femalestrength · feminism · fitness

How My Father Raised a Fit Feminist … Without Intending To

Tomorrow is five years since my father died. Despite the worldwide pandemic in progress (and how irresistible and necessary it is to write about), I’m dedicating today’s words to the ways in which my father shaped my fitness and my feminism.

I’ll start with this: my father was a pretty traditional man. Born in 1942 in Saskatchewan, he was raised in an observant Jewish home. My grandfather, a gentle soul, worked in the department store his father owned. My grandmother was the energetic current the rest of the family plugged into. An artist, mainly a painter, with a few sculptures thrown in for good measure, her métier never took precedence over family. Her studio was in the scary basement. Before she married, she got her Masters in Economics. She got a job at the Bank of Canada. This was the 1930s. When she decided to get married, she burned the sole copy of her Master’s thesis and turned her back economics. She was radical-Kondo long before that craze. She kept up her intellectual curiosity though, always taking my grandfather to classes in philosophy and other light (haha) disciplines.

With a mother like this, my father believed in the intelligence and capacity of women. At the same time, he never took women quite as seriously as men. An intelligent woman always risked sliding over the line into a ball breaker or shrew. He ruled over our household in lordly fashion. As a white man of privilege, he assumed his particularities were the way it should be. He dictated meal times and the precise manner in which we should fold towels, roused us early (even on weekends), doled out allowances to my mother, who held everything together on the home front, which was no small feat with three children (as many families confined together are finding out afresh these days).

Baby Mina (that’s me!) with my parents

While he never questioned my intelligence or right to a career, the only other member of our family whose intelligence he trusted was my youngest brother’s. Still, we take what we can get and my father gave me enough credit for my mind that one of the few things I don’t doubt about myself (in that this-is-how-I-was-raised-DNA-deep-way) is my capacity for thinking. I know that most men are absolutely not smarter than I am. As smart, of course. Smart in different ways, of course. But not smarter. This is one of the cornerstones of my feminism (there were also a lot of strong and smart women in my life—including my mother and my grandmothers). But this is about my father. A profound thank you, Dad.

As for fitness, my father loved to cycle (all geeked out with the dentist-like-mirror attached to his helmet and enough tools and bike bits to rebuild his bike and anyone else’s who happened along). Other people might put titanium screws in their bike to shave off some miniscule amount of weight. My father didn’t care how extravagantly large his bike bag got. He was a rolling bike shop. I rode with him then and still love biking. He recalled us running together, too. He claimed to even remember the day we went to Gibbons Park (in London, Ontario) and I outran him for the first time. Apparently, it was also the last time he ran with me. I wish I remembered that. But I’m happy to have the implanted memory of nascent speed.   

Yet, when I feel his presence now, it’s neither running nor biking, but when I’m cross-country skiing uphill. My family cross-country skied together, but certainly not regularly. The first time my father joined me on a solo ski was the winter after his death. I was climbing out of the Euer Valley (at TDXC in Truckee, CA), my heart punching against my chest like a prisoner in despair, I felt my lips contract into the shape of an O, heard the bubbly intake of saliva through my teeth in the exact way my father did, when he was pushing against a wall of effort (physical, mechanical or mental).  And in the same moment I became aware of thoughts that weren’t mine, that were his, “I can do this.  Hang on a second.  I almost have it.  If I can just …”  As if my brain had been temporarily appropriated by him, but I was aware of the theft and could bear witness to it.  From time to time, his signature intake of concentrated breath still finds me when I’m cross-country skiing.

At the end he chose not to pursue radiation, because it would have impinged on his quality of life more than any extra weeks were worth. The treatment was going to take away his sense of smell and taste (just as a start). He couldn’t bear the idea of losing the revel of his too-early-in-the-morning-for-anyone-else-in-the-house-trying-to-sleep-and-instead-waking-to-the-sound-of-milk-being-steamed cappuccinos. He lived longer than predicted, even if he’d had radiation, and he enjoyed his capps until the last couple of weeks.

Shortly after he died, I developed a passion for macchiattos, which are really just a miniaturized version of a cappucino. I’m not a coffee drinker and never had one of my father’s cappucinos. But once a week now I love the indulgence of that tiny shot of espresso with a dot of foamed milk on top. I have appropriated his pleasure for myself, an homage to his tradition. A pleasure I will savor with immeasurable gusto when I can next go to a coffee shop. Because the thing is, I can’t drink my macchiato takeout. It has to be in the adorable little cup. Ideally, it’s a super charge treat for end of day with my partner before going out with friends. I’m willing to wait for the full experience, on the great day when we are allowed to mingle again.

In the meantime, sending wishes to all for health and a safe physical (but not social) distance.

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