i grew up with a big family inside a teeny tiny house on a steep hill in a little town. some of our life was conventional, and some, not so much.
my dad was a big city kid who lived on a tough but lively street. he shared a house with six gregarious, outspoken sisters and he learned the value of a dollar from working-class parents. never one to shy away from opportunity or adventure, dad tried it all. he was a taxi driver, a dance instructor, an office clerk, and he even enlisted in the army.
he was going to be somebody.
dad landed the role of manager at a big-chain department store and it was there that he met my mom. she had just left home and was a shy 18 year old working in shoes. dad charmed her with his outgoing personality and they had a whirlwind romance. they were married at city hall with a few friends by their side.
not long into my mom’s newly independent and grown-up life, her father (my opa) decided he no longer wanted to run his business; a general store he had built and attached to their house, in the small town where they lived.
he offered it to each one of his children and their spouses. no one was interested. no one, except my dad. i’m sure it took some convincing on his part to move my mom back into her childhood home to raise their own family (eventually five kids, with me being the youngest), but if there was one thing about my dad, he knew how to make a sale.
dad settled into small town life easily. he transitioned from big city company supervisor to general store shopkeeper with a kind of ease and effortlessness that made it seem as if that were the way it had always been. if my opa made it work, my dad made it thrive.
our house was small. and not just small for seven people and a dog small, but really quite astonishingly small. somehow it never seemed to matter. there were always friends and relatives coming and going and the door that led from the house to the store was almost always open (except when mom was vacuuming on the house side or dad was slicing meat on the store side), and people would often wave and holler a “hello” into the house, so it always felt more full than it actually was.
dad joined the masonic lodge, had a seat on town council, played hockey with the other dads and was a trusted committee member on many different small town committees. he called everyone “brother” and it became an exchanged term of endearment between he and his friends and customers. dad was friendly and generous and eternally loyal.
when i was in elementary school, it wasn’t unusual to see my dad in the office or the hallway chatting with the principal and teachers or scolding a known ‘good-for-nothing’ kid. sometimes he would drop off treats or donation money that the masons had collected, and sometimes he’d stop in on his way home from banking or town hall visiting, just because he could.
so it wasn’t particularly strange to have him show up in my classroom that one valentines day in grade 5. but it was a new and particularly remarkable reason as to why he did.
as i sat learning about social studies, there was a knock on the door. it was that casual knock that tells you someone fun and friendly is on the other side. without waiting for an answer, my dad swung it open and stood there holding a bouquet of flowers and a heart-shaped box of candy. he said hello to my teacher and walked straight over to me.
“happy valentine’s day presh”.
he leaned down to give me a kiss and deliver the goods onto my desk, and with one or two pats on the backs of my classmates, he was gone.
my face lit up a certain colour of crimson and it made me nervous and uneasy to have all eyes turned to me. but what i mostly remember, is feeling like the most special girl in school.
from that day forward, it became our little tradition. every year he’d come into my classroom the same way he always did, and i’d pretend to be somewhat surprised. he’d often switch the arrival time or the flowers and the candy, just to keep things interesting.
once i got into high school, things became a little trickier for him. figuring out what period it was and what class i was in, proved to be a bit more of a challenge. but he never failed. he always showed up.
in grade 11, i finally had a boyfriend. our school, like many, did a candy-gram and flower swap. as the day neared its end, i still hadn’t received a delivery from the student council cupids and i figured that my boyfriend had either forgot, didn’t realize how much it would mean to me or simply didn’t care.
as math class finished, i heard the familiar knock on the door. dad entered with a smile and his usual greeting, “happy valentine’s day presh”, and then, as always, he left as quickly as he came.
just as i started to pack up my books, the boy in front of me turned around and very loudly and very tauntingly asked why i had to get my dad to buy me roses on valentine’s day.
in all the years that dad had been visiting the school, it had never occurred to me to be embarrassed by it.
not until that one thoughtless, throwaway comment.
for the first time ever, i left the gifts in my locker & when i got home, i told dad he didn’t have to do it anymore. i sheepishly announced that i was too old for the tradition and it would be best if we just let a good thing be.
i’m almost positive i broke his heart into a thousand pieces that day, but he simply said, “no problem presh.”
by grade 12, i was much older & wiser, and no longer had the absentminded boyfriend, but by the time valentine’s day rolled around, i didn’t have the nerve to tell dad that i was recanting my decision. it doesn’t seem like much of a gift if you have to tell a person to give it. and besides, i deserved everything that wasn’t coming to me.
in my last lesson of the day, i was asked to come down to the office. at the time, my mom was working as a secretary and when i started towards her, assuming she was the one to call me, she flippantly motioned towards the counter. (i can only now appreciate a mom’s ability to drudge up an old issue and give it new life.)
there, beside the late slips and the attendance folders, sat my flowers and candy.
he had quietly brought them anyway.
the note attached read, “happy valentine’s day presh”.
at dinner that night, we didn’t speak much about it. i thanked him. he smiled and nodded. there wasn’t really anything else to say. the flowers sat firmly between us as a reminder of my teenage foolishness – and his ability to stretch beyond it and simply know better.
that next year, dad was diagnosed with inoperable brain tumours. he underwent chemotherapy and radiation but the cancer was stronger than the cure and he died two years later.
he never visited my school again.
i suppose like anyone who misses someone, i wish i could get him back, even for just a few minutes. i’d love to have a dance, or listen to him laughing in the store or hear the familiar knock that announced my oh-so-precious valentine delivery, just one more time.
we don’t get to choose the moments that make us. but if we are granted the rare opportunity to really see them, their influence can be immeasurable.
so i show up at my daughters’ school, tradition tightly wrapped in arms, to pass onto them the same nervous and special feeling that my dad gave to me.
it’s the least i can do for the man who was going to be somebody.