My Father’s Eyes


I can remember it like it was yesterday.

I was a teenager, watching my father take a proud-looking buck from the roof of his car.

“How could you kill such a lovely animal,” I asked, my voice taking on my know-it-all edge, I’m sure.

But the old man didn’t lose a beat.

“I’ve had to kill people,” he said. “I don’t lose any sleep over killing animals.”

I walked away, shaking my head, no doubt disgusted by how hard and unfeeling my father had become. And yet it was one of the few times that Sam — William Sanford Levangie — ever mentioned his war experiences.

When we talk about the Second World War, we talk about horrific numbers. So many dead, so many lives lost. The events scarcely seem imaginable. The Battle of Britain. The fire bombing of Dresden. The Holocaust. Hiroshima.

More than 42,000 Canadians were killed. More than 6 million Jews were exterminated. A reported 15 million Soviets lost their lives. More than 70 million men and women never came home.

The numbers are so large, and so horrific that we simply cannot comprehend them. What little understanding we can glean comes with something more personal.

I look at my own life, and the things that I have lost and I often think it’s through no fault of my own. And I understand now that a generation of men and women returned home from the war, their lives in tatters — through no fault of their own. As a group, they were far more innocent, far less worldly than their children. Far less worldly than I am. They faced unspeakable sorrows. And yet they tried to put the jigsaw back together, knowing that some pieces would be forever lost. And that the generations which would follow would never really understand.

My father was born in Frankville, a village beside Havre Boucher in Antigonish county, near Cape Breton. His father ran a general store, and the men of the family engaged in the desperate economy of that time, taking every part-time job that was came along, no matter how onerous. I have very few photographs of my young father, just one in fact: it shows a strong teenager looking for all the world like a youthful Elvis Presley. (I’ll post it if I can track it down). His smile is genuine, as though he saw promise in his strength and abilities.

But circumstances change, and the world went to war. In the 1940s, he joined the Canadian Army, and he trained locally before being sent overseas for additional training.

We have many photos showing a confident soldier — a private with a certain presence — flirting with nurses, chatting with friends. We have one telling photograph taken at the train station, before he left for Europe. It shows my mother looking on, adoringly.

I know little about his years in service, although I know he fought to liberate Holland.* And I know that he saw violence and death, that many in his unit were killed or maimed in desperate action. I know that he was considered a war hero, after single-handedly capturing six German soldiers who were firing on a small village, perhaps a hamlet not so different from the one in which he was raised.

And I know that he came home hardened and heavy with burdens. That his scars were never sutured properly, and that his wounds could reopen with just a little friction. I know that he felt a deep, deep pain beyond my ability to understand, though I have a glimpse of it now. A feeling of being damaged, and sometimes lost and alone.

He was a difficult man, opinionated and quick to anger. Was he always that way? Or did the taking of other lives destroy a piece of his own? What did it cost him to hold a friend close as he died? To see school chums cut down before they had the chance to return to the girls back home, and raise families. How much did it hurt to sit in the Havre Boucher church in 1946, seeing so many empty seats, knowing that he was one of the lucky ones, but feeling anything but lucky?

At his funeral, while I was still a teenager, I saw just wisps and shadows of another man whom I had never really known. I heard stories about how he was a real looker, so popular with the ladies, but that he was devoted to my mother. I heard that he was romantic, that he liked to buy small gifts and flowers for my Mom before he shipped overseas. I read through his war letters once, and thought I could see a kid trying to be a man, frightened that he would never see her again.

At his funeral, I also heard that he was as tough as nails. One story tells how he came upon a fight near the end of the war, with four men beating a large friend to a pulp because he had made the mistake of hitting on a married woman.

“Well, you made short work of the big one, let’s see what you can do with the little one…” he was reported to have said. At the end of the donnybrook, all four were laid out in lavender. He then carried his friend back to camp.

This was the man who came home, the father I knew. The softer man was left over there. True, he played with me when I was a wee lad, but as I grew older, I just saw him as someone who was always disappointed by his youngest son. His bursts of anger were frightening. He would never talk about his experiences, about his feelings, about why he was incapable of change. So I saw him as cold and distant.

But he sacrificed everything for us, in ways I can scarcely conceive. He held down two jobs when I was a kid, and worked his fingers raw at night and on weekends to transform our house into a home. It was endless. He never stopped. But he was a man’s man, and he hardly ever complained.

He never met the real me, never even saw the man I would become. I was 19 when he died; he was 58. I eventually came to understand that I had a great deal of his heart — of his inner strength — inside me.

Just a few months before he died, I noticed something that I had missed all of my life. At each family birthday party — I have six siblings, so there were many — we would all join in to sing a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday to You. And there, with everyone distracted, a tear would fall from his eye, and down his cheek, only to be wiped away with a practiced hand. His last birthday celebration was my own.

And today, on his birthday, that’s the man I remember, the man I never met.

* While he was alive, the Dutch sent tulips to him every year, which he planted in front of the family home.

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18 Responses to My Father’s Eyes

  1. Jacqueline says:

    Thank you for sharing this piece about your father. It is very moving. The details created vivid pictures in my mind when I read it.

