Review: Tubas & Ketchup Bottles

Popular culture is rich in metaphors for mothers as life-giving and delightful, with scant mention of the other biologically necessary parent. The few that exist are mean: Father Time (mortality), Fatherland (Nazi Germany), Old Man Winter, etcetera.

Groucho Marx said for all the Tin Pan Alley sheet music written in tribute to moms a century ago, he could recall a single dedication to dads entitled Everybody Works But Father. The lyrics went like this: “Mother takes in washing/so does sister Ann/Everybody works in our house’/but my old man.”

Into the breach steps Montréal novelist Heather O’Neill with Wisdom In Nonsense: Invaluable Lessons From My Father, a warm and funny collection of memories of O’Neill’s dad, a single parent. O’Neill beautifully recounts the point in all our young lives when the centre of a child’s universe is the space occupied by a dominant parent. Even trivial recollections attain mythological stature: dining on Pepsi in teacups, and Jell-O in a champagne glass, and delicious cubes of Camembert cheese Father O’Neill shoplifted from the local groceteria.

“My dad was determined to take care of me properly,” writes O’Neill. “He made pancakes and cookies and sewed my clothes. He was actually really good at that. He was a little worse at what he regarded as an integral part of parenting: the dispensing of advice. But nonetheless, it was one of his favourite things to do.”

Father O’Neill was a maintenance man whose world view was shaped by manual labour and minor brushes with the law. Never keep a diary, he told Heather; they’ll just use it against you in court. Play with Jewish kids because they’re going places, and if you must pick an instrument in music class, choose the tuba.

“He said the world didn’t have enough tuba players, and, thus, there would always be a shortage,” writes O’Neill. “You could always get a job if you played the tuba. I was very worried about being able to earn a living.” At school, O’Neill looked longingly at the tuba “as though it were a fat millionaire in a tailored suit who would take care of me the rest of my life.” Heather was assigned the trumpet instead, and wept.

Father resented Paul Newman deeply, personally, as a talentless, pretty-boy Hollywood poseur whose life was blessed with dumb luck. “He steamed the labels off old bottles of Paul Newman salad dressing and filled them with a perfect mixture of oil and vinegar and spice,” writes O’Neill. “But he hadn’t made a cent off it. Where was the justice?”; “Sometimes the doorbell would ring out of the blue and I would be terrified that it was Paul Newman at the door, coming to stir things up.”

On birthdays, Father gave Heather unsigned NSF cheques. “They represented not what he could give me, but what he wanted to give me,” she writes.

If caught in a bar fight, grab a ketchup bottle, Father advised: “It is inconspicuous in your hand and creates high drama when it smashed against someone’s head.”

Never tell Teacher what your dad does for a living, since it is nobody’s business: “He told me to tell the teacher that he was a spy and therefore all the required information was classified. The gym teacher asked me if it was true that my father was a spy. I looked down at my burgundy running shoes. ‘I’m not at liberty to say,’ I responded.”

“By teaching me to lie about who I was, my dad instilled in me the notion that the differences were actually superficial,” writes O’Neill. “They were just outward trappings. And if you were to change coats with a rich person, then you would immediately become one.”

Look up Wisdom In Nonsense. Buy it. Give it to your own father. He will understand, and it will bring you closer.

By Holly Doan

Wisdom in Nonsense: Invaluable Lessons from My Father, by Heather O’Neill; University of Alberta Press; 64 pages; ISBN 9781-77212-3777; $11.95

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