Ray’s Daughter: The Diving Helmet – Part 2

IMG_3463_2Link:  The Diving Helmet – Part 1

My brother Bert is a sensitive soul, and I love him for it. Our father’s helmet has drawn us closer together these past months. Our conversations usually centre around building some kind of a stand for it: we discuss special designs, what it should be made of, for example wood versus metal, and sometimes there is weeping involved. I’m not sure if it’s over sadness at what’s been lost, or happiness at what’s been found–perhaps a little of both. He was two years old when the accident happened.

I’ve taken to calling the helmet Dad. I picked him up on July 14th–the day of yet another in a series of celebratory and emotional family reunions last year, this time at my uncle Nel’s in Detroit. Two of my dad’s brothers and his two sisters were there, as well as numerous in-laws, nieces, one nephew, and many old friends of his. What was special this time was that all seven of my grandparents’ granddaughters were together for the very first time, three having travelled from the west coast with their mother, Aunt Nancy.  Memère and Pepère would have been so pleased. It was quite a crowd!

Throughout that hot, overcast July afternoon, I was introduced over and over again as “Ray’s daughter,” which was quite surreal to my ears. But what struck me the most was the reaction each and every time — the person’s jaw would go slack, their eyes would brighten, and they all more or less said the same thing, “I knew your dad! He was such a great guy, and what a story-teller!!! I could have listened to his stories all day long!” For the first time I was seeing him as much more than the vague, ghostly “daddy” of my five year old self. He was also a loved, respected, and much cherished brother and friend.

At about three o’clock I pulled out my black portfolio containing the intaglio and lithographic prints of my father in his diving suit, and we gathered in the large gazebo where a ceiling fan quietly rotated above our heads. First I showed the copper plates and explained the etching process, then I described the printing process while pulling out each print and laying it on the table. My audience was rapt. At one point, an old friend of the family exclaimed, “Oh my God, that’s him!!! It’s him!!!” I ended this show-and-tell by giving prints to each of my father’s four siblings as thanks for their warmth and generosity, and later gave a special hand-coloured one to my uncle Mark who could not attend because he is ill and frail. I sure wish my three brothers could have been there, but as our ancestors have known for eons, stories are magical and build a life of their own in our imaginations. And I am after all, Ray-the-story-teller’s daughter.

Later that afternoon I went with my aunt Gisele and two cousins over to aunt Diane and uncle Keith’s place. Several weeks prior, the family had decided to move the helmet from my uncle Mark’s over to Keith and Diane’s garage in preparation for my arrival. Uncle Keith had improvised a stand for it in the middle of the floor. The garage door was wide open when we pulled into the driveway, and I was relieved that our view was obstructed by several parked vehicles. Other family had already arrived and there seemed to be a lot of people milling around, chatting and having a good time. I had spent many sleepless nights fantasizing about this day and decided to dash into the house to get a drink, while shielding my eyes from catching any accidental glimpses. The first moment had to be right.

I was a bit of a wreck so Aunt Diane offered me a margarita, and my cousin Shelley, grasping the situation, went outside and gently and lovingly prepared the way for me. When the yard was finally clear, I slipped outside and slowly walked up to the garage, and to my father’s helmet. This long anticipated moment was better than I had imagined (thanks to uncle Keith’s thoughtfulness). I knelt, and we were finally face to face. I’m not sure how much time passed, but all I can say is that it was very special.

That evening Dad crossed the old Ambassador Bridge back to Canada nestled in the back seat between my cousin Karen and I. The view was spectacular. Once in Windsor, my cousin Mark carefully transferred him to the front passenger seat of my car, and secured the seat belt safely around him. The next day on the drive to North Bay I periodically rested my hand on his head and told him things. In the rearview mirror I could see my sweet dog Coco staring intently while cocking her head from side to side attempting to understand my words. Dad was finally coming home.

