As a kid growing up in Winnipeg and Waterloo, it didn’t matter what the season was. When my Dad’s mania for wandering came upon him (and it was pretty much daily), it was usually his youngest who was called upon to accompany him.
Often enough I was able to finagle my way out of these walks, protesting that I still hadn't practiced piano that evening, or I had homework that needed doing. But on occasion, even these excuses were overcome by paternal insistence, and off we’d go.
For my father, the walking was a way to get out of his home office, away from the books and the lecture preparations, a chance to get out into the nature he so loved and to give himself up to idling actively with his boy at his side.
As much as I tried to resist these walks, once we got going I would acquiesce to the journey ahead, and I came to enjoy our talks. In Waterloo these walks usually led us to a cemetery atop a suburban hill wreathed by a stretch of forest overlooking an expressway and the city just beyond it.
The dead didn’t seem to mind our ambling overhead, and no doubt these wanderings encouraged a lifelong fascination with graveyards for me. The headstones bore the names and dates of those long gone, their stories a mystery to me. But as we walked, Dad would tell stories of his own. Stories from his own reading life; but also stories culled from his childhood in a country far away, behind an Iron Curtain, a country filled with pain and longing and never to be returned to.
In winter, after walking and chatting for a time, we would cocoon into a comfortable silence. The only sound we’d hear would be the crunching of our boots upon the snow covered paths of the cemetery, our moist puffs of breath hanging overhead like frozen shrouds.
And in the centre of the silence I would always notice the melody starting up: my Dad humming the song that would be his life-long earworm, the song he could never shake. Red River Valley.
I suspect my father first heard the song shortly after arriving at Coaldale, Alberta, a teenaged refugee from the ruins of Europe. But after hearing it, Red River Valley would lodge itself in my Dad’s noggin like an aural tapeworm never to be excised. It drove me crazy, the humming of it; but I never complained. It was one of his harmless quirks.
The last time I heard Dad’s earworm was last Christmas Eve.
Those gathered to celebrate Christmas at my folks’ place had shifted to the living room after our traditional Christmas Eve meal to reminisce over libations and sweets. As always there were stories to be told and gifts to exchange; but that Christmas was especially poignant as we all knew that Dad would not likely outlast the coming year.
Maybe because of this certainty hanging in the air, some folks suggested, innocently enough, that they were surprised how well Dad was doing, given the previous year’s struggle with the cancer that would soon be his undoing. I could sense immediately that this reminder did not sit well with my father; but he said nothing.
Instead, he grabbed the wheels of his chair and retreated into another room and soon returned with his Hohner Echo harmonica in his lap. A hush descended upon the candle-lit room as Dad removed the ancient harmonica from it’s alpine-themed cardboard case. Cradling the instrument in his hands and raising it to his lips, he stared into my eyes and he began to blow. Red River Valley.
Come and sit by my side if you love me
Do not hasten to bid me a -dieu
Just remember the Red River Valley
And the one who has loved you so true.
Christmas is a time of joy and light. At least it should be. As we grow older it is inevitable that those closest to us fade away and pass into memory. No doubt there are many besides our family who have lost loved ones recently. And their absence is keenly felt at Christmas. But we are happy still that Christmas has come again, that we can again feel the embrace of family and friends. And somewhere, a grieving son will find delight in an old harmonica and learn the songs that his father could teach him.
— Jeffrey Loewen is a Kelowna-based writer who plays music by day and politics by night