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My father, a literate man

The Kingston Whig-Standard by Bev Chambers 3 Feb 2012

The whistling swans were back in Elevator Bay this fall. I first saw them several years ago. Every day while driving to work I would sneak quick glances at the swans. They fascinated me. How graceful and stately they appeared. They were like fairytale fantasy creatures. I remember calling my father and talking about the swans elegance and beauty. “What kind of swans are they?” he asked. “Whistling swans”, I replied. “Beverly, (he often called me by my full name as parents are inclined to), do you know why they are called whistling swans?” I did not, but even if I did I would have denied knowledge because my father was a gifted story teller. And I wanted to hear the story. He went on, “They are called whistling swans because when the hunters shoot them they whistle as they fall through the sky and die”. I believed him.

My father was a great conversationalist. He often added a small amount of fabrication to an ordinary story and rendered it extraordinary. He was an articulate man. An aunt of mine used to say, “Bev, I would have loved my children to have the opportunity to spend a month with your Dad just to learn vocabulary”.

When I was a child my father read stories with exuberance. He always used different voices for the characters. I remember the cadence of his speech, his Yorkshire accent -which had softened over the years – and the way all the words were enunciated. One of my favourite stories was “The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde. My father read that over and over and I never tired of it. It still moves me to tears. When I had my own children I read to them several times a day. They would say, “Again Mommy! Read it again! Use the voices!”

My father did not have post secondary education. He had “grammar school”. He could recite passages from Shakespeare at will and often did. As a younger I sometimes found this embarrassing. However I was one of the few in my secondary school English classes that did not rely on Coles Notes to understand the Bard. When my elder daughter chose to quote nine lines from Hamlet’s soliloquy for her grade 3 class I was not surprised (although her classmates laughed at her much to the teacher’s dismay).

At times, books were a source of contention with my parents. They consumed walls, and my father was reluctant to part with any of his treasures. It was not unusual to find a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets in the bathroom. Not your typical bathroom read but I am sure it did the trick.

Every year I celebrate my father’s love of the written word by going to a book store on the anniversary of his death, January 20th. It is easy to lose myself amongst the writing of others and remember the hours my father spent looking at and reading books. I pick up books and enjoy the crispness of the pages beneath my fingers and the smell of paper and ink. I celebrate the gift of reading, writing and language that my father shared with me.