My dad was famous. Not a big, crazy kind of famous, but in Winnipeg he was a big fish in a little pond. He’d taken over half a million photographs in his lifetime, images of his hometown. Shots of the city, the museums, the zoo and the nature preserves. Pictures of City Hall and the theatre district. Boats at the Forks market. Assiniboine Park, with its duck ponds and English gardens. If you ever saw a postcard or tourism poster for Winnipeg or Manitoba, or ever read a MacLean’s magazine or Canadian Geographic magazine, you’ve seen my dad’s creations.
He'd started his life’s work when he was only 14 years old, living in the North End. A local pharmacist fixed up an old camera for my dad and told him to go take some pictures of the neighbourhood. He went out and photographed the familiar people and places around him and returned to the pharmacist, who then taught him how to develop the film and print the images onto thick photographic paper. Dad sold his creations to kids at school, who would mail them to the soldiers fighting the war overseas. They were postcards from home, reminders of who they were defending, and what they were coming home to.
That was the start of his obsession. His desire to capture and share the world as he viewed it through the camera lens became his life’s calling. From that point on, it was all ever he wanted to do, and it’s all he ever did.
We kids got to do a lot of un-ordinary things. We explored a lot of places in dad’s quest for the next picture. We’d climb rocks and hike down shale filled river beds. We explored gravel pits and construction sites. We went to a lot of festivals, mostly country fairs and fall markets. We always arrived too late for the free apples or to see the kids shows, as dad had to stop to get another shot of sunflowers against the bright blue autumn sky, or needed to get a picture of the dilapidated barn because the light was just at the right angle.
Seems to me we did a lot of waiting. Waiting for the light. Waiting for the dark. Waiting for dad to set up his equipment on Christmas morning. Waiting for dad to take the picture as we smiled and tried to not pose for the camera, because he wanted us to look natural, but feeling like a poser all the same.
When dad suffered his first stroke, he’d been in the process of sorting through all the photographs packed up in metal boxes and wooden crates in the basement studio of his home. The University of Manitoba wanted to archive all his commercial photographs, so they’d sent over a team of summer students to help categorize, date and package the nearly half a million photographs, slides, and negatives he’d accumulated over the years.
Dad was in his glory, getting the chance to relive his life, image by image, with a new, young audience. They spent hours down there, digging through the photos, sorting them into different categories of professional versus personal. Architectural shots, photos of parks and nature. Birds and animals. Pictures of the interior of museums, pictures of the exterior of museums. Cityscapes, landmarks, and images of long-gone department stores and buses and scads of pedestrians crossing Portage and Main. Endless images of hoar-frost and sunflowers and golden sheaths of wheat against blue or sunset orange skies.
We were at the Dauphin Ukrainian Festival when we first noticed the changes in dad’s behaviour, and it was kind of downhill from there. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, dad was in the hospital, and on Christmas morning, he died.
People were kind. There was a story on the TV news that evening. We were invited out to a party, which we went to because we didn’t know what else to do. We kept to ourselves mostly, but accepted the graciousness of our hosts and the other guests. I noticed no one said merry Christmas to us. Mom never liked Christmas anyway, and now she had a legitimate and forgivable reason.
My mom, sister, brother and I all took on different roles; we planned the funeral and memorial service, got the financial papers in order and made sure my mom was comfortable and safe.
Remnants of dad’s working life kept popping up. He’d been working on a book about Manitoba, a sequel to his book on Winnipeg. His friends took on the task of finishing it off for him, choosing the best pictures and presenting it to the publishing company that had commissioned the work.
Mom got a phone call one morning in February; the caretaker of a senior citizen’s block in St. Boniface called to ask if Henry was going to come pick up the photography equipment he’d left on the roof last October. Mom went down and retrieved it.
The students came over and took away all the boxes of photographs; they’d finish sorting them at the university and return any they didn’t want at the end of the project.
