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Real Fathers, Real Sons

Fernando Monte and Bill Cassidy both live on Raglan Road. Both were raised Catholic, found fulfillment in the arts — and they are exactly the same age. I happened to interview them both last week. But beyond these coincidences, one thing I found remarkable with both Fernando and Bill is how openly they both spoke about their relationships with their families, and, in particular, with their fathers. On Father’s Day, I am honoured to pass on their stories.

Fernando’s father came to Kingston from the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores in 1957 — at a time when there were only 14 Portuguese men and 2 Portuguese women here. Although he came from a high-status family, he worked as a labourer, and as he spoke no English he got jobs by showing up at a job site, taking off his jacket, picking up a shovel, and starting to work. He came to Kingston to make money, to escape the Portuguese dictatorship at home, and to see if he could find medical help for his eldest child, who had polio. He didn’t particularly intend to stay. But he did, and in 1969, he brought his wife and children from the Azores to live at 42 Pine Street. Fernando was just about to turn 16.

I was getting old enough to be drafted and at the time we were fighting in Angola. My father said, the government never even gave me an aspirin, why should I go and fight a stupid war? So that’s why I came. And of course my father often reminded me of that. Especially when I did something which he called embarrassing or humiliating, like having long hair.

Indeed, as he dove into film-making and writing, Fernando had a difficult relationship with his father. They shared a name, but it often seemed not that much else:

I was not the son he wanted. He wanted someone different, taller, stronger, with some type of a business. He had never seen one of my films; he couldn’t read the books that I wrote. My father was very serious. I never once laughed or smiled with him. It made me sad because the son that he wanted didn’t exist.

When, years later, his father got cancer, the two did at least have some time to be together.

The thing that I thought afterwards was that the son that didn’t have a job could afford to stay with him for eleven months while he was dying. He became my priority. I made sure everything was ok, kept track of the side-effect of certain drugs, and he saw that. And I had the chance to talk with him. And he listened but didn’t say anything.

In some small ways, there was rapprochement:

Towards the end a nurse was injecting something and it hurt and he called my name, like a child would call for its mother. And… before my father died he told Tony Frazao, “my son never asked me for anything.” He admired that.

Still, though, Fernando still wishes his father had said, “if this is what you want to do, we’ll support you.”

Unlike Fernando’s family, Bill’s family was both physically and emotionally close. The Cassidy family had lived on John Street since the nineteenth century. When Bill’s father John joined the army in 1944, as soon as he turned 18, it wasn’t because he wanted to strike out on his own:

My dad wanted to look after my grandmother and grandfather. He did his training at Petawawa, and I remember him saying how homesick he was, horribly horribly homesick, first time away from home. Signing up wasn’t the first choice. But as he explained to me, if you didn’t sign up you were considered a coward, so you pretty much had to.

Luckily for John, the war ended before he had to see combat, and he continued to live with his parents on John Street even after marriage.

John and his son Bill shared a love for music. John worked at Alcan his whole life, but he played drums with a band named The Brown Brothers, and “he’d come home from work and there wasn’t a night went by that he didn’t go into one of the bedrooms and sit there and play guitar.” As a boy, Bill got started on music with that same guitar. He “barely got through school,” but he joined a band, joined the Musicians’ Union, and earned a living as a professional musician for 7 or 8 years until he got married. With Smokestack Lightning (a band whose poster featured an image of the tannery chimney in the Inner Harbour), he played bars and high schools through Ontario, Quebec, and the northern US.

Of course, John and Bill didn’t exactly like the same kind of music. John was “strictly country,” always played in suit and tie, and “he knew all the words to all those songs that I hated with a passion,” Bill remembers. Bill grew up in the era of Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin, and Rush. But, as he remembers, his Dad was “pretty good about it”:

He was the president of the Steelworkers’ Union, and they used to have the hall on Concession Street, and one time they needed a band to play — for the older folks, his age. And my dad said, “my son’s in a band, maybe they could come in!” I remember saying, ok we’ll do it, but thinking oh my gosh, what are we gonna do? We learned a few of their songs to get us through the first part of the evening, and then our plan was we’d go into our songs, and by that point we hoped they’d be a little… more relaxed. And it seemed to go over well. My dad was quite proud of the whole thing. People were saying, “nice job!” This one woman said to my mom, “look at these guys in blue jeans, long hair, so scruffy-looking!” Really putting us down. Then another lady said, “that’s your son, isn’t it Kay?” And… that kinda shut her up. We had a good time there.

There was one topic Bill was never allowed to discuss with his father: the death of his little brother at age five of leukemia. “If you brought up my brother it was like ooh boy, you were in deep @#$%… you could leave the room, you could leave the house, but do not talk about Jack.” Now that his parents have both passed away, Bill has been researching genealogy and thinking about what he knows and what he doesn’t about his family. Though his parents were devoted Catholics, Bill suspects that the “death of my brother kinda rocked them a bit when it came to their faith.” He himself left the church behind in the 1970s. Still, however, he thinks of what his mother told him about his brother’s death. His father wasn’t in the room on that occasion; he was on the phone trying to reach the doctor. The little boy kept reaching, smiling, reaching, smiling, at something he could see in the air just in front of him — until all of a sudden he “let out a sigh, laid back, and that was that.” “Whatever it was he saw,” Bill says, “we’d like to think it was something nice, and he caught a glimpse of what he was going to. It’d be nice if we could all go like that.”

— Laura Murray


  1. Maurice Smith

    Your interviews add a formerly hidden dimension to the history of Kingston. Well done!

    Have you come across anyone who has had a connection with the shipbuilding/boatbuilding industry directly or through family connections?

    Maurice D Smith

    • Laura Murray

      Hi Maurice — in fact, I haven’t. Interesting. I know of people who worked on the lakers, or at Canadian Dredge & Dock, & people who loved fishing & recreational boating, but so far nobody who worked at building boats/ships directly. Good question!

  2. Joan Sutherland

    Beautifully done. But it’s a shame that part of the Ward’s project doesn’t include give and take postings on its website. If someone found project money to build a community Swamp Ward site, you could still keep uploading possible for residents (postal codes) only. You could invite uploads like stories, historical and current photos, and eventually other more “need based” uses from current Swamp Ward residents. What about a geographical analysis of the distinctions found in the area? What about interviews with current residents of the ward who are in the arts, have academic careers, relate with the local schools have senior needs or any other? In fact that kind of Community Website could be sold to other distinct wards in Kingston, and indeed anywhere else, to help strenthen local democracy everwhere…and to help pay for such a site to begin with.

    • Laura Murray

      Hi Joan. An interactive website could be wonderful and there are a few community history sites in other cities that work that way. One of the challenges is that somebody has to commit financially and administratively to managing it over years — otherwise inevitably these sites freeze up and fail. Even if it seemed appropriate for the City to manage such an enterprise — and I have my doubts — even they can’t commit to longevity. I’d be more than glad to meet for a coffee to hear more about your ideas — what you are describing would I think require a community board, and while so far I haven’t heard a lot of desire for that, perhaps it is there. On the interviews with current residents — I’m doing tons of that. E.g. see yesterday’s blog post. And on analysis of the neighbourhood from various perspectives, yes! I look forward to such collaborations.

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