Thursday, October 28, 2010

Passages: Fathers and Sons

The bond between fathers and sons is always fraught with ups and downs. As his sons grow, the father tries to understand these independent creatures that live under his roof. The sons try to comprehend the 'old man's' archaic attitude. It is a centuries old struggle that continues to confound all father/son relationships. This was not dissimilar to my own relationship with my father, Ken Churchill. Last Sunday morning, he passed away at age 87 and it got me ruminating about my own bond with my Dad.

Over the years, I'm convinced he often times had no idea what to make of his artsy son. Here was a man who climbed hydro poles in the early part of his career, and continued working for Ontario Hydro, in a variety of positions, for almost 40 years. To his children – myself and my older siblings, Neil and Teresa – my Dad was a good father. Unlike most fathers in Parry Sound, he played with us and the rest of the neighbourhood kids (touch football, street hockey, etc.) He taught us to swim (it was a bit of struggle with me, his sink-like-a-rock youngest son), fish, drive a boat, drive a car, ride a bike, skate, ski (downhill and cross country – I sucked at downhill, but I was a pretty good X-country skier) and tie knots (he was in the Navy during WW2). Yet, when it came to the arts, my obsession, I think he was at a loss.

My Dad grew up in a household where music was not important, so he never really liked music that much (yet, he married my Mom, Eileen, whose father and oldest brother loved to sing and did it very well; all three of Dad's children have always been music mad; and more than one grandchild has studied singing at a post-secondary facility). When we were growing up, the only radio station he listened to was CFRB, a talk-radio station. Unless it was a CFL, or NHL game, Dad could take or leave television. Unless it was a James Bond movie, my Dad could take or leave movies, too. Unless it was a book by Jack Higgins (author of the book, The Eagle Has Landed, which became the Michael Caine film), he wasn't the biggest reader (he read more in later life, but usually, but not always, a Higgins book). Theatre, art galleries, museums? Very rarely. My Dad was an active man who loved to run around doing errands and was always going here, there and everywhere.

So what to make of his music-movie-and-book-loving son who has gone on to a career as a writer? I never did find out because we never really talked about it (a typical father/son dynamic). But just before I entered university, he gave me a six-word piece of advice that I have carried with me ever since. A few days before I was to leave to attend the University of Toronto, I said, “what if I fail?” Without missing a beat, he said. “It doesn't matter whether you fail.” That was all I needed to hear. He was a man of very few words, but sometimes those words were absolutely filled with meaning. Which brings me to a moment I still cherish and can still recall with complete clarity.

In early 2004, I was visiting my parents in Kelowna, BC, where they'd retired to in 1985. One Friday or Saturday late afternoon, I'd suggested to my parents that we go see Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of World which was still playing in the Kelowna theatres. Mom was game, but I think Dad went along just for something to do. For me, this film is one of the finest American films of the first decade of the 21st century. The movie is long (2 hours and 20 minutes), so I had no idea how long he, or his bladder, would last. He stayed in his seat the entire running time. As the lights came up on this compelling picture, Dad turned to me, his eyes shining a bit (he was always, ironically, an emotional guy), and said “That was fantastic.” My Dad had NEVER said that about anything to do with the arts. But his love of this film made perfect sense to him and his life. It was about the navy (albeit an early 19th century one), dealt with esprit de corps, and it spent its entire running time mostly on the ocean. For my Dad, I believe the best time in his early life was the years he spent in the Navy. He never actually shipped overseas, as the war ended before that, but it left a lifelong imprint on his life. Weir's film was a celebration of the men, regardless of what era, who went to sea. My Dad could relate to that. And on that day, for a few brief moments, I think he understood some of my obsessions, because this film, as so many films have for me, meant something to him. I will miss him deeply. But I will always retain all the things, directly or indirectly, he taught me.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and the author of The Empire of Death. Go to for more information.

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