As I think back to how I viewed my dad when I was a kid, I remember he seemed to me to be as majestic and intimidating as a Canadian Sequoia. I knew for sure at that tender age that he was the tallest, strongest, oldest thing in the history of the world. Ever.
Like the tree native to his country of birth, my dad dominated the landscape – giving those who encountered his massive structure no choice but to either live in his shadow or to walk around him. He would not bend. He did not move. Not because he did not want to. Simply because he could not.
I grew up under the blanket of protection provided by his dense canopy – safe from the worst the weather could do – but his rough exterior offered little comfort and the cold, hard ground shielding his roots was no place for a child to lay her head. The broad spread of leaves also blocked out the vital warmth of the sun, giving me only dappled glimpses of what life might be like for those who were allowed to venture out into the light.
Alone in the forest since the age of four, by the time my dad was a sinewy seventeen-year-old sapling, he was a boxer. In 1930s Canada, boxing was a job, not a hobby. Maya Angelou spoke of black boys like him when she spoke of those who used fighting as a ticket to ride to the top of the hill.
He donned what would eventually become Golden Gloves, and slugged his way to the top of that hill. In those days, heavyweight bouts lasted for fifteen bruising and brutal rounds and by the time he was twenty, he’d had fought for his life once a week, every week, in over 300 fights. Then, when the blood spilled by Hitler began to contaminate the very earth beneath him, he was uprooted and sent across the sea to continue his fight, this time for others, not just himself.
After V-Day, he took his war bride back to Canada with him, but life as the wife of a lumberjack was not as glamorous as it had been as the girlfriend of a GI. She soon became homesick. For love, my dad put his roots down once more in a new country and stayed here until the day he died.
Our hero began boxing again but only in exhibition fights. He sparred with and beat less impressive fighters who went on to win titles he could never lay claim to because giant brown Sequoias don’t often thrive in shallow English soil.
By the time I came along, many decades later, my dad was with his second wife, and still bore the scars of a youth spent chasing a dream and a life spent chasing love. Now I am older, I understand why my dad’s bark became thickened and rough, and his boughs eventually refused to bend to support the weight of others.
He did soften a little in the years before he died. His exterior worn smooth in places by children and grandchildren who kept trying to embrace him even though it always hurt.
I am made from the same strong wood as him, hewn from a limb torn off in the storm that raged relentlessly throughout the years he shared with my mother. Sometimes I discover deep cuts in my trunk, cleaved by those who wield their words like axes. I scribe around the wounds, trying in vain to prevent the keloid scarring unique to my genus. Eventually, I am forced to give up and accept what I am – the propagation of the original Pugilist Tree. The tallest, strongest, greatest tree in the history of the world. Ever.