Vladimir Knoieczny, the Polish-Canadian author of Struggling for Perfection: The Story of Glenn Gould and Glenn Gould: A Musical Force. has allowed me to post his moving memoir about his relationship to his father, a Polish soldier who survived the war and came to Canada as a Displaced Person.
“And So On and So Forth” by Vladimir Konieczny
(Excerpted from Nobody’s Father [TouchWood Editions, 2008] edited by Bruce Gillespie and Lynne Van Luven)
“But you would have made such a good father,” she said.
“Well, yes and no,” I replied.
My first-and-only-born died at the age of 52. His name was Andrezj, and in truth, he was my father, but our roles often felt reversed. The official cause of death was lung cancer, but if illness can serve as metaphor, then the crab that pinched his lungs was merely the symptom of a soul long drained of vitality by alcohol. I spied him many times as his lips clutched a bottle of wine as if it were a lifebuoy, while his Adam’s apple bobbed like a fisherman’s float with every swallow. When he jerked the bottle from his mouth, a plop echoed throughout the basement, followed by a death-rattle sigh grumbling deep in his barrel chest. He always screwed the cap back on with two or three quick precise flicks of his thumb and middle finger before secreting it away in one or another of his hiding places. He denied doing this, but I knew better, and for months after his death, I kept finding empty wine bottles in the house and the backyard.
Andrzej spoke five languages, played half a dozen instruments, danced like an Argentinean tango-meister, sang like a Venetian gondolier, sketched viciously funny caricatures, played poker with panache, entertained guests with stories all told in appropriate accents, slaved six days a week in a shoe factory, and still took the time to drink himself into an early grave. He was a model of decorum and industry by day, an incoherent drunk by night. Some days he was stalwart and brave; others, he was weak and whiny. Funny when sober, he could be verbally violent when drunk. Fortunately, for he was a strong man, Andrzej was unfailingly soft with his hands. I loved him one minute and loathed him the next.
The eldest in a family of three brothers and two sisters, Andrzej won a scholarship to university; instead, he went to work and later enlisted in the Polish army, determined to rout the Nazis. By war’s end, his entire family had been slaughtered, and he found himself stationed near a Displaced Persons camp in Germany. There he met Zenobia, a Belarus woman whose family had also been slaughtered, but who was lucky enough to survive as slave labour on a farm in Germany after she was first abused, to use the current euphemism. I’d like to say they fell in love, but love seems like such a luxury in a DP camp. Loneliness and humiliation, resin and catalyst, constituted the epoxy that bonded them to each other; once it had cured, they couldn’t pry themselves apart, even though they should have. I was born in that camp in Germany. And there I learned my first lessons about the fickleness of authority.
After the war the Canadian government, in a fit of generosity, liberalized its immigration laws and thousands of refugees came here. Andrzej felt he had little choice. He knew his country had been betrayed yet again, for the Allies, unwilling to risk yet another conflagration, had made their pact with a psychopath. Millions who only a minute earlier had been freed from one monster now found themselves held captive by yet another idiot savant whose single gift was for killing. Those who could get out, did.
Even though he was grateful for the opportunity to come to Canada, Andrzej made a tragic mistake in emigrating, because some temperaments, like certain plants, wither when transplanted in foreign soil. He arrived first with only the proverbial clothes on his back. Actually, he was wearing shorts when he disembarked in Halifax. Zenobia and I remained in the refugee camp—waiting. To fulfill his contractual obligations, he toiled for one year on a farm in southern Ontario before sending for my mother and me. I was four. All I had known until then was the camp. Now, the puppy had been released from its cage and was free to roam the wide-open spaces of the Ontario countryside.
Andrzej and Zenobia had their eyes on the future: mine. My glorious tomorrow was their bulwark against the ignorance and bigotry of Canada in the 1950s and ’60s. Zenobia’s roots took firm hold here, while Andrezj’s shrivelled. He grew addicted to drink; my mother to me. I was the little guy with the smart mouth who could make both parents laugh even in the heat of an argument, which happened daily. I became the buffer between two warring strangers, a Belarus and a Pole, whose only common bond besides their recent history of misery was me. And so I absorbed the dynamics of family interaction.
Like so many immigrants, my parents held jobs that were beneath their abilities and education. Still, they were grateful to have them. Zenobia traded slavery on a labour farm for servitude in a shoe factory. She even sewed moccasins at night for something like a penny per slipper. Later, she toiled for the Toronto school board as an aide in a kindergarten, a job that was close to her original dream to be a teacher, but again the pay was a pittance. My father worked in a tannery, where his skin soaked up dyes, and later in a shoe factory, where he inhaled glues all day long. Yet, no matter how drunk he got at night, he never missed a day of work. Zenobia rose first to make breakfast; by 7:00 am they were both gone, leaving me on my own to get ready for school—or not. I watched them both and picked up a few pointers about labour and economics, and especially the law of diminishing returns.