  2. Richard says:

    Thanks, my friend, for the kind words. And for visiting!

  3. Thanks, Richard. This is a wonderful story, beautifully written.

  4. Sarah Hina says:

    I read this the other night, and found it deeply moving.

    Ultimately, the fact that you’re still searching for him–through words and memories–says a lot about the love the two of you shared. I’m sorry you lost him so young, Richard. But you’ve given us a complex and beautiful snapshot here. Thanks for that.

  5. This was stunning.

  6. Maybe I speak the obvious, but what strikes me is the bitter sweet theme. I don’t mean to diminish the post with my own experience, because it can’t touch this, but I’ve often wondered what it would be like to sit down and get to know the unknowable – to have the conversation the person would never have when they were alive.

    In any case, thanks for sharing. I enjoyed the read a great deal, on many levels.

  7. Richard says:

    Kate, thank you! A compliment from you means more than I can say.

    Steve, thanks for reading.

    Sarah and John — you’re exactly right. I am still searching, still struggling with the complexities. I was worried about posting, as I know that family members are reading, and they might not agree with my assessment of him (or might want me to correct the biographic details that I have wrong). I know that my oldest sister’s relationship with my father was far different than my own, that they were friends even after she married.

    As I grew older, I realized that it wasn’t all on him, that our failure to communicate largely rested with my failure to communicate. I was a teenager, self-conscious, awkward… and selfish, too. We all are at that age, and I took longer to grow up than most.

    So as I became an adult, and actually started asking questions for a living, I have developed a deep longing to talk to my dad, to hear him tell me about his life. I was able to do that often with my mother; when she was in the hospital, and worried about a procedure or an operation, I would spend hours grilling her about the old days, to keep her distracted while the time passed.

    That I can’t do so with Sam is like a dagger that gets twisted every so often.

    Thanks, everyone, for the wonderful comments!

  8. A poignant remembrance, Richard, that brought back memories of my uncle and great uncle who had fought in both wars.. War changes people in ways that sometimes are difficult to understand. By writing this moving post about your father you discover areas of yourself that once were hidden and are now revealed.

  9. Aerin says:

    Hold on, my eyes are watery –

    - really, Richard. You need to put a warning before a post like this one. I didn’t have a tissue box close (well, that’s because Bug has been making tissue ghosts to decorate for Halloween. Yes, I know it’s May) and I’m all weepy.

    There are a million dads reading this who wish you were their son. I’m sure your own father, in whatever reality he’s in, is wiping away that one tear, too.

    PS – Of course your dad was gorgeous, Mr. It’s-in-My-Genes.

  10. Linda says:

    You never fail to come up with a story or two that I’ve not heard before and so with this new insight,”my dad” returns for a time from a silent place beyond.

  11. René says:

    What a wonderful tribute to your father, Richard. Thank you so much for directing me here.

  12. Maria Thorburn says:

    Richard this is beautiful. When I read the asterisk at the end I wept. So many men went through these traumas and to read them individually is where the power for us, lies. Like you, I have many siblings (5 in my case)and like you, my Dad was in the war and lucky for him he was transferred over from the infantry to the intelligence corps because he had some High School German. This qualified him to interrogate the German officers. Like your father mine was cold and aloof and didn’t speak of his feelings so that none of feel as though we really know him, including my Mum. However, later in life as a professor, when a colleague was accused of a wrongdoing that he knew was unjust, he was the only one to stand up for him. Justice really meant something that some of us don’t really comprehend as deeply, perhaps. It wasn’t in what was said but by what he did and how he lived. He had incredibly high standards. I don’t know if he was doubly scarred by the fact that he lost his own father when he was very young, lost the house (stayed in the same room as his Mum), the dog, had to take on jobs as a kid…this is before social programmes of course. He is incredibly loyal and decent…we just don’t know who he really is.

  13. Jan Stanfield says:

    Here’s to the old man, Richard…complicated as I quess most of us turn out to be, but loving and true. May your memory of him be more sweet and taken care of with each passing year! <3 -Jan

  14. Nice post. Thoughtful and considered. Thanks…

  15. Matt says:

    Touching, beautiful, and moving. I am glad I took the time to read this Richard, and I am grateful that you shared this with us. Thank you.

  16. Jaynee Brooks-Robins says:

    Richard, Such a moving piece of writing. Thank you for sharing. How many men and women must have suffered for the cause of freedom without ever becoming free from the horrific events they experienced during the war.
    Although my father, Roger did not serve ( He was just released from the hospital having been treated for an extreme case of poison ivy both externally and internally that the army declared him unfit to serve.), all three of his brothers were overseas. All returned. None of them ever told their war stories. So much pain is hard to imagine and obviously extremely hard to live with.
    Thank you once more for this essay. Jaynee

  17. mary t. Mac Donald says:

    I was so curious as to how you were related to Joseph Levangie & Sons (Cryil,etc)
    who ran the general store in Frankville. My late Husband Joseph Austin Patrick
    Mac Donald was a nephew to Joseph Levangie????

  18. David says:

    Beautiful. Nice writing, Richard.

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