The Treasure Chest

January 7, 2019

Screen shot 2019-01-07 at 5.55.00 PMA few years ago the National Post published my five-part series about my childhood and my father’s stint in state prison in California. I could not have written the stories without a remarkable trove of correspondence that my father let me read, not just letter to him but also letters from him in prison and out; letters that somehow ended up back in his hands. I started imagining what else might lie in his “archives;” specifically, I wondered what records he kept of the early 1970s, when he acted as a minor svengali/messiah, or perhaps the metaphor I seek is pied piper, enticing droves of young people to join him on first one farm and then another in the Ottawa valley for two summer craft faire hippie communes that he called “the Renaissance Faire.” I spent the summer of 1972 and the summer of 1973 at these farms.

In May, 2018, about six weeks before Paul, my father, died, I told him of my interest in reading his archives. He said, “My advice: don’t.”

My father died in June. In October most of his ten children gathered on a cold Thanksgiving weekend on his farm and, in a drafty building he called “The Mill House” (it being near a hill where he had at one time erected one of his vertical axis wind turbines) we divided my father’s meagre possessions. I got a table, a decent down jacket from L.L. Bean (I still wonder how that got into my father’s hands) and a cedar chest full of papers.

Screen shot 2019-01-07 at 5.55.38 PMThe chest itself, which my father built, is remarkable. At some point along his journey as a carpenter, renovator and furniture builder, Paul chose to ditch right angles; in fact, he pretty much let go of straight lines altogether. He collected and assembled pieces of western red cedar driftwood kind of like abstract puzzles; the resultant pieces are about one third furniture and two thirds art.

The chest is like that too. It bulges a bit, like a beluga whale, and has a hinge that runs the full length of the lid, and two pieces of driftwood as handles. The chest sits on casters, and my father used to roll it in and out from under his bed.

Insofar as I sought details of sex, drugs, crime and punishment among the jumble of papers and hand-stitched journals contained in the chest, I came away disappointed. Mind you, I haven’t finished going through the stuff. It’s living in my barn right now. On New Year’s Day, I sat in the shelter of the barn, warmed by the afternoon sun, and perused the papers a bit. To my shock I discovered it’s mostly stuff that he collected from his kids. Yes, there was a letter from Paul’s co-conspirator from 1969, later arrested in Europe for smuggling. He wrote from a Swiss prison (which he describes as a cozy place), asking Paul to come visit and noting that, were Paul a woman, “we could ball.” My father saved lots of photos of his wind turbines. He also saved a thick sheaf of blue air mail envelopes: lettters that Paul wrote to his mother in Holland when he first came to Canada in the mid-1950s. She saved the letters and at some point gave them back to him. They are from places like Port Alberni, B.C. They are in Dutch; I cannot read them.

But mostly he saved letters and drawings by his children. There’s one little storybook by one of my sisters, done when she was perhaps six. The plot goes something like this: There were some wolves and they decided to eat a family of pigs, but then they didn’t. In short, a happy ending.

Anyway, it turns out that the old reprobate was a bit of a softy and was stockpiling all this stuff, including both editions of the ill-fated underground newspaper I published in high school, called “The Cucumber — Organic Satisfaction.” The first issue I printed on a Gestetner; my father bankrolled the printing of the second edition on an offset press; Leroy Beales, the vice-principal at my high school, seized the print run and burnt it, but apparently a few copies survived — in my father’s chest.

Paul also saved a short story written by a grand-daughter, as well as my blistering four-page letter from 1998 listing in detail the ways he had failed me as a father. Luckily, I mostly sent him happy, cheerful letters, and he saved them all. He was rarely around when I needed him, but clearly, in his own way, he cared deeply about his offspring.