Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Remembrance Day: Letters from the dad I never knew

"What's in the box, Mommy?" my six-year-old daughter Marissa asked, presenting me with an aged wooden chest I had brought home from my mother's funeral.
"These are letters your grandfather wrote Grandma after the Second World War," I explained.
Her eyes grew wide with the exciting prospect that she had found buried treasure under my bed.
"Will you read them to me?" she asked.
It was a moment I had dreaded ever since I found the packet of official-looking blue and yellow Canadian Forces letters underneath my mother's sweaters in her cedar chest several months earlier. In the 36 years I knew my mother, she had never shown me the letters or revealed the fact they even existed. I opened the box and began to read the letters, nearly 40 years after they had been written.
That day, thanks to the curiosity of a six-year-old, I finally met my father.
I never knew Russell Sidney Simpson. Never heard his voice. Never saw him smile. Never knew if he hated fish as much as I do.
I was eight months old when he died on a lonely stretch of country road near St. Catharines, Ontario, pinned and crushed to death after he lost control of his car and it rolled on top of him. My Uncle Doug, a tow-truck driver, was called to the accident by police, who hadn't told him he would find the lifeless body of his younger brother in front of Woodland School. Doug Simpson told me later he had survived the war and had hauled many bodies out of cars, but he could hardly stomach the three-kilometre drive to my mother's house to tell her the news.
As a child, my mother showed me the story of my father's death in the St. Catharines Standard, along with the gruesome black-and-while picture of an overturned and crushed car with what looked like a steady stream of blood trailing from underneath.
Russell Simpson, cherished father of Bobby, 6, Gary, 3, and eight-month-old Rosalie, was killed instantly at the age of 32, only a year after finally getting his discharge as a peacekeeper from the Canadian army. He was survived by his wife, Vera, who ironically would have to support her children for the next 16 years on mother's allowance because her husband had not been killed on active duty. He did receive a pauper's funeral and burial at an official gravesite with a hundred other dead, but my mother never forgave the army for turning her into a welfare mother rather than giving her the honour of being a widowed soldier's wife.
The only memory I had of my dad was a black-and-white picture that my mother kept on top of our secondhand television set. It stared at me when I went to school. It was there when I came home, a grim reminder of a soldier's life lived.
Every day, I was reminded of my dad when I walked to Woodland School and stared at the spot where I imagined he had died.
So traumatized was I by his death, I refused to acknowledge his passing. I told everyone at school my dad was a farmer -- and got away with it all through public school.
My mother rarely spoke about my father, so I had no real sense of him. Mostly the stories were told with an underlying bitterness by a woman who had been driven to the brink of bankruptcy, and who eventually was hospitalized and administered shock treatments to relieve her depression.
To my mother, Russ Simpson was a dreamer who really couldn't make it in the real world, so he always turned to the military for structure and steady employment. He was a man with a love of the spirits in his morning coffee, who made her pregnant just by looking at her.
My mother never remarried after my father's death, to my knowledge never had a date.
"Men are too much trouble," she would reply when asked by her teenage daughter why she never remarried.
The image I had of my father was left by her favorite story. She had gone shopping at Loblaws, leaving my father to mind his infant daughter in the car. She returned to the parking lot only to find Rosalie sleeping soundly -- by herself. Furious, my mother stormed over to the parking attendant, who informed her that Russ had asked him to mind the little girl while he went to the Mansion House for a pint. Faster than a speeding bullet, my mother flew into the tavern and hauled my dad back to the car.
This was the image I had of my dad: a happy-go-lucky, luckless rounder who could never hold a job. It was an image fashioned by an equally luckless woman who later told me she felt her life was ruined by the war, my father and three boisterous children.
So, reluctantly, Marissa and I began our journey to find the father and grandfather we never knew.