At some point in my teens, two words began to echo in my mind: “if” and “only.” Together, they form the most hollow phrase in English, a cavern in which lurk lost illusions, actions regretted, chances never taken. Most of all, the phrase reverberates with the hopeless wish that an idealized future would magically be the present and that the past were somehow different. If only Andrzej and Zenobia had been born later. If only Hitler had not, or Churchill had, or Stalin had not. If only this, if only that. A see-saw of disappointment and despair. But these were my if onlys; Andrzej’s simply rasped in his heart. He never gave them voice, at least not to me. He expressed only extremes: joy one day, anger the next. And for years, I caromed from one to the other.
In fact, my father’s favourite expression was “and so on and so forth.” Whenever anyone asked about the war, for example, he would smile and take a thoughtful puff on his unfiltered Export A, “Oh, of course some difficult days, you see. Very difficult, you know, and so on and so forth.” Then he’d tell a joke or engage in debate about religion, politics, music, or the Toronto Maple Leafs versus the Montreal Canadiens, his charm and wit drawing friends into arguments that would shift terrain with a slippery word or two from his smiling lips. Like everyone else, I, his son, had to fashion Andrzej’s history from the motes of memory that occasionally floated into his conversations: a name here, a place there, a date, a farewell, a snippet of a song, a sketch of someone’s face, a story about a long-dead friend, or a village scene never to be repeated here. To this day, much of his life remains a mystery to me. Still, to his credit, he never dined out on his wartime experiences, and neither did Zenobia. I sat at his knee and studied human exchange.
He was my hero and nemesis rolled into one. No question of mine was too difficult for him to answer. He would sing arias or pop songs, conduct a symphony blasting on the Motorola radio and invite me to join in. He showed me how to bait a hook, cast a line, bluff at poker and milk a musical phrase. I read the newspaper over his shoulder and answered his questions. He taught me to read between the lines and to watch people’s eyes, faces and hands to understand what they really meant. He impressed my buddies and charmed my girlfriends. He bragged about me to his friends, but only rarely complimented me to my face. Even then, he praised me when I had done nothing to deserve it and ignored me when I had actually achieved something. I lost count of the number of times he embarrassed me when he was drunk, but I also treasured every fishing trip, music lesson, card game and discussion we had when he was sober. Eventually, like a dragonfly on a clothesline, I learned to stay on constant alert. After a while, I could gauge his mood and read his gestures accurately enough to make the necessary transpositions from one key to another by myself. But on occasion, like every alcoholic’s child, I wanted to ask him which he loved more, the bottle or me. But then you might as well ask which wing a hummingbird favours. And so I learned not to confuse need with love.
From about the age of eight, I worked to support my father. My job was simple but demanding. When he drank, I became the man of the house. This job was assigned by my mother, and there was no arguing. Even back then she already sensed that her son was like a hound on a porch, turning around and around, sniffing the air in search of that inviting blend of texture and scent which signals a safe place to rest or hide. She wanted to teach me self-discipline, but as Andrzej once presciently said, “Just leave him alone. It’s too late.”
My manly tasks were straightforward. I retrieved smouldering cigarette butts from his ashtrays and doused them in the kitchen sink. I made sure the stove was off after he went to bed, because he liked to light his cigarettes on the burner. I checked the doors and so on and so forth. As I grew older and he weaker, I on occasion followed him home from one or another of his favourite pubs. Like an apprenticing undercover cop, I shadowed my father from one side of the street while he walked up the other with those light, precise footsteps unique to the very drunk. Whistling or belting out a tune, he would pass rows of grim brick houses, his fedora neatly cocked, its front pinched just so, and his hands held straight by his sides as though he were on parade. Sometimes, I helped him to bed and watched as he fell asleep, drunk on wine and exhausted from work. I joked about these nights with friends who shared similar adventures.
My mother was a courageous woman who also feared the night at noon. She rarely spoke of the war years, the physical and mental abuse, the simple unfairness of it all, but her experience had inked her melancholy soul an even darker sepia, which no amount of sunlight could bleach. She had claimed to be Polish to ensure that she could emigrate. She also subtracted four years from her age in the hope that she would be more appealing as an immigrant if she were younger, a minor sleight of hand that postponed her retirement by an equal length of time. These deceptions were probably unnecessary, but in those days, who could be certain they weren’t? And so for the rest of her life, she not only suppressed her true identity, but also worried that her secret would be discovered. Yet, despite her fluttering misgivings, Zenobia refused to suffer fools and never thought of herself as a victim, even though she believed the other shoe would inevitably drop, and I had better be prepared for it. She loved me unconditionally, and that only heightened her fears for her son.
