“Flo, what are you doing?” Kiley asked. My dad revealed his handiwork—he had neatly carved all of our initials and the date into the wooden railing at Johnson Canyon park in Banff. “We’re in a National Park, Flo!” Moments before Flo had been caught vandalizing, our mother had spit on a pika (a small rodent) to try and get its attention for a photo.“I can’t believe you two are my parents!” Kiley yelled while Dax and I were wheezing with laughter.
The Torti family road trips usually proved to be of gong show proportions. Hours earlier, in the rental vehicle, my mom asked my brother to turn up the heat. “It’ll put Flo to sleep.” She was right. When Flo did wake-up, starving due to the strict trip itinerary that prioritized graveyard and museum visits over eating, he was reduced to eating peanut butter from the miniature packets he had swiped from the Best Western.
My mom found it easier to have him asleep in the back then at the wheel where he would verbally attack other drivers with his reflex expressions—“Numskull!” Or, “You wanna be a hood ornament, Dummy?” When my dad did touch bumpers with another driver on the Colborne street bridge in Brantford, both drivers got out of their vehicles to examine the damage. Luckily, there wasn’t any. My dad patted the guy on the shoulder and said, “No problem, Chief.”
“What did you just say?” The Mohawk native said.
“No problem, Chief. It’s just an expression,” Flo countered. But probably not the best expression to use when speaking with an aboriginal.
Aside from bumping bumpers with the Chief, my dad has only had two other accidents—in his own driveway. He loved to get in his Buick Oldsmobile and roar out of the country laneway in reverse. It was a good 75 meters in length, so he could reach speeds of 75 km by the halfway point. Twice he slammed into vehicles parked directly behind him. The back end of the Buick was like an accordion when he plowed into the electrician’s van. The next incident involved my car though, and he crunched the passenger side with such force that the door couldn’t be opened. We began joking with visitors that they should park on the grass and keep out of Flo’s driving path—but the grass was equally dangerous territory.
Flo loves his manicured grass. Now that my parents live in the city, there is an ongoing battle between Flo and the 80-year-old church ladies who park their “boats” on “his” lawn. Even when he drove wooden stakes in the ground, the church-goers still found available parking space. This is when he began writing notes and tucking them under their windshield wipers. But, like I said, they were 80-year-old church ladies who could barely see the road, let alone a Flo warning under their wiper. Oh, how he would fume, pacing inside the house, waiting for church to be let out so he could confront the illegal blue-haired parkers.
In addition to manicured grass, Flo takes great pride in well-manicured hands. Kiley, Dax and I would all be lifted up on to the bathroom counter for a grueling mani which involved a thorough cleaning under the nails and having our “moons pushed back.” Our cuticles would be humming, but we did have hands and nails suitable for tea with the Queen on a daily basis.
After the manicure appointment, we would “train our hair.” Flo believed that if you practiced combing your wet hair in the desired direction, you could train it to part that way, naturally. We also had to train our bodies in August, so we would be able to wake up refreshed and enthusiastic for the school bus at 8:15 am come September.
We hated training our bodies for sleep. Worse than training our hair was having to accompany Flo while he went to his hair-training appointment at Caesar’s Barber Shop. The place was stale with Old Spice and the smell of gentlemen. The magazines sucked—old issues of Maclean’s and Reader’s Digest. At least at Chuli’s car repair shop there was a gumball machine that we could feed quarters into. We sat there an equal amount of time, all for the promise and lure of a Kentucky Fried Chicken one-piece snack box. Flo always rewarded us with food. If he had to stop at Canadian Tire (groan!) there would be ice cream cones afterwards to reward us for our patience. If he had to go into the credit union, we could count on a box of large fries to split in the backseat.
Flo was always reliable for palming us money though, when my mom wasn’t looking. Especially when we went to high school—we always had cash for pizza or greasy cafeteria fries. Flo never made our lunches, but he did have two specialties—“cheese grilled” (he never called it grilled cheese) and “Mexican Hats.” The hats were actually baloney, left to puff up in the frying pan like sombreros. We would have gladly eaten them every day. The cheese grilled had varying results though—most often they had to be scraped before they were served. The bread would be scorched black and the Kraft Singles cheese slice in the middle would be hovering around 5000 degrees.
But when he tried to subject us to the Arby’s “Five for $5” we lost all faith in him. The special was for BBQ beef slop on a bun—which he made us eat while he enjoyed a $4 grilled chicken sandwich. Even my mother was ready to barf, and no one called dibs on the fifth extra sandwich.
A Flo salad was always impressive. He would dice about six carrots and load the salad bowls to the brim with them. On top of that there would be two slices of buttered toast, cut up as croutons. The mountain of croutons and carrots were always a challenge to eat politely, but satisfying all the same. While Flo prepared salads for us the toaster would be going non-stop. He would eat about seven slices in the process of salad-making and then feel sick.
Once, when my mom came home from a day of antiquing, we started making schnitzel –Flo looked so upset. “What?”