At the moment he is propped up on a pillow and blankets on the floor by my library shelves until we resolve the stand issue. Bert came down from Timmins in early September, and prior to his arrival I prepared a little shrine with photos, an old book our dad had made drawings in, candles, and a drape concealing the helmet so that he could take his time with the moment of unveiling. I had put a small LED light inside, and later we sat in the dark watching as a glow of colour gently changed from red to orange, green to aqua blue, indigo to violet, and back to red again. It was so perfect and beautiful!

Dad will be travelling to Timmins (his birthplace), where the plan is that he will spend a length of quality time with each of my brothers. As for me, the events of last year have had a life-altering effect. Many positive changes have occurred, but most importantly, I made the decision to move to Windsor to be closer to family. There is much catching up to do. What an exciting time, and what a year it’s been!


The Diving Helmet – Part 1

Ray (Intaglio Print)My father was a “deep sea” diver in the 1940s and 50s, trained by his father and uncle Ted in northern Ontario. I suppose they did it for fun, like searching for fabled sunken barges loaded with gold in cold dark lakes in the area, but they were also periodically hired by the Timmins police department to drag the Matagami River.

I try to imagine what it was like walking with leaden shoes on the bottom of a tea coloured lake. I see the little window grill in front of my face and hear my compressed lungs inhaling and exhaling rhythmically inside the bubble of a metal helmet. I imagine my father.

He left us far too early, at the age of 33, thrown from a turquoise 59 Chevy station wagon one stormy evening in Detroit. When I was old enough to read, I searched for him in his collection of books. I read John D. Craig’s Danger is my Business, and learned about tangled air hoses, the bends, and giant squid. I coveted that old book, with its yellowing deckled pages and brown cloth cover. It was the beginning of my appreciation for literature and yearning to travel to far away places. I was 10 years old.

Later, when I was studying intaglio printmaking at the University of Guelph, I searched for my father in old, frayed, black and white photographs and tried to capture him on copper plates in acid baths. I was 33 years old. It was the first time it occurred to me just how young he was when he died. I purchased a CD of Hank Williams greatest hits–his favourite music–and played it on repeat for months while I worked in my basement studio. It was a time of intense longing and creativity.

In the old photos of my young father in his torn and patched diving suit, there were no good views of his helmet in its entirety. It was important to include it in the portraits I was working on, so I searched the library for something that resembled my memory of it. In the early 60s, he had built a cement pool in our backyard and liked to walk on the turquoise floor in his suit. I was always fascinated with the helmet, which to me was like an enormous, exotic jewel. The print above is the result of my research, and I gave framed copies to my brothers.

Being the eldest in my family, I remember a lot about my father and his side of the family, but they all moved away and drifted into obscurity decades ago. Finally, after years of longing, imagining, and searching, I had quietly given up, but one of the most amazing things that could have happened materialized this year–my father’s two sisters reached out to find us.

I am an ecstatic and changed woman because of this unexpected reunion with my tribe. I also met two of my father’s brothers, one of whom resembles my father so much that it took my breath away. He is stricken with Alzheimers and frail, but he stood with much effort to embrace me, and said only one word, “Finally.” Yes, they remember me as a shy little girl, and I remember them as smiling young men and women, but ours is a bond of blood that survives the test of time. There are many cousins in this clan, including one who walked me to kindergarten… yes, this is a happy day indeed.

So… this is not the end of a story, but the beginning of a new chapter. And oh, about the helmet! My brother thought it was on display at a restaurant up north some years ago, and that it is now lost, but it turns out that one was my great-uncle’s helmet, and my father’s is in Detroit in my uncle’s garage. The family has decided to give it to me, and I’m going to pick it up next month! I’m so incredibly thrilled!!! I feel as though I’ve found the holy grail. And… I think this just might be the impetus for a new body of work that is formulating in my mind this very minute.

Read The Diving Helmet – Part 2 here.

My father is 17 years old here, and is standing with his father at a dive site.

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