Clear Lake tug-of-war, Father’s day, Here with love


My father, fifth from the left, suspenders, church-picnic white shirt, head full of black wavy hair, missing the little finger of his right hand (farm incident), laughing life-deep, a large presence in this picture.

It’s a picture that never fails to bring a smile. A tug-of-war—the way all wars should be fought: on Sunday, in a park by a lake, best out of three; and perhaps on the third round, a conspiracy, such as is obvious here…where at the height of tugging-tension, the rope is released by one side and the entire line opposite flies back from the force of their own straining—the sudden bursts of laughter shared by all.

And it’s also a picture that makes me sad, makes me long for innocence, long for the singularity of sun-filled day, cool air moving in off the water, the waiting pot-luck and rhubarb pie with whipped cream.

And it makes me long for my father, gone now 20 years this fall. The memories of my father are not all this sanguine. The deep lines in his face grew deeper from sorrows he found hard to speak of. Poverty, so near, so often; his own father incapacitated and broken by the loss of two farms. One stolen by the Red Army, the other swindled by a trusted neighbour in a new country in which he placed all hope. And my father left to shore up the nothing that was left. Many lines came by dirt-scrabble hard work. And some lines were no doubt etched in by his own children.

But these harder memories have been replaced by his presence, still very real in my life. I see him at the dinner table, surrounded by his family, children, grandchildren, a brood of broad smiles. And my father’s robin’s-egg blue eyes and terminally thick black hair; and now a joke, a story, an incident in church, and then his slow smile, and then his laugh. For of all the lines on the map of his face, the deepest still, were those of laugher and joy.

Years ago I wrote this poem for him:

He came here with love
Carved a patch of ground
Out of scrub poplar and willows
Dug a dugout
Drove posts in stony soil
Played his guitar at dusk
At twilight wandered far venues
Met hazel eyes
Loved her
Wrestled together a house
He came here with love
Drew out children from that patch of ground
Gave, prayed
Laughed, yodelled, laughed
Mulled, lingered
Cried, stood resolute, felt pain
Moved, came back to lands nape
Made deep furrows in its lap
Planted his flesh
Left a grove of love


  1. Wonderful tribute Stephen, honest to the core. I wish I could write poetry.

    The stories of our parents/grandparents’ struggles are sometimes difficult to fully comprehend. I have heard of the hard times during the great depression from my mother, but she prefers to not talk about details very often. And nowadays, as she and her memory age, she may not remember many of those specifics. My grandmother lived on an isolated farm with few modern day amenities, losing one husband to a mining accident, another to alcohol — as best I have gathered. The poverty, the struggles, weathered my grandmother in ways that I admired. But I think that they took a toll on my mother who never seemed to be content or even truly happy.

    And my mother never understood why our family bought a farm, something she tried to escape when she was young!

    My father had a different set of struggles – growing up poor in a Polish immigrant neighborhood in Detroit, a father that disappeared early on, a step father that didn’t care for him too much, joining the army at 16 and seeing horrors of war while still a youth. Interestingly, he is the one that finds ways to laugh, pull practical jokes, etc., although he also keeps many of the dark stories secret.

    Our lives seem so relatively privileged; we are indeed blessed. But I can’t help but wonder what causes people to deal so differently with a bad hand of the cards of life?

    Boy – thanks for triggering all sorts of memories and deep thoughts!

  2. Diane, thank you! for relating some of your family history. Fascinating. We tend to believe all of our histories are unique, and of course they are in detail. But the commonality of hardships that faced the generation before us seems almost universal. But concerning your question, there are many books.

  3. I had forgotten that photo. So beautiful. All the memories and the poem. I too wish I could write poetry – or anything really. Thank you Steve.

  4. 20 years ago this summer there was a celebration of his 50th wedding anniversary. Your last paragraph sums up my memories of that event and many others before: ” I see him at the dinner table, surrounded by his family, children, grandchildren, a brood of broad smiles…”

  5. Elegant, poignant – brings back memory of my Great Depression financially strapped father announcing after shovelling a truck load of coal through a window into the cellar, pushing the window in place and announcing, “Let the cold wind blow, we’ll be warm and comfortable.” I have not had that sense of security since we moved from Northern Alberta bush to urban living vulnerable to vagaries of electrical current.

  6. Thanks, Steve – great to see that photo again. If I’m right, the third guy on the ground from the left is Uncle George.

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