My Father was a Peacekeeper

 

My father has been dead for a long time. We still have his peacekeepers’ medal, a medal he cherished above all others. In a photo of him taken in 1963 when he was stationed on the Gaza Strip, the sleeves of his khaki army shirt are rolled up. He’s 45 years old, but his biceps are like strong twisted rope. He’s standing in front of a plaque with his name on it, shaking hands with the incoming camp sergeant major who would replace him at Rafah Camp.

While he was away, he sent us gifts: speckled sea shells, stuffed camel toys, a prayer book with a rich-grained cover made from the wood of an olive tree. In long letters, he described meeting the king of Jordan, floating in the Dead Sea, visiting the Holy City.

During the day, I was busy with school, but at night I worried about him. I’d sit in the living room watching the snow fall silently under the streetlight outside our Montreal flat. I thought about the desert. The sand. The heat. How far away he was.

Army life took my father from us often, but this year was his longest absence, and a challenge for my mother. She threw up into the toilet bowl every day; she was pregnant with my sister, born months before my father came home. Mom’s sisters took care of me and my two older brothers while she was in the hospital. I remember that time as the longest week of my childhood. Both parents gone. And Mom was different when she came home. She talked in a whisper about how my sister had a twin, but this twin was born a gnarled, misshapen corpse. She seemed sad, but didn’t stop hugging us close, loving us and our new baby with all her heart.

When my dad finally returned, he was different too. He shivered in a lawn chair on our porch in Montreal. He told us his blood was thin as water from living where it was one hundred degrees in the shade. He waved his arms around, a cigarette cupped in one fist, telling different stories from the ones he’d written to us. Stories about how he and his men got caught in a sandstorm while on patrol. About how camels kicked and spat at him. How the troops he commanded dropped from heatstroke under the boiling sun.

He had taken silent movies of the beauty of Jerusalem and other places he visited in the Middle East. He showed them to us, to our church group, at our school. When everyone grew tired of them, he set up his projector and white screen, pulled the blinds in the living room in the middle of the afternoon, and watched them alone.

He seemed more and more a stranger. We could tell there were things he wasn’t telling us. Darker things. He woke up from sleep screaming. He paced the hallway at night, growing more and more distressed.

He orbited our lives after that. He didn’t know how to get back into the family circle and we didn’t know how to help him cross the lonely divide.

This long-felt absence of my father was probably why, when I married and we had children, my favourite part of the day was the evening, all five of us home and together in our sunroom, the damp Ottawa snow falling softly onto the branches of the tall fir in our neighbour’s front yard. I’ve never experienced war. Or famine. Or homelessness. But still, I recognized the deep peace in those evenings, and am grateful for them still.

 

By: Theresa Wallace

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