Sunday, June 21, 2009


I've talked about everyone in my immediate family on this blog, except for my dad. Today being Fathers' Day, I think it's time to correct that omission.

Anton Halma ("Tony" to those who knew him well) was born in Yugoslavia in 1938 to a very large, very poor family. He grew up with eight siblings, and had seven others that died during their infancy and yet two more that were stillborn. The eight that he grew up with included just one brother and seven sisters. Having grown up with only a sister myself, and having now a family in which I am the only male member, I can testify that this fact, in itself, qualifies him for sainthood.

When the second world war engulfed Europe, Tony's family was forced to leave Yugoslavia. They immigrated to Austria, gypsy-style, in a horse-drawn wagon when he was just six years old.

The fact that he came from a family with neither money nor social standing always bothered Tony, not because of a desire for wealth but because the way in which he and his family were perceived by the surrounding community was important to him. If I learned only one thing from my father, it's that one cannot disassociate oneself from one's family. He always believed strongly that a person is judged largely by his or her family and, conversely, a person's actions reflect on his or her family. Because of this, he determined at an early age to rise above his modest pedigree.

This meant getting an education, even though his parents, being simple farming folk, didn't see the value in doing so. His father and mother felt that their childrens' time was better spent helping with the farming chores rather than learning "useless" facts at school.

It also meant staying mindful of his appearance and ensuring that his clothes were always clean and presentable. Again, because his family was so large and of such meagre means, his siblings' clothing was often stained, worn and even torn. Tony was fussier. Sometimes, after his mother washed his clothes, the shirt collars would come out somewhat rumpled. When they did, he would throw the shirts back into the laundry and insist that she do them again.

This is not to say that he didn't have a mischievous or even rebellious side. Many years later, he became a maintenance mechanic for a local manufacturing business. During the 1980's recession, the company fell on hard times. As always happens during such periods, the workers became somewhat jittery and rumors abounded. One day, just to exacerbate the situation, Tony and one of his workmates installed a little black box with a blinking red light just over the doorway in the company cafeteria. It did absolutely nothing but several of the workers predictably assumed that it was a closed-circuit camera which management was using to spy on its workforce. The whole thing mushroomed into a major incident before management had the offending black box removed. Needless to say, they never did learn who installed it. I learned this story from my mother, long after the fact. My father lead by example, and was not one to boast to his children about getting away with a silly prank that might have cost him his job, had he been caught.

Tony first met my mother on a ship when he was 17 years old and she was 14. She was on a school field trip with her classmates, and he was in his apprenticeship and traveling on work-related business. Mom and her classmates had strict instructions from their teacher not to fraternize with any strange boys but mom apparently ignored those instructions. She's still much like that today.

After that meeting, they didn't see each other again for five years, as she lived in Vienna and he in Styria and the two were a good six-hour train ride apart. He was apparently taken with her enough, however, that they continued to write each other for a while thereafter, although the letters became fewer and farther between as time passed. Still, five years later, he decided to visit her in Vienna. She had given him her address during their first meeting but the street name was long and not easily remembered (Antonjägergasse or something like that) but Tony remembered it. Fortunately, she had not moved in the meantime. The rest, as they say, is history.

A few years after he married my mother, Tony decided that he wanted a better future than Austria seemed to offer, so he began making plans to move to North America. Like many Europeans, he first considered the United States of America, but Canada's immigration policies proved friendlier and he wound up in Ontario. He came alone at first, and was followed shortly thereafter by his best friend, Adolf ("Adi") Malley. He left my mother and my sister and me behind in Austria because he didn't want to uproot his family until he was reasonably certain that things would work out.

