My dad, Reynold (Ren, Rennie) Bertolo, was a kind, gentle man with a dry sense of humour that often left people wondering whether or not he was joking at all. He loved the rugged landscape of northern Ontario and the north shore of Lake Superior; he was a gifted artist, painter and cartoonist; he loved good food, red wine, a good single malt, biking and ice-skating, and his family, not necessarily in that order. He loved his hats. One of his favourite snacks was a salami sangwich.
Dad loved to read. Sometimes we’d share a new release at the same time using two different bookmarks because neither of us wanted to wait to read it.
And he loved jazz music, especially the work of paesanos like Bucky Pizzarelli and Guido Basso.
Turns out neither of us liked the Bruce Cockburn Christmas album, purchased by me for Dad’s stocking after hearing Peter Gzowski review it on CBC Radio. It became a running joke after that for him to slip it into my coat pocket while hugging me goodbye, and for me to sneak it back into his house for him to find somewhere. Sorry Bruce.
As a teen, Dad would hop an Algoma Central Rail car up the line to draw and paint for the day, always home by dinner. He attended the Ontario School of Art in the early 1950’s. He was part of a talented group of artists who came out of Sault Collegiate High in those years, including Ken Danby, and his good friends Ken MacDougall and Eddy Kosiba.
Legend has it that one night, a few sheets to the wind, it was revealed that Eddy K. had not been baptized. So, in order to save his soul, my dad and Ken broke into a church somewhere around McCaul Street in Toronto and baptized Eddy themselves.
Many years later, back in Sault Ste. Marie, my dad, Eddy and Ken had a part in creating the Underground Drawing Group that brought together artists of all experience levels to draw and paint and learn from each other. They’d pool their money to hire models for life drawing sessions, and when they didn’t have the money or hadn’t arranged a model in advance, they’d take turn modeling themselves.
My dad took on a second career with a degree in electrical engineering in order to earn a respectable living and raise his family. He worked as a supervisor in the construction department of Algoma Steel until his retirement.
He loved my mom deeply, and I always envied the way they danced jive together.
He would often burst into song, singing lyrics he’d made up to famous songs like “while shepherds washed their socks at night….” for a Christmas Carol.
Also known as Rev Ren, he was a deacon in the Catholic church who, according to a friend, had the power to part the clouds and bring out the sun at our camp (that’s what we call a cottage in Northern Ontario) by looking up at the sky and calling “Come on God!” (That friend was a young child at the time; she and my dad formed a mutual admiration society that was just delightful.)
When the urge hit, he’d pee off the corner of the deck at camp rather than go inside to the loo. And he took great pleasure in teaching his grandsons to do the same. When the long-vacant property next to ours was finally sold and occupied, his only comment was “Geez. Now I won’t be able to piss off the deck.”
Dad had a litany of phrases and words, unique to him that would probably fill a book if I could remember them all.
Today, for Fathers’ Day, I offer you excerpts from the book of Ren:
- “I had one too but the wheels fell off!” in answer to a young child’s babbling
- “Are you squeakin’ to me?” in response to grandchild’s high pitched calling of “Nonno!”
- “Kumpastofanuch” (pronounced KOOM-pa-stuff-ah-nooch”) served as a placeholder when he could not remember someone’s name.
- When the name of an object was unknown it was a “howyoucall” (pronounced “HALL-ya-call”)
- When describing a multipurpose remedy, it was “good for coughs, colds, sore holes and pimples on your howyoucall” (howyoucall replaced with a high-pitched whistle about half the time; Dad was a great whistler)
- “He had a faraway look in his eye, like a pig, pissin’”
- “There are no pockets on your last suit.” (Friuli proverb)
- “His belly is swollen like a poisoned pup.”
- “Doors aren’t assholes you know. They don’t close themselves.” (This one I learned only recently is not unique to my dad, when I heard Steve Patterson, host of CBC’s The Debaters use it at a charity comedy event; it’s possible this is the case for other Ren-isms as well – if you can share etymological insight on any of these, please do)
- “I believe you. Where thousands wouldn’t…”
- “Your ass is a star”
- “Drop your pants. I want to see if you have an extra crack in your ass from working too hard.”
- “And you know what burns my ass? A flame! About this high!”
- “Your eyes look like two duck turds in buttermilk.” (similar to the more familiar ‘your eyes look like pee holes in the snow’ but superior in my opinion)
- “I thought that cat had one eye, but he was walking away.”
- “Don’t speak with your mouth half full; fill it up first.”
- “It’s better than a poke in the eye with a burning stick.”
- “How’s your belly for spots?”
- “That guy gives me swollen coles.”
- “Don’t give me the hairy eyeball.”
- “Porco Canne!”
- “Porco Dio!”
- “Ma va fa Napoli!”
- “Justafeckous” (just because)
He had an imaginary friend named Joe Muttaratz who lived on imaginary Petaka Lake, and my mom fell for stories about Joe. Every single time.
Whenever company left the house he’d say “I thought they’d never leave” without fail, even when he’d obviously enjoyed the company. I never knew if he was joking about that, but I think he probably was…
I wish there was a way to recreate his voice for you when he called me “honey.” He had a special inflection all his own. It made me feel so special and loved. I saved it on a voicemail message as long as I possibly could before changing phone carriers and losing it. It remains in my memory and I call upon it often.
One of the last times I held my dad was to help him out of his chair about a week before he died. By this time, his illness had progressed so that he was non-verbal. I had to wedge his feet against mine to leverage him up. I said “this reminds me of dancing on your feet when I was a little girl.” His face lit up and I knew he was there with me, no words were necessary.
There’s a part of me that will always be a little girl who misses her dad.
He lives on in his quirky sayings, in his paintings, and in our hearts.
I like to think that he and mom are dancing up a storm together right now.