Today is my Dad’s birthday. He would have been 78. I haven’t written about him very much. I’m not sure why. I think it’s because of the complicated relationship we had, and the complicated man that he was.
Leeland John Jarvis, known as John, was born in Harbour Buffet, Newfoundland. When I was a child, I remember hearing stories about how dad spent most of his time with his grandparents, I found out later that it was because my grandmother was physically and verbally abusive to him. They were a fisherman’s family, living on what my grandfather brought in. Everyone worked loading the fish, and cleaning and laying it out to dry on the flakes. Dad would tell of the times his hands were seized up from holding on the wheelbarrow handles for so many hours in the cold.
Dad suffered from motion sickness, and my grandfather was to have said: “You might as well stay in school my son, you’ll never make it as a fisherman like that.” Dad did stay in school, eventually going to St. John’s to study ministry at Queen’s College. He decided that was not where he was called and changed to Memorial University and became a teacher.
My parents married in 1963, and I was born a year later. My brother arrived in 1967, and my sister in 1969. Our family life was normal, and by that, I mean it was all I knew. As I get older, I realize that everyone has their own version of what that means, like movies playing in a multiplex theatre.
I loved spending time with my dad. We would go to a riding stable on Saturdays and he would walk beside me as I rode on my favourite horse. Dad and I would clash sometimes about how I didn’t have my school work done, or why I couldn’t focus or remember things that I was supposed to do. Years later we would have conversations about ADD, and how we realized we had that condition in common. We would also have great talks about Shakespeare’s plays, or the meanings of song lyrics, and what makes people tick. We never talked about the affairs he had, or the reasons he and mom were arguing.
When my parents told me that they were separating after 26 years of marriage, my first thought was “Good, it’s about time.” It took me years to accept my parents as people, and that they each did the best they could. They made decisions based on what they felt was the right thing to do.
As an adult, I learned more about Dad’s childhood, and how my grandmother would say that he was no good, and no one would ever want him. It made it easier to understand why he had to prove that everyone wanted him, and his low self-esteem. Being so poor growing up made having money very important. I should say having the appearance of having money was important because he was so often in debt up to his eyeballs. Appearances were important in other ways too. The right house in the right neighbourhood, the right clothes and cars. The perfect family.
I have never doubted that my dad loved me, and I know how much he loved my children. I am grateful for the legacy that he has left, and I am able to forgive the hurts. I see him in my kids, especially in Sean with his tendencies to motion sickness, and love of woodworking.
After Dad passed away, my stepmother gave me a folder of his writings. They are mostly poems, and I treasure them. I know he is with me when I sit down to write, and that my love of words comes from him.
Complicated and loving, imperfect and human. Happy Birthday, Daddy, I love you.