“Well, I feel sick. I didn’t know when you guys were coming home so I ate that leftover Greek salad in the fridge with a peanut butter sandwich. Then I had more toast because I was still hungry.” Oh, Flo. He ended up having schnitzel too, always worried that he would offend my mother if he didn’t eat what she had prepared. During Christmas, when my sister was home, he would take her up on her offer to try a protein shake —so her feelings wouldn’t be hurt if he said no. Then Dax would make spanakopita and he would try that too, so no one would feel left out.
That same visit, when Kiley went to the Athletic Club to work-out, Flo went to pick her up before supper, with toast to go to “tie him over.” When Kiley got in the car she asked why he had the house phone on the front seat.
“I’m expecting a call.”
“This isn’t a cell phone, Flo. The range is like 20 meters from the house, not 20 kilometers!”
Oh, how we roared over that one. Better yet was when we were on a road trip to Kennebunkport, Maine. We had stopped at a warehouse-sized building that sold seashells. Flo, who never swears, took two steps in and said, “This place smells like a shit factory.”
He has no idea how many shit factories we have visited without him since.
Then there was the time Flo was almost in shit with a football fan at a Laurier game. Flo was putting mustard on his footlong and when he squeezed the foil packet, the mustard squirted on to the shoulder of the elderly woman seated in front of him. He snickered. Kiley said, “Flo, you have to tell her!” And he didn’t! This poor old lady was left with a giant gob of mustard on her wool jacket because Flo was too afraid to tell her so.
Flo had put us in more awkward situations though. He still has a terrible habit of stretching in public. Randomly, usually while waiting, he will begin doing arm swings and twisting his torso side to side to limber up. He’s 6’3. The day he elbowed a woman in the head during his stretching routine in the middle of the mall was the day we all wanted to crawl in a hole. “It was her fault, you know. She should have been paying attention.”
Thanks to Flo we were introduced to all sports—from T-ball to bowling. He made sure we could swim, ride bikes and throw a decent knuckle-ball before we were five. He made us a T-ball stand at work and I can still remember the vibrations that would rattle the bones in our arms from striking the metal post instead of the ball. On the pond behind our house, he taught us how to do cross-overs and snowplow stops all winter long. We would do figure-eights to the right and the left until we were dizzy. He would tie our skates so tightly that we couldn’t feel our feet after the first minute–and not because of the sub-zero temperatures.
On a road trip to Washington Kiley was complaining about having to learn how to skate in figure skates. She wished she had learned in ‘boy’s skates.’ “But Flo bought me the figure skates so I didn’t have much choice.” From the back seat, Flo, drifting off to sleep, piped up, “I didn’t buy you bigger skates!”
The Torti family has so many inside jokes that we basically can’t be understood from an outsider’s perspective. Along with the shit factory and bigger skates there are other stories that still make us howl. Like when Flo suggested that Dax cut back on his chocolate intake because maybe that was causing his acne. Dax, furious, yelled at Flo, “Zits don’t give you chocolate!” Oh, how we laughed and laughed–we have recycled that line to this day.
We’ve always been proud to have Flo as our dad. When he played hockey, we thought he was Gretzky. When he would pound guys bare-fisted on the ice we cheered as my mother cringed. He would skate over to where we were sitting in the stands and spray ice chips against the plexi-glass with a wink. He played baseball too—breaking his jaw once as he caught a line-drive with his face as he ran to third base. Yeah, our dad was the coolest.
What impressed us most was when he called into CKPC, the local radio station and roared like a lion to win us tickets to the African Lion Safari zoo outside of Hamilton. He would be the first one to scream if he ever saw a lion, but he was brave on the radio waves that day.
There’s just so much that could be said, so many memories of fishing on the Grand (Kiley always managed to catch snapping turtles on her line or Flo’s hat), marathon Monopoly games, giddy sugary trips to Canada’s Wonderland amusement park and ‘camping’ in the backyard with our bedroom lamps connected by a mile long extension cord to the house.
What I do know for sure is that we are lucky to have such a supportive father. Even when I was pulled out of class and sent to the principal’s office for hoofing Dion Hoyt in the back with my new cowboy boots in grade four, Flo was proud. He figured that Dion deserved it, but he didn’t, it was totally unprovoked. Shannon Johnson simply told me that I should kick him.
Flo came to all of our soccer games, cross-country meets, volleyball tournaments, science fairs and plays–and he always ran the last leg of the half-marathon with me. He brought champagne and flowers to my first lesbian erotica reading and stood amongst the hairy armpits of Doc Marten-clad turbo dykes with the rest of my family. His new cheering forum though, is my blog, which he thinks is “just like being there with you.”
I get near-daily comical emails from him now that he’s retired—most often they end with his signature Terminator expression—“Asta la Vista, Baby.” Or, to switch it up, it will be the Mexican Chihuahua sign-off—“Yo queiro Taco Bell.” These are Flo’s best impersonations, and I can hear them clearly, even though they are words in the body of an email. But I get phone messages too—the best one is always on St. Patrick’s Day when Flo revisits our heritage and takes on an Irish leprechaun accent wishing me happy shamrocks and the luck o’ the Irish.
Like I said, I could go on, but it’s time to say Asta la vista, Baby. Happy Father’s Day, Flo. Thanks for all the love and laughs, Chief.
And if you missed my Mother’s Day tribute to Sandra: