Colourful little pieces of gummed paper
Photo by Anna Rye
Everyone who knew him was aware my father was a stamp collector. Binders upon binders of meticulously curated stamps lined the bookcases in every home he lived in, and he loved to show them to any remotely interested person. If he met someone new, he always asked if they might have stamps. It was a great icebreaker. He wondered if they had stamps from whatever country they or their relatives were from.
“No relatives? Well, maybe you have friends.”
Everywhere he went, people saved stamps for him. His friends, the bank teller, his priest, shop owners and the family doctor all saved stamps for him. Even on trips to the hospital emergency room, and there were plenty of those due to several falls in his ninth decade, his main preoccupation was asking the nurses and doctors if they had any stamps. What doctor could keep a charming nonagenarian in the hospital for further examination when he deflected their questions about his health and how he fell and, instead, cheerfully asked about stamps? It was a great get-out-of-jail strategy.
He cut off the stamps on the corners of all letters he received and soaked the little squares of paper in water-filled bowls to soften the adhesive. Carefully removing each stamp with special long tweezers or tongs, he placed them between sheets of newspaper to dry. Books weighted down the newspapers.
When they dried, he examined the now perfectly flat stamps for flaws with a special magnifying glass with a little light. If a stamp was not in good or mint condition, perhaps with a missing bit — they were called perforations in philatelic parlance because they were the little holes punched between stamps on a larger sheet to make them easy to separate — it had less or no value.
If he wasn’t sure about one of his treasures, he consulted the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, a thick and expensive annual tome he received for free by charming the local public librarian, who saved the previous years for him when the new one arrived at the library.
The stamps rested in little piles on his desk, to await their placement in one of his many binders or be relegated to an envelope and traded with another collector at some future date. The only time I saw my mother irritated was when the stamps multiplied like dust bunnies and crept their way onto every available surface.
Every few weeks, a special commemorative envelope called a first day cover would arrive in the mailbox from Canada Post. Each time a new stamp was issued, these were sent to collectors, with a special postmark on the day it was issued. Just as often, his childhood friend would send him first day covers from Poland. She did this for close to forty years.
I contributed one set of first day covers to his vast collection. The stamps were issued on April 17, 1982, the day the Canadian constitution and Charter of Rights were signed on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. I was there for the signing ceremony with the Queen and the Prime Minister. As a young political assistant working for a cabinet minister, I had a seat in the VIP section and had invited my youngest sister to attend with me. We walked to the Hill, and no one checked our handbags or asked any questions as I presented my embossed invitation card and we took our places.
Of all the things I ever imagined might happen to me in my life, the privilege of sitting on Parliament Hill on this historic day was not among them. The next day all the newspapers carried the photo of the signing ceremony. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau sat beaming on the Queen's right, and the Clerk of the Privy Council stood behind the Queen, guiding her where to sign. She had on a teal suit with her royal insignia on the lapel and a matching hat. I was metres away from her and wore a taupe suit with a piqué jacket with hidden buttons — no hat. The significance and privilege of the moment were not lost on me as the daughter of immigrants.
The four commemorative envelopes I had secured each had one of the four corners of the larger stamp sheet, and my father had them mounted and framed. He hung this up on the wall beside his desk, and it was one of the frames my sister brought to hang in his long-term care residence, his last home. We were well trained to look out for stamps to add to his collection.
My father had an agent named John. He was a slightly younger retired teacher my father had met at a stamp show. Over the years, he asked John to sell his duplicates or parts of his collection. They never discussed prices, and my father trusted John completely. Every once in a while, a cheque would arrive from John, and my father never questioned the amount. He had made up his mind a long time ago to see the trustworthiness in people, and he was seldom let down or disappointed.
I did not inherit the stamp-collecting gene. The best I do as a philatelist’s daughter is to purchase the most beautiful stamps I can find to adorn the few envelopes I mail. Even when I put a cheque in the mail, it has a beautiful stamp on the envelope.
“Why would you put an ugly stamp on a letter?” my father once scoffed, holding up the birthday card I had mailed him with a nondescript permanent stamp. He was right. We have beautiful stamps.
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