All there was left to do was pack up the darkroom and office, a task that I took on. I’d assisted in their moves before, once from the old house to the new, and again from the old warehouse office on Wall Street to the new office, here in their home in St. Vital. I still came across unopened boxes with a description of the contents written in my handwriting. Magazines and old office supplies, mostly.
I diligently separated the junk from the jewels, packing each box and labeling it with a description of its contents, and stacking it against the wall. Pens, pencils, rulers, ink, typewriter parts, magnifying glasses, phone lists, business cards, even reminder notes about how to spell the words ‘four, forty, and fourteen’ and a question about God, written on curling yellow post-it notes, had to be placed in its final resting place; keep, donate or discard.
There were prints, negatives and transparencies everywhere; on the desk, on the drawing table, or hung on the walls. Many were just randomly tucked away behind things in his workspace; photographs that were not quite important enough to be at the front and centre, but rather something he’d get to when he got the chance.
His cameras dated back to his earlier days, although that first one, donated by the well-meaning pharmacist, must’ve been long gone. These were mostly Pentax and Canons; much too modern to be of any historical significance, but surely, someone would want them. Maybe. The days of film and chemicals were on the brink of becoming obsolete, the newfangled digital cameras were yet to become affordable or even attainable.
The darkrooms and studios were a challenge. The trays and tongs and tripods were easy to sort; those would be sold or donated to the Winnipeg Photo Club. The opaque brown bottles of mysterious chemicals and the unlabeled pastes and powders confounded me, however, as did the flat yellow and black boxes that I dared not open, lest they contain sensitive photographic paper, easily ruined under the glare of the harsh fluorescent lights. I’d give the boxes a shake, trying to determine their contents, and if I still felt unsure, I’d take them to the darkroom, close the door, turn off the lights and open them under the safe, familiar glow of the red light.
The task didn’t take as long as some would expect. I had become very proficient at packing over the years, and although there were so many memories to wade through, I somehow found myself being rather clinical about the process. I’d save the nostalgia for another day. Right now, the task at hand was getting the basement cleared out so that my mother could come downstairs to do the laundry without crying. I had to make it okay for her.
I was nearing the end of the project; I’d sorted the important things, and was working on ‘the stuff’, the inconsequential, ordinary things that we all acquire over a lifetime, when we got a call from the University.
“We would like to get some shots of the space Henry used if that’s okay. Pictures of the darkroom, his office, the warehouse. That kind of thing. I can come over on Friday if that works for you.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I’d… No. Scratch that. It wasn’t about not wanting to disappoint the curator or feeling excessively obligated to fulfill her request, but rather, I wanted to honour my dad’s memories. I thought of the pictures I’d seen of famous people’s workspaces with their chalkboards and tools, and realized that, although he was only my father, he also had a place in the public history books, at least those in his small pond.
So, without a word, I rebuilt my dad’s studio space. I unpacked the cameras and office supplies. I re-stacked the yellow and black boxes in the dark room. I placed the mysterious brown bottles back on the shelves, and scattered the wayward photographs and transparencies around the table, trying to arrange them the way I’d first found them. I dug the yellow post-it notes out of the garbage can and stuck them back on the wall over the typewriter. I rebuilt my dad’s life.
It was harder than dismantling it. I was no longer saying goodbye, I was hopelessly resurrecting him, pretending he was still alive but knowing it wasn’t so. I had packed away the memories of the life I’d had with my dad; from the earliest recollections of sitting with him in the darkroom in the basement of our first house, or waiting patiently for him to come home from a photo shoot in order to complete the family circle for supper. Visiting him in the dimly lit, black walled work area with its overflowing ashtrays and grungy coffee-ringed cups that probably hadn’t been washed in weeks. Having to knock on the door of the secret hideaway he called his darkroom; the private place where we weren’t allowed to go.
And it was into the private place of his mind that I had to enter in order to recreate the office. I hadn’t paid much attention to the details when I’d packed things up; I’d just simply put them away. I’d silently and neatly packed up the memories of two lifetimes; mine and his.
Now, in the unpacking, I finally mourned.
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