Family Connections: Disappointment

In the interview that follows, essayist Valerie Poulin talks about the series of essays in which she documented the connection she feels to her father’s past, and the mystery that she wanted to solve.

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“I now realize that judgements we make about others are usually wrong and always irrelevant and based on what one wants.”

— H.G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights

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In a series of connected essays you write about being a disappointment to him. In  another you illustrate the tour similarities, and in a third you talk about replicating souvenirs. Is that what you set out to write?

Well, no. I’d set out to write about trying to shield my son from disappointment, but the essay was unfocussed because it trying to do too many things. It went in too many directions and became unmanageable. After a few attempts, I realized a series of essays worked best.

So you cut the one essay into five separate of creative non-fiction?
Yes.

And at the heart of all of them is your father, or your relationship with your father.
Yes.

Can we talk about that?
Sure. The simple answer is I wanted my son to see his grandfather in a better light, beyond my crappy childhood. It was also a way to honour him, posthumously, in a way that I had not done when he was alive.

And the more difficult answer?
Well, to illustrate, I will use a passage I cut:

There’s not much I knew about my father’s life before me. I had questions for as long as I could recall about his time spent playing hockey long before I was born. It seemed mysterious because he never talked about it. Then again, I never asked. Instead, I spent years blaming him for my insufficient childhood, creating a story that his unsuccessful hockey career was at the root his disappointment, thus his alcoholism, ergo my insufficient childhood.

It was, and is, a child’s viewpoint.

You’ve written about the results of researching your father’s hockey history. Tell us about the journey.
I started years ago when working on my family tree just after my son was born then picked it up again after a trip to Europe with my son’s minor hockey team.

On the trip, I bought souvenirs that replicated the ones my father brought home from overseas, and I realized his past still had a hold on me, so I re-read newspaper articles — dispatches really — from the team’s tour through Sweden, and his travel journal and the postcards he sent home. From that, I mapped out the tour then created a travel blog like that one I’d created for my son’s team, adding photos and commentary.

I had hoped that the trip would connect my son with my father, and provide my son and I with a shared experience, and it did, but the writing I did as a result of the trip connected me with my father.

Let’s talk first about why you started the research.
I re-created my father’s hockey tour to learn what I didn’t know.

My father did not talk about the season he spent playing overseas, and he died before my son was born, so I was gathering information to offer my hockey-playing son seemed something more than just a cautionary tale. It became an offering.

I wanted to understand the series of events that resulted in his being sent home. I knew that it wasn’t his decision — he was traded to a team, then cut and sent home with just eight weeks left in the season (he was bumped out of the line-up by a returning hometown hero and cut early to save a few bucks; it was political, and it stank) — but there was an air of mystery around the subject, and I wanted to know why he didn’t continue to play. Of course, now I know that junior hockey restricts the age of its players to 21.

I thought if I could learn the circumstances that stopped my father from playing low-level, semi-pro hockey, I could watch for warning signs, I could help my son through the disappointments if something similar happened to him during his junior hockey career.

I believed that my father’s experience negatively affected his outlook in life, and changed the course of his life.

You felt your father was a failure?
Hmmm. Well, yes and no. I learned it was disappointment about not becoming the best he could be. In the same way, I felt that I had not. He seemed to coast through life after a series of disappointments, and I don’t know if that is really fair of me to say because I don’t know that it’s true.

How does disappointment fit into the theme of your fifth, and unfinished essay in the series?
Initially, I wanted to understand my father’s lack of success in professional hockey. I believe it broke him. If I could understand the reasons why he did not continue playing beyond the one year playing abroad, if I could pinpoint the moment, I could guard against any disappointment my son might face.

This was not an experience I wanted for my son. And yet, there it was.

Was it a matter of your father not being good enough?
I don’t know for sure. And I guess I was trying to figure out that, too. Again, it would help me because I was raised to believe that talent is inherited, and if my father believed that talent is fixed, it would haven taken a negative event — or a series of events — being scratched, traded, sent home – would have been validation to him that he was not good enough.

