My Own Importance

My mother and father got married the day the Hindenburg fell from the sky in flaming fragments, May 6, 1937. I was born a month later and shortly after that the marriage burned up just like the Hindenburg.

Life was difficult for my mother and me. The Depression was on and work was hard to find, especially for a young woman with a baby. My father had disappeared the way handsome men often do (according to my mother) and she was left pretty much to fend for herself. We ended up in a boarding house in Ottawa run by a woman named Dolly, where my mother did the cleaning and laundry in exchange for room and board for the two of us. She got a dollar a week for ironing men's shirts and another dollar for cooking dinner on Saturdays and Sundays. I, of course, was blissfully unaware of the hard times. There was always someone around who wanted to play with the baby and I always got plenty of attention. By the time I was two, I was pretty spoiled, but Dolly, who loved me like I was her own child, would never let my mother take a firm hand with me. Consequently, I had a huge sense of my own importance.

We stayed in Dolly's house until I was ten years old, when my mother married Mr. Perkins and we went to live in a bungalow on the other side of town. Mr. Perkins had been in the war and walked with a limp. He had been in the Air Force in England and had decided to come to Canada when the war was over because that's where the future was.

"England's the past," he used to say in his English accent, "and Canada's the future." He talked like that all the time. He didn't just say things, he proclaimed them. "You'll never amount to anything if you don't work at it," he'd proclaim. "Nobody ever hands you anything on a silver platter."

"He's so boring," I'd tell my mother after one of his lectures. "I know dear," she'd say, but he's good to us." And I could tell by her face that she longed for a handsome, exciting and unreliable man like my father. That was her weakness. I could see in the few photographs she had of the two of them that she had adored him. It wasn't until I was in my teens that I realized she blamed me for losing him.

In 1953 I turned sixteen and the Americans tested an atomic bomb in the Nevada desert that was twice as powerful as the one at Hiroshima. I decided I'd better try and find my father before it was too late.

It took me three years but I finally found him in Toronto living under a different name. I was amazed to discover that he was everything I had dreamed he would be. He had become rich through his partnership with an enterprising friend who owned a truck. They had used the truck to haul anything anywhere and in time they owned a fleet of trucks and hired other people to do the driving and the hauling. He was even more handsome than I was led to expect from the faded photograph I had of him that I kept carefully wrapped in tissue paper in my purse. He lived in a large house in Rosedale and was poised to marry the daughter of a federal cabinet minister.

I didn't have any idea how I was going to approach him. It had taken me a long time to find him and I had been so preoccupied with the search, I hadn't given much thought to our actual meeting. That's not true. I had imagined it a thousand times. I would knock on the door; he would open it and immediately recognize me. I would be working in a shop or restaurant and he would come in and see me and would know instantly who I was. I would be in hospital, very ill and in need of an urgent operation. He would be a surgeon, the only person in the world who could save me. I had played these scenarios in my head so many times I had come to believe that he was looking for me as hard as I was looking for him.

I had traced him to his second wife, Billie, through his army records. He had married her in 1942, just before he went overseas and had lived with her only briefly after his discharge in 1945. She told me they had grown apart because when he came back from the war he wasn't the same man she had married. She was surprised he had a daughter, she said, because he'd never mentioned me. Billie told me he'd gone to Winnipeg to work for the railroad and she hadn't seen him since.

In Winnipeg I got a job at Woolworth's and went to the library and looked for his name in old phone directories. I couldn't find a listing for him and figured he had probably lived in a rooming house and didn't have his own phone. I called the CNR to see if he still worked there but apparently he had only been with them for six months. I didn't know what to do next.

Then one day the personnel lady from CNR phoned me up. Her name was Miriam and she told me she remembered the man I was looking for. She had dated him for a while, she said, and thought he was a real dreamboat. "He was so good looking," she said, "I knew he'd take off sooner or later." It turned out to be sooner and she said she hoped he hadn't broken my heart the way he'd broken hers. I told her he had, in a way, and she advised me not to go after him. "He's not the kind that sticks, Honey," she said. But I told her I needed to find him. She sighed heavily and told me she'd heard he'd gone to Toronto with a buddy of his.

The next day I quit my job at Woolworth's and moved to Toronto. I found a job in a dress shop on Yonge Street and continued my search. I began taking long walks in the hope of seeing him on the street. My eyes would scan the faces I passed the way a merchant looks through a peddler's wares, taking note of everything, knowing exactly what I wanted. I became good at noticing details and sometimes surprised my boss, a shrewd woman who knew her customers' needs better than they did. "She'd look better in the blue," I'd suggest, out of earshot of the customer, or, "That hat's too big for her face." More often than not, she'd agree with me and would persuade the lady to buy the item. Her name was Elspeth and she liked the way I didn't try to steal the limelight from her.

Elspeth was sympathetic to my plight, but she told me she had misgivings. She tried in subtle ways to discourage me from searching for my father.

"What if you find him and discover you don't like him?" she asked me one day between customers.

"What could there be not to like?" I responded. "He's my father."

