A Father’s Day Journey with my Father’s Nikon

A Father’s Day Journey with my Father’s Nikon

2000 1125 Nick Clayton

For the better part of two years, my father’s cremains have rested atop a shelf in an undignified cardboard box. Today is as good a day as any to rectify this sorry state of affairs, as it would have been his 88th birthday, and tomorrow is Father’s Day. I see the sun is already flirting with the horizon, but the summer solstice is tomorrow, and that means I still have enough daylight left for the task.

As I set out alone on the gravel road in the car, I reminisce about departing my childhood home in 1990 to embark on a family road trip to Calfornia. It was on that trip that my father uncharacteristically splurged on a nearly-new Nikon F-801s in a camera shop near L.A. That camera now sits in the passenger seat, ready to document the spreading of his ashes.

Present day, my route takes me to a high elevation where I can see ski trails cutting paths down the escarpment, spilling into the bay. At the end of the road, my gut tells me to turn left to ascend the escarpment to its highest elevation. There I find the old ski chalet, perched at the summit, looking no less rustic than the kit home my family renovated on weekends of my youth.

In the passenger seat, a single flap of cardboard is tauntingly curled up, and I tug on it to fully open the box. I feel a churning in my stomach that becomes a knot in my throat, and my eyes well up with tears. Inside is a grey mass encased in a plastic bag crudely sealed with duct tape. One small detail emerges from the flood of a lifetime of memories – the duct tape – and a smile breaks through. My dad was once a jack-of-all-trades who could fix just about anything on a house or car, and do it very poorly. As a result, duct tape held together car parts and patched parts of the house, and now apparently it held him together too. Once I regain my composure, I peel back the strips of tape, dip a metal scoop into the bag, and with teary eyes, a grin, and the courage of my convictions, I get out of the car to release the fine grey powder at the base of a fir tree that stands tall and proud at the end of the drive.

I head down the road to revisit an unusually giant mound of earth I used to climb as a child. Viewed from the road it still seems as big as when I was ten, but now it is overgrown with wild vegetation. There is a path mowed through the brush, and on it I notice an unassuming hare who meanders around the bend, beckoning me forward, every sound I make is met with a twist of a perked ear. The trail encircles the base of the hill, so I must cut my own path through tall grass to reach the top. At my perch I have an impressive vantage of the house among views of the valley and the bay. I spread some more ashes there, then sit down. Now hidden in the tall grass, I settle into the moment and the grief it carries.

Back behind the wheel, my next stop takes me from the heights of the escarpment to sea level. Driving along a residential street, I search for a modest public access point between bloated waterfront mansions. Because the chalet had limited running water, on trips back home from the chalet, we kids would customarily take our Sunday night bath in Georgian Bay. I am forced to give up on finding any significant spot from my childhood, but the sight of another hare seems a good omen, so I pull over.

With my tripod and Nikon in tow, I arrive with the box of ash on a sandy beach on the Southern shores of Georgian Bay. Having become more emotionally resilient, I confidently dip the metal scoop into the bag, throwing ash to the wind with one hand, photographing the act with the Nikon in the other. I’m fighting with the camera however, as the focus motor and shutter start to stutter and whine, and I recognize I am channeling my father’s favourite expletives in response. He had no patience for failures of technology or design, and seemed to live a life plagued by nothing but bad technology and design. I suppose constant disappointment is an occupational hazard for a professional engineer. My father, however, managed to turn sharing his disappointment into the occupation itself with a successful career as an expert consultant on metallurgical failure analysis. People paid him to tell them why metal things broke.

I have to admit that the camera acting up felt like a message from him – heck, even the rabbits that guided parts of my journey felt like his presence as well, but I realize that I am imposing meaning on things as a way to grieve. All things considered though, it is hard not to see some cosmic significance to Father’s Day and his birthday occurring on the summer solstice, and all three of these events coalescing with the moment I gained the fortitude to reach into his remains with my bare hand and let him slip through my fingers, while photographing the act on the last frame his Nikon would expose before the shutter failed permanently.

Everything that exists follows the arc of time; a day, a life, a sound, love, even the universe itself has a beginning, middle, and end.

Author’s note – This was written a year ago today. The rest of dad’s remains have been placed in a proper urn. The Nikon is on a shelf in a state of disrepair. I leave it in that state as my own small tribute to him.

Happy Father’s Day.

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Nick Clayton

Nick Clayton is an educator, musician, environmental advocate and photographer living in the Blue Mountains of Ontario, Canada with his wife and their three children. He can be found on Instagram & Twitter as @nicknaclayton

All stories by:Nick Clayton
  • Absolutely beautiful Nick. Thank you.