We joined Russ Simpson in the winter of 1954, somewhere in the woods in Germany, busily repairing 75 trucks and pulling guard duty at all hours.
What we found was a very different man than my mother described, a cheerful and sensitive guy in his 30s who desperately missed his wife and infant sons, and who craved and cherished every letter from his wife and sisters.
He was a man who, like his daughter, loved books and the theatre, and he wasn't a bad writer. He relished his trips on leave to Scotland, where he bonded with a host of relatives and took tea with countless aunts and uncles.
On the darker side, he was a tortured soul who hated the army and couldn't wait to get home to his children and escape the endless boredom and routine. He was a moral man, a decent man, who always complained about the antics of his mates.
"One gets pretty bored over here, especially when you don't go out," he wrote from Soest, Germany. "But I can't be bothered, as all the fellas want to go out and have a few and start looking around for women.  Though I have not been always been a perfect angel myself, I can't and won't be like the rest, or perhaps I should say the biggest percentage of the guys.
"I like to go out and have a few drinks and try to forget a few things, but I can't see how some of the guys that are married, and from what I can gather, have very nice wives and kiddies, can go ahead and do the things that they do and make damned fools of themselves. With you and the kids to look forward to, I haven't any inclination to bother with them."
Like many lonely soldiers, my father drank to forget the loneliness he felt so strongly in his heart. He often wrote about his concerns for my mother and their debts, and went so far as to apply for a compassionate leave, only to be turned down because my mother had finally paid off the debt.
This infuriated him, and he lost any respect for his superiors and the army.
"Just to give them something to think about, I have requested that I relinquish my stripes, as I shall be taking my discharge as soon as possible. Under the circumstances, I see no reason why I should continue on in the army. I have been called in and they have tried to talk me out of it, but I am quite a stubborn person. Under no circumstances will I re-enlist until after I get home."
Stubborn and self-destructive, I thought -- just like his daughter.
He did get home, of course, and he made another baby with my mother. But, sadly, there were never any words written about this baby Rosalie. After my dad died, my mother stopped taking pictures of her children because she no longer had someone who wanted to look at them. She had hundreds of snaps of my brothers as babies. But there would be no baby pictures of Rosalie.
Did he love me as much as my brothers and my mother? I guessed I would never know. As I put the letters back in the box, I stumbled upon a letter with different handwriting than my dad's from an elderly cousin in Scotland who sent words of regret upon hearing of his passing.
"He must have been so pleased when you both got a lovely wee girl," cousin Ilsa wrote in an old lady's handwriting. "He spoke about his cousin at Inverness getting a wee girl and how he wanted one of his own."
It was then that the tears came. I was finally able to mourn my dad, because I knew him -- and I knew finally that he loved me.
I was full of sorrows, both for my mother and my father and their tragic lives.
Poor Dad. Full of dreams, always brimming with hope and optimism. He would have been very sad to see how my mother suffered in her pain and lost dreams. She never made any money, though she was able to break out of welfare and get a job making sweaters in a textile factor. The strain of the job left her on a disability pension at 58, and she died a lengthy and excruciating death at the age of 68 due to a bowel blockage the doctors didn't find until it was too late.
My dad would have been proud of my mother for raising three children who grew up on welfare, then went on to professional careers. Today, Bob is a successful stockbroker, Gary is a school principal and I am a professional writer, who is now able to tell my dad's story for all the veterans, and the widows and orphans of those who serve.
Because of Dad's letters, I look at Remembrance Day differently than I have in the past. When I see those soldiers marching down the street, I see Russell Simpson in the faces of every one of those veterans and wonder: Did anyone know him?
Thanks to my mother and her habit of saving every card and letter, I now know my father and Marissa knows her grandfather. And thanks to my father, I finally have a family.
Thanks Mom. Thanks Dad. I hope you are together at last in the land of the spirits. We here in the land of the living miss you, and always will.

This story appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, the St. Catharines Standard and many others in Canada on Remembrance Day, 1998.

1 comment:

  1. love this story and I so remember my grandmother Henrietta Simpson mentioning vera and uncles thru time and maybe in bridge games which she had or gone to every week, whilst I stayed with them,