"He might not be a very nice person," she suggested.

"But I'm his daughter," I replied obtusely, as if details of character were completely irrelevant in kindred relationships.

Elspeth continued to educate me in the ways of ladies' retail and I started to follow fashion in a pretty serious way. I devoured magazines, spending most of my meager salary on them. On my days off I went to the movies, mostly to watch glamorous stars like Lana Turner and Ava Gardner wearing fabulous clothes. But a day didn't go by that I didn't think about my father.

I had been working in the dress shop for nearly a year when Elspeth showed me a picture she had cut out of the weekend paper. "Look," she said, "it's Margaret Featherstone. She's getting married."

Margaret Featherstone was a customer of ours who always bought the best and had it altered by inches to fit her slender form. Her father was a widowed cabinet minister and she often bought evening clothes to wear to government functions. The photograph showed her and her new fiancé, a well-to-do businessman named Daniel Bell.

I stared at the face of Daniel Bell and knew I was looking at my father. I ran to the back room to find my purse and pulled out the tissue-wrapped photograph. "It's him," I whispered, the words catching in my throat like a chicken bone.

"It's who?" asked Elspeth, thinking I had lost my mind.

"It's my father," I insisted, pointing to the faded photograph. "Daniel Bell is my father."

"Well I'll be," she said.

The next day Margaret Featherstone came into the store and showed Elspeth a picture of Grace Kelly in her wedding dress. She had married Prince Rainier of Monaco a month earlier dressed in a silk gown with a high-necked beaded top and a long veil attached to a beaded cap that hugged her head with three pointed scallops. It was exquisite.

"That's what I want," she said. "Can you find it for me?"

"Of course," said Elspeth. "That's what I'm here for."

I stared at Margaret with new eyes. This was the woman who was going to marry my father. She was barely twenty-six years old and I knew he was over forty. She seemed very elegant and mature to my young eyes, but I realize, thinking back, that it was a combination of polished artifice and presumption that passed for experience and that, at the time, she was no wiser than I in my twentieth year.

Elspeth and I plunged into the search for "the dress" and I searched for a way to approach Daniel Bell. Phoning him seemed too impersonal; whereas going to his house seemed too personal, an invasion of his privacy. Writing him a letter was out of the question; my handwriting was terrible and would make a bad impression. Going to his office was out because it would be inappropriate and potentially embarrassing.

I hung on every word Margaret Featherstone said whenever she came in for a fitting. A dress had been found and the trousseau was being assembled. She talked about the parties and the showers and the wedding plans, but she never mentioned the fact that Daniel had a grown daughter or that he wanted her to come to the wedding.

"You're like a sick puppy whenever she's around," Elspeth told me. "You should see yourself."

I knew she didn't mean to be unkind; she was just trying to protect me from my own misery. But I was having none of it. I knew my quest was nearing its end and that I was soon to be reunited with my father.

The wedding was scheduled for the sixth of October. On the first of October, Elspeth and I took a taxi to Margaret Featherstone's house to deliver "the dress." We were both flushed with excitement as we rang the doorbell and listened to her approaching footsteps. Margaret answered the door and with great glee ushered us into the foyer. She looked over her shoulder and called out, "Come give us a hand, Daniel. But you mustn't look in the boxes. It's bad luck."

And suddenly there he was. Tall, handsome, graceful as a leopard, striding across the polished marble floor like he didn't have a care in the world.

"Dad, it's me," I blurted, my words trumpeting through the large foyer like a pre-dawn battle cry.

He froze like an ice carving, in mid-motion. He seemed flabbergasted. To this day, it's the only word I can think of that's ridiculous enough to describe what I saw.

"Mary?" he said, his voice almost lost in disbelief. He looked like a drowning man. I heard what sounded like a whimper or a bleat from a dying sheep emerge from Margaret's throat. They were both staring at me like I had just stepped out of a space ship.

"Yes," I said. It was the only thing I could think of to say. Time seemed to be standing still for all of us. Finally, Margaret broke the spell.

"Well," she said. "Well, well, well." I shivered at the icy tone of her voice. My father was still frozen, the last syllable of my name hanging from his open mouth

Elspeth somehow managed to get us out of there. I remember a flurry of dropped boxes and somebody saying "goodbye." I think it was Elspeth. Or maybe it was Margaret. My father's image seemed to fade to nothingness as if obscured by a shadow passing over him. I never saw him again.

The next day a small announcement appeared in the paper canceling the wedding. A few days later, Margaret Featherstone sailed for Europe alone on her canceled wedding day.

My father must have found Toronto too small a place after that because soon the Rosedale house was up for sale and he had disappeared once again.

Elspeth was good enough to let me keep my job. We never spoke of my father again or the events of that day. I think she blamed herself a bit for not having seen what was coming.

We eventually relocated the shop to a large mall in the west end of the city. A few of our customers followed us but that kind of loyalty doesn't really exist anymore. Nobody seems to have time these days for the personal touch, the details. Most people are only interested in a bargain.