Somewhere along the way, I learned the differences between talent and ability, talent and skill. One you’re born with, one you learn, and one is a mix of the two. Even with that trifecta, you need opportunity, what is commonly referred to as luck.

I do member my grandmother telling me that my dad had changed, that he was different when he returned home.

Different how?
She never said, although I asked once, or twice, in letters I wrote to her, but we never spoke about it again.

I can only guess that it was a combination disappointment over the end of his hockey career and possibly embarrassment, and possibly shame, over being cut from the team and sent home. He was just shy of his 21st birthday, so going home may have seemed unappealing. Plus, there was likely lingering sadness; his brother had died only a year before he left for overseas.

Were there any surprises, or epiphanies as a result of your research?
Part of the research, although I did not know it at the time, was reading memoirs of professional hockey players, and two passages, from two books, really stood out.

In his memoir, Detroit Red Wings defender Darren McCarty wrote about the loss of a beloved mentor: “I often think about my late stepfather, Craig. . . . His death changed my life in so many ways. My grandfather and Craig were the two father figures I had in my life . . . those were the two men in my life who could hold me accountable. They were the two men who could guide me toward the right line of thinking. When Craig died I was left with only women trying to tell me what to do. I needed a role model to help me through my issues.”

From a letter my father wrote to himself to express grief after his brother’s death, I know that my father felt the same way. He lost his mentor. And his father became estranged from the family.

Similarly, Bob Probert wrote: “My whole life, all my dreams and aspirations revolved around hockey,” he wrote. “I lost my identity.”

I imagine that my father may have also identified as a hockey player, maybe first and foremost, and I wonder if he ever got over the disappointment.

Were there other lessons?
I learned that any comparison of my son’s future to my father’s past is unfair. Their hockey paths were very different. At the junior level they diverge. My son’s athletic talent may be inherited, talent and ability may be in his DNA, but his perseverance, commitment, and his strong will belong to him, and to him alone.

I would unable to save my son from disappointment.

Let’s talk a little about the writing process. You published the first essay in 2014, but you wrote it in 2011?
Sometimes it takes a while to sort through information emotionally, to make sense of it. And what it means on a personal level. In 2015, I put together a website similar to the one I created for our trip with my son (2012–13). I’d had all these artifacts for several years before I sorted and read them. Three more essays came out of that original draft: one each in July 2015, February 2016, and January 2017.

If I look back at the rough draft in November 2007, I wrote an essay titled “Remembering the Dead” based on something I read in my son’s school work. He had never met my father, so the words, “I miss my grandpa” intrigued me, and I began to think about the stories I’d told in an attempt to connect him with the grandfather he never knew.

After that trip, I traced his travels through personal photographs that marked his trip across the ocean, through postcards, newspaper clippings, and a journal he kept bought in January 1953. I used this paraphernalia to create a timeline and the timeline helped me to see beyond the statistics.

Did it help you see “beyond the statistics?”
Yes. It helped me to understand how similar the experience would have been to the hockey my son was playing at the time. Living in the hockey world with my son helped me to understand the disappointment my father would have faced. And based on what I knew of the circumstances of his family life – dead brother, estranged from father – I understood how a young man would be devastated when his dream was taken away. Then I realized that it may not even have been his dream to play hockey professionally. Although, it seemed like it was, I don’t know that for certain.

What I do know is that I felt as if he were a failure, and I was disappointed that he was not good enough to play hockey professionally because for a long time I felt as if my childhood would have been better, but who’s to say?

Did much of that first draft remain in the series?
That rough draft was just thoughts and ideas. From that I created a 3,100-word essay in 2011 called “Family Connections.” The essay expanded and contracted through several drafts before I separated topics in 2013. Out of the came “Photographs,” “Death,” “Souvenirs,” and “Precis.” The one I still struggle with is titled Disappointment. I don’t think I will ever finish it because I carry the last line with me, always.

Will you share the last line with us?
“In the end, I realized that it wasn’t that I was afraid he’d turn into my father. I was afraid that he would turn into me.”

One in a series. See Family Connections: Death, Family Connections: Photographs, Family Connections: Souvenirs, and Family Connections: Precis.