Zenobia worked harder than anyone I’ve ever known. She also managed the household. Every Friday, she would open her and my father’s brown pay packets and allocate money with the precision of a purchasing agent: mortgage, hydro and food, in that order. If anything was left over, it went into savings. This was my lesson in financial planning and long-term investment.
Then, suddenly, as these things always happen, my father became ill. He discussed it with the usual “and so ons and so forths.” Perhaps during the hour of the wolf, he probed death’s sacred side and fondled the dignified beauty of parting, but I’ll never know, for a short while later he died. I was not yet 21, cockier than a year-old Irish terrier, and completely oblivious to what Andrzej’s passing would eventually come to mean. The last words I heard him speak were, “This is my son.” These he said to the duty nurse who was administering painkillers. At the time, I had no idea how right he was, for by then I was already both particle and wave: a hard, bitter kernel of moral certitude one minute, an undulating non-localized wave of doubt and anxiety the next; a model of confidence, ambition and promise one day; a bundle of sloth, self-indulgence and anger the next. One week I wanted marriage and children; the next, I fantasized about emulating Jack Kerouac. One minute I felt compassion for all of humanity; the next I sneered at people’s weakness. One day I felt light with joy; the next I could have squashed butterflies. I despised authority, but argued fervently in favour of it. I vacillated between being a monk and being famous, for what I didn’t know, something, anything. If not this, then surely that. Just notice me, please and thank you. That was my motto for a long time.
One day a few years after Andrzej died, my new girlfriend announ-ced that she was pregnant. She also hinted it might be her ex-boyfriend’s. Timelines were loose in the early 1970s. I tried to convince her that I didn’t care if it was his or mine. “We’ll get married and everything will be fine,” I said. I’m sure I added an “I love you” for good measure. I was determined to do my duty. She listened and nodded, but her sloe eyes suggested an ancient understanding. For the next few days, I talked to myself in the mirror. “Asshole. Fool. Idiot. How could you do this? Your life is ruined.” Then, I would imagine myself strutting down the street with my baby, a proud father determined not to make the same mistakes his parents had.
A week or so later, she called to tell me that she intended to have an abortion. I was outraged. “It’s wrong!” I yelled. “It’s murder. You can’t do it!” She had the presence of mind to hang up. When she called back a few days later and told me she had gone through with it, a huge wave of gratitude and relief made my knees tremble. Shortly afterwards, we split up. Only years later could I admit that I had been indignant not because of the abortion, for even back then I had no philosophical objections to abortion, but because I wasn’t the one who got to make the decision.
There followed years of education, more than a few menial jobs, and marriage. I played with my friends’ children, made cooing noises, and tickled their chins. While I held them, I longed for one or two of my own. One girl, now a lovely young woman, especially captured my heart and made me wish that I had been her father. But inevitably when I put others’ children down, I was glad I didn’t have any. I had my reasons, and they were sufficient to keep me childless. What were they? Legion. By this time, for example, I had taught in secondary school for several years, and had experienced, although admittedly second-hand, the results of broken homes, the fallout from bitter divorces and the battles waged by parents who used their children as missiles. This could happen to me, I reasoned. Why take a chance? I’m happy to be married. But kids? I’ll pass. Then again maybe I should? And that sly inner voice would shift poles, and I would yet again spend an hour or two fingering my regrets. In short, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I wanted a family, but not on the rest of the days. I had also learned that to love a child is easy, but to be consistent as a parent is hard, and for some us, impossible.
More years passed. Much to my horror, I became middle-aged, the time in life when there’s still some light left at the end of the tunnel, but you now realize it’s battery-powered. My mother finally gave up hope she would ever have grandchildren. Then, like my father, she died a horrible and unfair death. A few years later there was, for what seemed like only a fraction of a minute, a second chance for a child, but then came some difficult days, yes, very difficult, you see, and so on and so forth.
Vladimir Konieczny was born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1946 and emigrated in 1950 to join his father in Canada. A former teacher of English and music for the Vancouver School Board, he now works as a freelance writer and an instructor in Simon Fraser University’s Writing and Publishing Program. He is the author of two books: Struggling for Perfection: The Story of Glenn Gould, which was nominated for the Red Cedar Book Award, and Glenn Gould: A Musical Force.