A Thousand Miles With My Father

Father's Day, Nonfiction

Written by Paula Smellie

June 17, 2020

When you walk a thousand miles with someone, you really get to know who they are. And so it was with my father, Alton Bernard, because  I walked with him. A lot. Throughout my childhood, I went where he went, and it was my pleasure to do so. There is no place on earth that I walked more with my father than Annandale golf course in Ajax, Ontario.

Daddy took up golf shortly after his arrival in Canada from Jamaica in 1964.  I was born six years later and in 1975 we moved to Pickering, Ontario. From the age of five until twenty, I spent many summer days walking the 6,004 yards of Annandale golf course with my father.  That is roughly 1,620,000 yards or 920 miles!  And that was just at the golf course, never mind everywhere else we went together. I’m sure I followed after my father more than his own shadow.

For most of those miles I did not golf; I just walked. Inside the clubhouse before each round, I took great satisfaction from selecting a brand new perfectly sharpened golf pencil and the crisp scorecard my father would use for the round. It was my only real responsibility and I relished it as much as the deep timbre of my father’s voice as he chatted jovially with the clubhouse staff.  I remember well the sight of my father striding to the first tee, pulling his golf cart behind him, looking classy and stunning in perfectly pressed golf slacks, with creases sharp as the new pencil I just picked up from the clubhouse, and the sunlight bouncing off of his skin.

Trailing my dad around the golf course, I was in Introvert Heaven. I was free to think about everything or nothing at all and mostly had to keep quiet, for this was proper golf etiquette. I was free to be mindful of many details and sensations, like neon-coloured dragonflies flitting around the pond in front of the first hole putting green; the rubber band voices of green frogs calling out from the pond near the fourth tee; the sweet taste of wild raspberries picked from bushes behind the fifth tee; a tiny garter snake curled up on the tenth putting green; a fox trying to steal my dad’s golf ball on the thirteenth fairway; rabbits dining on the fifteenth; the swish-swish-swish as I pumped balls up and down in the red ball-washers; the wonder of a continuous cloth towel dispenser in the ladies’ washroom; and the refreshing burn of grape Crush soda quenching my thirst after the first nine holes.

If I concentrate, I can still feel how the creek water caressed my calves as I waded the winding stream under my father’s watchful eyes, fishing out lost golf balls. Most of what I found were not worth keeping, but occasionally I scooped a Titleist from the water or plucked a Wilson from the muddy bank. I emerged from the creek, my legs slick with sunscreen and water, to present these treasures to my father.

My favourite thing about going golfing with my father—and the reason I would have braved mosquitos and thirst for another 18 holes if necessary— was sitting down in the clubhouse tavern together at the end of a round. We settled into the clunky wooden furniture, and I sipped  ginger ale and ate the best French fries ever off of a small white plate, while my dad washed his own fries down with a beer. We chatted about this and that, and watched the sun make its final descent in the fuchsia sky. I was content and replete; my day had come to a glorious conclusion. And I felt so proud of my father. Proud of the sociable and gracious way he interacted with the people we encountered over the 6,004-yard journey. Proud of the dignified and confident way he carried himself in a place where Blacks and other people of colour rarely set foot.

During those 920 miles I can attest that I never saw another Black person on that golf course and there wasn’t a day that I didn’t ponder it. I would sit on the bench at the first tee and watch my father with great anticipation as he prepared to drive the ball down the long undulating fairway. My heart would swell with admiration as I observed his athletic stance, the smooth rhythm of his long muscular frame and the pooch of his lips as he addressed the ball. I must have held my breath a hundred times, watching my father like this, and watching the other golfers watching him as they waited for their turns to tee off. Crack!  My father’s ball would sail so far, I would lose sight of it somewhere in the sky and would look far down the fairway in the general direction it had flown, waiting for it to reappear and bounce on the manicured fairway. Even as a child, I felt a sense of vindication—before there was Tiger Woods, there was Alton Bernard.

If I had not walked those miles with my father, I would not have witnessed him breaking barriers. I would not have learned from him how to thrive in spaces historically dominated by White people. He made it his space and he entered it as an equal in his own eyes. He loved Annandale and he was loyal to that golf course for over 30 years. He continued to golf at Annandale even after his health began to fail, long after I stopped being his shadow, and the only way he could traverse the course was in a golf cart. Even when he no longer had the strength to play a round of golf, he served as a marshal for the course, and I believe he was one of the first Black marshals at Annandale.  

I know it is not always possible to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, but it is possible to walk a mile with them. So walk, walk, walk for treasure awaits you.

Alton Bernard looking dapper as ever. The exact date of this photo is unknown, but it was likely taken in 2004/2005 at Annandale golf course. Sadly, Alton passed away in 2009 due to complications from multiple myeloma. He was 73 years old.

Paula holds a BSc in psychology from the University of Toronto, where she also earned her certificate in creative writing. A lifelong learner, she is currently working towards her M.Ed. in Leadership in Higher Education. Paula draws deeply from her rich Jamaican-Canadian heritage and her experiences growing up in Southern Ontario, living in the United States, and being a mom to three wonderful children to find inspiration for her writing. She is a firm believer in the power of writing groups and wishes to give a shout-out to her sister-writers in the Anthology Group and her comrades in Christ in the Inspired Writers Group. Her story, “Bone Keeper”, was published in the fiction anthology “Walking Through and Other Stories” in 2017.

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