I realize I’m here because I didn’t get along with my father
I was preparing the next installment of my column “The Adventures of Mitey Miss” for Momentum magazine and tried to explain to the magazine’s North American readership why I felt compelled to live and write in Goa to live for six months.
“…I find myself and my bicycle finally in India, receiving a D.Y.I. blessing from an uncle who bears a good resemblance to my deceased father,” I wrote, “But unlike my father, his is kind, open-minded, encouraging and light-hearted.”
At some time and for some reason, my father and my relationship went sour very early on. I spent most of my life believing that it was my fault because I was a bad person. I also spent a lot of time believing that he was a bad person. A father and a daughter not getting along because – what? – they’re bad people? Thats simplistic and doesn’t make sense.
But how do you investigate the absence of something? You look at the shapes formed by that void – in my case the relationship with my siblings, my mother, my other relatives, any my other relationships. When I did, I saw distance, always distance.
A history of distance
There’s the distance my great grandfather created when he left Goa to cross several oceans to seek gold in Canada. He never returned.
The distance his son, my grandfather, and siblings created to move from Goa to Rangoon, Burma.
The distance my grandparents created when they had to flee Burma and return to India to escape Japanese bombing, just weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbour.
The distance my father created when left his family in India to make a life in Europe.
The distance he maintained from my mother after he agreed to marry her (apparently he didn’t tell anyone at work that he’d gotten married) and the distance between them when he flew ahead to Canada and left her behind in England with two small children.
“When did you know that you no longer wanted to be with him?” I asked her not long ago. She herself had distanced herself from her family by leaving her village in Austria to be an au pair in London.
“Before we left England,” she answered. She would have been in her early twenties and I would have been three or four. Children aren’t oblivious. They know when there is distance in their parents, and when they are tolerating each other for the sake of the children. We can’t identify if but we know it.
My family moved into a high rise in Toronto’s outskirts, then another, then another. We moved every two or three years. When I asked my mother why, she said to create a better life for you kids. Each move created distance and so we were always the new kids with the funny names in communities of children who had grown up together. I was shy and found solace from the bullying in books, bikes and being alone.
It runs in the family
I read, wrote and rode a bicycle. I packed lettuce-and-mayonnaise sandwiches into the blue plastic basket of my bike and I created distance from the schoolyard and the high rise and my beleaguered parents. I always headed AWAY. I rode that bicycle until a pedal fell off or I got hungry or it got dark. I was eight years old and learned for myself that distance is escape. I rode alone and without fear because what I feared was at home.
Home was the place no one wanted to be. Both my parents worked and our high rise home remained empty during the day. Dinner was a chore for my mother and words became battles over meals. My brother and I learned to remain mute, but then were reprimanded for not creating conversation. The reprimands increased as we became teenagers and our old-country parents were incredulous of our new-country wants.
My interest in jeans and boys and fitting in widened the distance between my father and myself irreparably. I felt his judgements every day: stupid, lazy, sleazy. “What are you,” he asked me once, hot with Indian-village shame, “An Easy Alice?”
My mother’s attempts to console and help me understand my father – “He can’t help it if he’s a bastard” – didn’t help, and just belied her own distance. They finally separated after twenty-four years of staying together for the kids, but the damage was done. I’d learned distance.
I created a writer’s voice that was sharp, arm’s length, and cynical. I entered relationships that didn’t demand much of me, except my skill at creating distance – from the memory of a lost mother for one boyfriend, the dreariness of a worn-out marriage to another.
Doing the distance, to close the distance
Then I escaped it all and moved to the other side of the country, to Vancouver – where everyone is escaping something.
It’s also a place where travellers grow. I took up travel the way others took up team sports. I started locally, then widened the circle internationally.
“You’re going to be just like your mother and your grandmother…” my mother encouraged on my ability to be alone. She’d sworn off romantic relationships after her separation and still saw no need for them. “…Living in a house all by yourself, doing your own thing into your old age!”
It horrified me that distance and seclusion could lead me into spinsterhood.
A month or so ago, I stepped on a plane that could fly around the curve of the earth and bring me to India because – paradoxically – I have had enough of distance.
Perhaps I need to close the circle that my great-grandfather broke open. I am back at the village of my grandparents and I am surrounded by beautiful, teeming life. Seclusion is impossible. Everyone I meet is related to me in some way and opens their homes as if I’m family.
Family and fate
My grandmother’s brother’s son, Aloysius, has taken me under his wing and he is kind, tolerant and light-hearted. He’s also a year younger than my deceased father and bears a striking resemblance that is more than a coincidence – it’s family and fate.
He tells me the stories that I am now ready to hear. I feel blessed that this father figure has entered my life just in time. With his encouraging nudges I can learn to draw distance together and hold it in my hands until it heals.
I have six months in India. While my hands are in that position, I’ll pray for magic, and love, and connection to enter my life.