The Man in the Pictures
By Chelsea Mark
“Hard to look at these, I miss him still.”
My mother’s sad tone seeps through as I read these words in her e-mail, accompanied by photos of a man who wears the same smile that she often does. The build of his body is similar to that of my Aunt Joan — tall and lanky. The man sits surrounded by friends in the myriad of photos, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other.
Family is a topic that sets off a range of emotions in individuals. When I ask my mother about her dad, as we loiter in her laundry room folding towels, I see pain and sadness in her eyes. But her voice is full of admiration and love as she chuckles and recalls that, as a child, she caught him pulling a bottle of gin from beneath the dishwasher late one night.
He died before I was born. As a child I’d barely heard of him, much less known him. I do remember mom mentioning him in passing. “I used to go here with my dad,” she’d say, pointing out an old restaurant as we sped past it in Richmond. It was always “my dad,” never “your grandfather,” which didn’t strike me as strange until I was older.
To my family, he was Bill Williams. To others at a different stage in his life, his name was Gordon Charles Williams, but he was born William Mitchell. My aunt later discovered that his father had been a reverend at a church just outside Hamilton, Ontario. But Bill, as far as the family remembers, did not like religion.
I’m told he was a smart man, a “brain person,” as my Aunt Christine puts it. He was funny, he was witty, and they tell me now that I personify his sense of humour. Bill always wore suits, was always well-dressed. My mom says he believed in appearances. Maybe he had to, given what he was up to.
Aunt Christine remembers Bill’s briefcase always being within arm’s reach, like a child under seven at the pool. When he passed, it came into her possession, and she sat on the floor, pregnant with my cousin AJ, and settled down to explore its contents. The pit of her stomach dropped as she discovered his birth certificate and other documents. Not only had Bill been lying about his age, like a 40-year-old woman celebrating her fifth 30th, but he had made up companies, employed himself, and then laid himself off so he could collect unemployment insurance.
My aunt began to connect the dots after that. She finally had concrete evidence for things that had never made sense to her, including the fact that she couldn’t remember her father ever going to a real job. She also recalls helping him trade his beer bottles in for baby food when her youngest sister was born, and that his bartering skills meant they “had no money, but had three TV sets at one point.” She laughs as she tells me about the time he took her with him to visit his friends and “help them with their math.” He did a lot of odd jobs for people that seemed to involve accounting.
Aunt Christine grew up to be an accountant, a real one. So I guess something good came of it.
He passed away in the spring of 1989 in Nanaimo, just months before his first grandchild was born. Alcohol and other unknown demons had driven him from his family, and to this small city on Vancouver Island, where he died of internal bleeding, alone in a dirty apartment on Newcastle Avenue. The family never knew where he’d gone. He was just gone.
Years after Bill’s disappearance, my father discovered his whereabouts through my grandmother and urged my mom to reach out to him. They took him for lunch and hadn’t been sitting down for a minute before Bill ordered a gin martini. Twenty-five years later, my mother still remembers that lunch as the last time she got to sit across the table from the father she loved, and still loves.
I knew none of this before coming to Nanaimo for school, and making the city my permanent home. My mom came to visit on a sunny day last summer, her skin darkened by weeks spent in the sun, short copper-brown hair tied back in a small ponytail. We had just walked the waterfront after stuffing ourselves with fish and chips and as we crossed the street by the Coast Bastion hotel, she looked up where flags billowed in a slight breeze and birds cawed above us, one hand resting on her hip, the other shielding her eyes from the sun. She turned to look at me as we kept walking in silence. I could sense she had something to say but I waited quietly for her to plan the words crashing against her teeth.
“Before you came here all I had to associate with Nanaimo was the death of my father, but you’re making it better for me,” she finally said. “You’re making it yours.” I know that finding a place where I feel I belong and that makes me happy is important to her. To be able to heal parts of her resentment towards this beautiful harbour town is comforting. To know that I was drawn here, like my grandfather before me, makes me feel oddly connected to him.
But Bill was not here for school. So what did lead a man with a loving wife and three beautiful daughters to disappear and die alone? Could the two pillars in his life, drink and family, not co-exist? Did a ghost from another dishonest life return, threatening to unmask what once was? Maybe Nanaimo, with its large gathering of those down on their luck, looked like his kind of place. For now the answer rests behind Bill’s eternally locked lips; I may never know.
I see men like Bill every day working at the liquor store. It’s interesting to see how similar our paths have turned out to be, in some ways. I don’t feel any love towards the man, and despite ending up in the same city, there’s no real connection to drive my desire to learn more about him. I feel sadness that he died alone and full of secrets he could never unburden himself of. I feel concern for what else he might have passed on to me, besides a sense of humour. Most of all. though, I feel a story that only I can tell, slowly coming together before me.
Photo top: From left, Bill Williams, his wife Pat, and their two eldest daughters, Christine (right) and Elizabeth (left), taken during happier times, in July of 1965. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Mark.