Wednesday, 1 December 2010

For my Father.

It’s twenty years to the day since my father died. I remember the hospital calling at about 4 o’clock on a warm Saturday afternoon: December 1 is the first day of summer here, the jasmine was in bloom and the grass needed mowing. Already there were things I’d wished I told him, as well as things I’d wished I never said.

The world is a different place two decades later. Yes, those wishes remain, but they’ve lost their sting. Maybe that’s just the passing of time, although I think it’s got more to with my having now trodden some of the same dark paths through which his life also passed. Because in their aftermath I’ve found – much as he did – what it is to be surprised by the Grace that those who speak most of life in the next world too often fail to see in this one. And in the light of that Grace the regrets of the old dispensation no longer wield the same power.

To mark the day we laid flowers on the place where his ashes rest: rich-scented gardenias cut from our front garden, and a purple hydrangea Mister Two-and-a-Half picked from the driveway, next to where we park. Fiver and Blackstar were more interested in the tiny lizards hiding in the rose-beds, and Miss Four-but-Nearly-Five asked questions about the Grandfather she’s never met.

Answering her is never easy. She’s fascinated by him, but how do you explain a late Edwardian North English childhood to a twenty-first century child on the far side of the world? Or that he was sent away to boarding school when barely out of infancy? What hope can she – or any of us – have of understanding what it was to grow up in the shadow of the war to end all wars, every day another bringing another reminder of the boys whom only a few years previously had slept in your dormitory, but who now rested in rows beneath the poppies of Flanders fields? Or do I tell her of him training in the North Sea merchant fleet; or about the depression, and a well-off family falling on hard times? And then perhaps about a commission in His Majesty’s Navy, about mine-sweeping and the surrender of Italy, and about living through the dusk of an empire on which he’d been raised believing the sun never set.

“But what was your Daddy like?” is how she usually opens our conversations about him. Anyone who’s seen a picture of him laughs, and says “Just like your brother”, which is in one sense quite right; the resemblance is uncanny. Yet she’s already old enough to know that’s not really true. Her brother never fought in Britain’s darkest hour, and he’ll never have a lifetime of nightmares by which to remember that fight. He hasn’t watched an evil junta raping a nation with whom he’s fallen hopelessly in love. He knows nothing of Lenin, nor Comrade Stalin, nor can he ever live what it it was that drove so many young men of my father’s generation and class to embrace the Soviet Union as humanity’s last (and only) hope.

So I do my best to explain public-school cooking, and why he left McCarthy’s America in the 1950s. She asks how he met my mother, and if he ever went to New Zealand at Christmas time like we do. She puzzles over why he didn’t like ballet, but is awe of his ability to speak Russian: her second favourite DVD is the Bolshoi performaning Nutcracker. Her first is The Little Mermaid, but it will be years before I tell her what he thought of Disney and she still can’t quite believe that he died before DVD players were invented because for her people have always had them. Then her brother interrupts explain that Thomas the Tank Engine lives in England, just like Grandad once did, and it starts to rain so we run back to the car where I hug wet children and wet dogs and tell them all how much I love them before we drive home and make hot chocolate because unlike that December 1st twenty years ago today is cold and wet and the jasmine flowers still aren’t out but the grass is still long even though I mowed it only a week before.

One of the first memories I have of my father – perhaps my earliest memory – is of him laughing as he jumped from a car and ran into the house in defiance of a Singapore curfew. When we meet again he’ll be laughing in exactly the same way. And so shall I.


Wormwood's Doxy said...


Paul said...

A lovely and loving tribute. If a cyberhug can reach across the Atlantic, consider one sent. Having just led the memorial service for my father-in-law last week, I can resonate with emotions not easily reconciled. You have captured it all very well. Peace to your heart at this time.