Sunday, June 21, 2015


William McGinnis, High Park, Toronto, 1967

THIS IS MY FAVORITE PHOTO OF MY FATHER, WILLIAM MCGINNIS. It was taken on what looks like a fine summer day in High Park, the place of refuge for our very West End family. He is 60 years old. I have tried to find this spot in the park for years now, and while trees have grown and the layout has been changed, I will continue looking.

He would have a year left to live. My memories of my father are scant; I can only barely remember the faintest trace of this day. My most vivid is waiting by the big picture window in the living room on Gray Avenue for him to come home from work, sitting on the couch next to him, watching Looney Tunes on the big black and white TV. It is one of my happiest memories.

William McGinnis and Agnes Murphy, Toronto, 1943(?)

William McGinnis was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland and emigrated to Canada with his family near the beginning of World War One. His father, Robert, died not long after they arrived, and he and his brothers would leave school early to help support their family. His teens and twenties are a record of manual labour and factory work in Toronto's industrial West End: butcher's assistant, Canadian Cycle & Motor, Willys-Overland.

My father got a job at Supertest, where he would stay for the rest of his life, working his way up into white-collar middle management, thanks - or so the family legend goes - to a mathematical formula he worked out to estimate the amount of gas stored in tanks at service stations and depots all across the country.

I don't know when he met my mother, but they were an item when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in December of 1940, and it was on leave in November of 1943 that they got married at Our Lady of Victory in Mount Dennis - a church his father-in-law had helped build.

He lost an eye working on an airplane engine and had the first of a series of heart attacks while in service, but both times he refused an honorary discharge. He spent most of the war with the 168 Heavy Transport Squadron - the "Flying Postmen" - based in Rockcliffe, Ont., and was a Flight Sergeant when it was disbanded and he was discharged in October of 1945. He returned to Supertest and my mother, who gave birth to my brother, Marty, in December of 1945.

William and Marty McGinnis, Mount Dennis, Toronto, 1946

Here he is, demobbed and a new parent, in the backyard behind the house on Grandville. I have quite a few photos of Bill and Agnes and their new family, and they radiate with the optimism and prosperity of the post-war years.

Agnes, Mary and William McGinnis, Mount Dennis, Toronto, Christmas 1952

My sister Mary was born in 1952, around the time they bought their first home, at the corner of Gray and Outlook. This is the big picture window from my memory, where I waited for him to come home.

He was, as they inevitably describe such men, a "pillar of the community." He helped found the credit union and fundraised to build a new church. He bowled on a team.

Dad and me, High Park, Toronto, 1967

This is the only photo I have with just Dad and me. My sister and mother are sitting on the picnic blanket behind my cousin Terry, who took this picture. The bags hanging in the trees are keeping the food safe from ants. I remember being very fond of that blow-up dolphin, though what I was doing with a pool toy baffles me - we didn't have a pool and I have never learned to swim.

The book my father is reading is Dear and Glorious Physician, a Taylor Caldwell novel about Saint Luke. Caldwell was once a famous, bestselling novelist, but no one reads her much these days. I ordered a copy a week or two ago; I'm going to try and read it this summer, perhaps at a picnic in High Park.

My father died in his sleep on a May morning in 1968. I have no memory of that day, or of the weeks and months on either side of it. I would miss him bitterly, and still miss him today. Like most boys who lose their fathers early, I was desperate for a father figure; my brother and brother-in-law would be pressed into service, though I'm sure neither of them were prepared for the role at that point in their lives.

I think about Bill McGinnis all the time, and since becoming a father often wonder what he would do, and hope that he would approve.

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