasn’t my dad. He never wears neckties. He taught me how to tie a boat to a dock and a fishhook to a line, how to tie double bows in your bootlaces so they never come undone halfway down a ladder or get caught in a conveyor belt or a lawnmower blade and end up costing you a toe.

My father is a wise man. He taught me all the important knots. The double Windsor I learned from a wiseguy.