He arrived in Toronto, destined for Kitchener but spent two days at the Toronto bus station because, since he didn't speak any English, he couldn't figure out at which platform he could find the bus to Kitchener. After two days, he finally bumped into someone who spoke his language and was able to point him in the right direction. Upon arriving in Kitchener, he almost didn't want to get off the bus because the first business he saw was called "Waterloo Trust", so he thought that he was in Waterloo. Someone had to reassure him that he was in the right town. Once in Kitchener, he stayed with some friends who already lived there until he could find a job and live independently.

This single aspect of my father's life has always been the most amazing to me. It must have taken an incredible amount of courage to leave his family and set out for a distant country where he had few contacts, no immediate prospects and couldn't even speak the language. Yet he did it, and succeeded. He and Adi found work, bought a two-story house together and then sent for their respective families. My family occupied the main floor of that house and the Malleys lived on the upper floor for five years after arriving in Canada, until the Malleys had finally saved up enough money to sell back their half of the property to dad and buy their own home.

Shortly after settling in Canada, Tony tried to start his own display sign business. He purchased stacks of bristleboard, both black and white, and pre-printed letters with adhesive backing. Any graphics that were needed he drew or painted by hand and, although he was no Rembrandt, he had a reasonable amount of artistic talent. Unfortunately, the sign business never quite took off and, several years later, I found myself with access to a large surplus of unused bristleboard, which I happily used for making models and posters and such.

Originally, my mother and father had not planned to stay in Canada indefinitely. They had thought to build their fortunes for five years and then return to Austria. After five years, however, Canada suddenly felt more like home than Austria did. They also hadn't considered my sister and me, who were in school by that time and had already become acclimatized to the Canadian way of life and had established our own friendships. They decided that it would be fair to us to uproot us and take us back to Austria which, by this time, was an alien culture to us.

In childhood, I never felt quite the same bond with my father as I did with my mother. Dad's parenting style was more or less "hands off". He was the breadwinner who went away to work every day and kept us fed, clothed and sheltered. He left the care and raising of my sister and me largely to my mother.

That included discipline. Mom would spank us when we misbehaved but she also stressed that no-one except for her had any right to hit us, by which she meant other adults, such as school teachers, some of who were not above resorting to corporal punishment from time to time in those days. Dad hardly ever spanked us but mom still laughs when she recalls one of the rare occasions when I misbehaved enough that he did give me a smack on my behind. I immediately looked at my mother and asked "Is he allowed to do that?"

Just as he neared retirement, dad developed medical problems which forced him to take long term disability leave. In fact, he never returned to work. It was discovered that leukemia was the underlying cause of many of his medical symptoms. He was treated by an Oncologist and was in and out of hospital over a period of 1½ years before finally succumbing to the disease in October of 2003. He was 65 years old, having just recently officially retired earlier that year. One of my biggest regrets is that dad didn't have more time to enjoy his retirement years in reasonably good health. He spent his life working and never quite got to enjoy a well-earned rest during his twilight years.

The greatest testament to the kind of person dad was can be found in the way that the hospital nursing staff regarded him. He was well-liked by all of them. One of the nurses even came to his visitation at the funeral home to pay her last respects. I'm certain that hospital nurses see plenty of their patients pass away in any given year and they can't possibly have the time to attend many visitations or funerals. Dad must have made a significant impression on this particular nurse that she took the time to do so. He certainly had his rough edges, but he was a basically good man, and other people instinctively saw this in him.

As for myself, I'm very different from my father in many ways. He was mechanically adept and a handyman. I, not so much. He enjoyed outdoor recreation such as hunting and fishing. I prefer indoor pastimes and am a fan of science fiction and fantasy, neither of which ever interested dad. You would never have caught him blogging, even if he had been computer literate or known how to type. He tried to teach himself once retired, but never met with much success. Yet, for all our differences, there are many times when I do feel his influence on my thoughts, attitudes and beliefs. To quote William Shakespeare, "He was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again."

Happy Fathers' Day, Tony, wherever you are.

1 comment:

Martin said...

I always had a great deal of respect for your Dad, Andy. He was very protective of his brood and took good care of his family.