  • Happy Father Day 😉
    The Nikon 801 a great camera.
    Nikon great cameras.
    Father’s camera, great camera.
    Great pictures.
    I have seen very quickly on a website which proposes 3 or 4 articles per day that Japanese lens are not innovative, now this is from 2 other countries, … one of course as you know I buy nothing. Now to catch readers many websites write about any things and want to get the link with big online merchant retailers, reason why cheap products interest them, so they criticise Japanese products. But here we have a good example of what we can do with a Nikon F801from 1988 to 1995, nearly 30 years ago … still working and producing great images, and very cheap from Ebay. It was not a cheap camera that time, not expensive too, but Japan gave, gives decent salary to workers what dictatures dont do, they just close them home to show they can content a virus.
    Happy to see that the great Nikon F801 from your father is still a good option, it was very innovative. Now Sony is innovative and get 50 % of all sensors market … because sensor is the key, … but dictature will copy and produces cheap sensors, which will give the opportunity to this kind of low websites to write “now innovative and cheap sensors are not from Japan, but from 2 others countries (one dictature)”.
    This is the difference enter some websites and one like Casuaphotophile : the real quality !!! Reason why, I read here long time, the other one I laugh and close after 5 secondes maxi …. I learn nothing. Here I learn, I have pleasure.
    This article shares a great story which speaks to many of us today.
    Thank you one more time to share something deep, not blablablabla to follow the stupid market. In Europe all cars will electric in 2035, where to put all the old cars some people will not finish to pay …
    World of trend.
    But there is good quality camera of 30 years kept by Fathers like the Nikon F801 which was well build.
    Thanks to the Fathers who keep old things : vintage cameras, fountain pen, vinyl player, motorbike, cars, … many will be more valuable in the time than this cheap new products from dictatures.

  • Wonderful story, Nick.

    I still have my father’s ashes in a cardboard box down here in South Florida (he passed at 96 in September 2019), but I’ll be going out on my friend’s boat in a couple of weeks to spread them out to sea, per his wishes.

    Coincidentally, my friend with the boat is also the owner of 60 Minute Photo in W. Palm Beach, one of the few remaining film processing shops around here…

    Regarding your dad’s now nonfunctioning F-801 – you should give Jim Holman a call: ictcamera.com … He’s repaired and restored several old Nikons for me and does a great job. (Never sent him an AF Nikon, though – only manual focus ones. But maybe he can handle the F-801 and get it up and running for you.)

    • Thank you for this Chris. I am considering resurrecting the Nikon,so it is good to know my options. Also glad to know I’m not the only one procrastinating when it comes to last wishes.

  • I think you’ve honored your dad in the best way. He’s present in your actions & thoughts.

  • those that we love and who love us may not be with us but they are never truly gone. happy fathers day.

  • Merlin Marquardt June 19, 2022 at 7:45 pm

    Nothing lasts, including us. Enjoy your life as and when you can.

  • George R Hazelton June 19, 2022 at 11:40 pm

    A touching tribute to your Father.
    My Father died in 2001 at 87 years old. My Mother, my Sister and I took his cremains to an overlook at Hawk’s Nest park in West Virginia, a favorite vista of His and my Mother’s. While scattering cremains was probably illegal, it seemed the proper thing to do. As we scattered the ashes, a slight updraft seemed to waft glittering bits upward.
    My Mother died in 2010, at 96 years old. Once again my Brother, my Sister, and Flora (my new Wife, beloved of my Father and Mother) went to the same overlook at Hawk’s Nest park, and scattered Her ashes; again they were swept upwards. My Mother and Father were thus united in death, so to speak.
    I have my Father’s AsahiFlex IIa. He was a skilled photographer, especially of flowers. The ‘Flex is in rough condition, but I have his kit, bellows, extension tubes, the f3.5 50mm normal lens, a Tower f2.8 35mm wide angle, and the 83mm f1.9 short tele. I found an AshaiFlex IIa with a 50mm f2.4 lens in very good condition; when I use it I can feel my Father’s presence.
    Nick, do consider having your Father’s Nikon repaired, as suggested by Chris. Using it will remind you of him in a truly tangible way.

    • Hello George,

      Hawk’s Nest Park is what I like to think of as a ‘touchstone’ for your family–a place that you go that helps you mark the passage of time and the changes it brings to you, your family, and the world at large. I think of your father’s AsahiFlex much the same way, with every roll of film running through the same body, but with a different perspective depending on who is holding it, and at what point in their lives. I did get the Nikon repaired, and I couldn’t be happier with it. The repair tech lit up upon seeing it among the batch of cameras I brought in, recognizing it as a gem, much like my father when he saw it in a shop in LA in 1990. Cheers.

  • Dear Nick, your story is very touching.

    My father passed away 8 years ago. He had a heart attack while playing table tennis at 74. I had a call from him that day and was a little bit stressed so I kept the conversation short. During the night we got a call from my sister, telling us that he died several hours ago. I am very sorry to have treated him so poor on the telephone call. I miss him most for the things unsaid. I still have his working F90 plus some vintage lenses.

  • Wonderfully stated, Nick. An artist you are, just as your father. As I believe Mark Twain said, “you are never truly alone until you are without your father”. But, the Lord is with you both, “even unto the end of the age.” Take comfort in that, and also the short table grace, or bedtime prayer, so proper after such a loss, which goes, “Dear Lord, we give You thanks for what You have given us, thanks for what You have taken away, and thanks for what we have left. Amen.” Blessings.

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Nick Clayton

Nick Clayton is an educator, musician, environmental advocate and photographer living in the Blue Mountains of Ontario, Canada with his wife and their three children. He can be found on Instagram & Twitter as @nicknaclayton

All stories by:Nick Clayton