Sunday, June 19, 2016

Father's Day Tribute to My Father Ian James Michael Stewart

Ian James Michael Stewart. My Dad. You know the poem Monday’s child is fair of face, Tuesday’s child is full of grace, Wednesday’s child is full of woe, Thursday’s child has far to go, Friday’s child is loving and giving, Saturday’s child works hard for a living, but the child that is born on the Sabbath day is bonnie and blithe and good and gay.

Dad was born on March 9, and I think it was 1923; I'm still waiting for a copy of his official birth certificate. He was married to Patricia Dolores Fitzgerald who was born on April 23 1928. According to my birth certificate they were lawfully married and judging by a silver heart my father had engraved for my mother on their 25th wedding anniversary, they were married on 2 May 1948. I was their third child and was born in Pretoria, South Africa on December 6, 1955. 

That was a Tuesday. Full of grace. I like that. I was baptized on the 17th of December 1955 at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church at what was then VoortrekkerHoogte in Pretoria.

VoortrekkerHoogte was a military base. So. Full of grace, baptized in a Church of Peace on a military base. No wonder I’m so conflicted.  

If Dad was born on March 9 1923, it was a Friday. Friday's child is loving and giving. He was that. He's the only member of my primary family who was never once mean or jealous or spiteful or bullying towards me. And further for the record, Dad once said to me that I was his favorite child. I like that too. We had similar spirits.

The weirdest thing? Somebody in his immediate family put together a history of his mother's father. And Dad doesn't exist, according to it, or to a family tree put together by I don't know who.  He had a brother and a sister, and they're on the tree.

Dad was real alright, and the nicest, most interesting, most decent out of his siblings. He and my mother left South Africa when I was a year old because they couldn't bear to live under the Apartheid regime. His older brother Ron voted for that regime.

Dad loved that I instinctively set my sights on something greater than I knew how to achieve. It resonated with him. He said “Dream as big as you can. If you reach for the stars you might get close. If you only try to reach for the ceiling you won’t get beyond it.” He also said “If you want to do something and you know you won’t get permission for it, do before you ask!” He had such a twinkle in his being every time he said it to me.

He always added “Don’t lie about it afterwards if you get caught.” I don't think that was about morality; it was more about courage. If you lie you do it because at some level you're afraid.

He was so honest. When he was a kid he lived on a farm and would ride his bike to a store that was a couple of hours away to buy sweets. One day he got home and realized he'd gotten too much change. He rode back to the store to give the change back. The day he told me that I thought I'm not that honest; I'd have kept the money. It really worried me for ages. Years later I realized that if I really had been dishonest by nature it wouldn't have bothered me...

When I was about ten or eleven I was terrified that my parents would break up and I wouldn't know who to live with. I couldn't bear to lose either of them. Dad found me curled up on my bed, crying my heart out. He sat on the bed with me and held me so fiercely. He promised that he would never leave me. Never! 

Just before he died he came to visit my mother, who I was living with at the time. They were separated by then and I was 30. I walked Dad to the car. He worried that he hadn't been a good father. I hugged him and told him fiercely that he was a wonderful father, the best in the world. The memory of his face as it lit up with a relief that couldn't quite dispel the doubt is etched in my mind. Not too long after that I was house-sitting and I put on Faure's Requiem. The thought ran through my head "I'm playing this for somebody who's going to die." 

But I didn't know who. I invited Dad round and cooked him his favorite supper. He loved it and I told him again that I loved him. Within a few weeks he was dead. My world ground to a halt. I didn't know where he'd gone, I couldn't feel him. I thought I would never be happy again. Ever. Those were dark days. 

Then one sunny spring day I was riding my bike. Suddenly I felt a surge of joy. And just like that Dad was back. He's never left me since.  

Below is a photo of the plane he flew in World War II. He was a navigator. He loved flying! He would have been a pilot if his eyes had passed the test. Since he couldn't, he took the next best thing. The best lemonade-maker I've ever met. He was an accountant by trade and hated every minute of it but had too many commitments to study anything else.

He wanted to design and build bridges. Grand, graceful ones that spanned huge rivers and canyons. You'll do it, Dad. In another lifetime, and you'll get to be the pilot. And I plan to be there with you.  

We're similar in so many ways, except that I had a better father than he did. He was musical, loved singing and playing accordion, and was a truly brilliant cartoonist. He had such a big heart and pleasure in life! People liked him, but he was quite shy; terrified of women! He told me once that he never had a lot of close friends; one was always enough for him and sometimes he didn't have that either.

Me too, Dad. I beat myself up about it until I think of you and remember that in my eyes it doesn't make you a lesser person. 

I sit thinking about him and doing so fills me with an ache that’s hard to bear, but also with a gladness and a rejoicing. He was a beautiful man. A courageous one. That's my Dad! His family left him out of a family history and his mother's family tree. But that isn't what determines the truth. He wasn't known and loved by many but that isn't what determines a person's stature. He honored me as his child, as he did all of us Stewart kids. He was my father and I was his daughter. He still is and I still am. And it will always be so.