Thursday, November 17, 2011

remembering my father

I’ve just been reading Blake Morrison’s book “And When Did You Last See Your Father?”. It’s a poignant reflection of his larger-than-life GP father (infuriating memories of him jumping traffic queues; “I may not be right, but I’m never wrong” motto etc) as he approached death. Although my own father wasn’t a “larger-than-life” character (or a GP!), Morrison’s reflections on his father’s final days instantly brought back memories of my Dad’s death (lots of similarities: I think Morrison’s father died the same year as mine – 1992; they both died from cancer that had been diagnosed too late; Morrison and I are similar ages – he’s a year younger; we were both at our fathers’ bedsides when they died).
My father died within six months of diagnosis. I remember my mother telling me “it was serious”, but my father never really accepted this. He refused to talk about it. He seemed to be in complete denial. I recall numerous times when I tried to get him to talk about his life, his family, his childhood - but all to no avail. During his final months (when he was still fit enough to do so), I wanted to drive him to places he loved and for which we had particular memories – like the regular family picnic spot by the river at Aston Cantlow, near Henley-in-Arden, or the Flagpole (or “Tadpole” as younger family members called it!) on Cannock Chase or Llanrhaeadr, near Oswestry, or Bispham, near Blackpool, where we spent so many family holidays. But he just wasn’t interested. Looking back, I think I was trying to prepare myself for grieving him and now feel somewhat guilty that I had pressed him on such matters.
Amazingly, it’s coming up to 20 years since his death and, in many ways (like Blake Morrison), I wish I had written stuff down at the time – so many things have become very hazy, half-remembered recollections.
My Dad, Ron, was a printer for most his working life (compositor and reader). He was a proud and practical man, very organised, quite shy, conscientious and very reliable. He was born and brought up Handsworth, Birmingham (his father worked in the jewelry trade – starting out as a “jeweler errand boy”) and continued to live there for the rest of his life. He was quite an intelligent man who, I think, was very conscious of his working class background. As I grew older, I felt he was almost embarrassed by what he felt was a lack of education (although, of course, he would never have admitted this) - he used to challenge himself to learn new words/meanings on a daily basis via the “Reader’s Digest”. He was very fond of words (but hardly ever read any books, from what I remember?). Whenever he wrote a letter, they frequently “read” overly-formal/flowery and regularly contained words which weren’t quite used correctly – he regularly wrote letters of complaint to the Council or of appreciation to Hollywood stars.
He was a strict disciplinarian. He kept a riding whip hanging over one of the door architraves and used to use it quite frequently – never on me as it happens (was I really such a “good boy”?), but certainly on my brother Alan! He was pretty obstinate at times (surely not something I’ve inherited from him?) and his favourite family saying was: “If I say ‘black’s white’, black’s white”!
I still find it amazing that he used to come home to lunch every day – despite the fact that he worked in Birmingham (Dams+Lock). He had an hour for lunch and, with military precision, this was taken up by a 20-minute bus ride and walk home; 20 minutes to eat lunch; 20-minute walk and bus ride back to work (it’s a very good job the buses were so reliable!)… bearing in mind that it took him 5-10 minutes to walk to the bus stop from home.
He was embarrassingly colour-prejudiced (perhaps this was a result of what he saw as all the changes, for the worse, that had taken place in Handsworth during his lifetime?) and, as I grew older, my only coping-mechanism was to avoid the subject at all costs.
He was a great tinkerer – he could just sit and read a book. I well remember him “digging over” a flower bed at our house in Oxford just a/ few days after Moira had carefully sewn seeds! He and Mary came down to house-sit when we were away on holiday one year; unfortunately (when we lived in Thame), our cat died while we were away and he took it upon himself to get the vet to “get rid of it” – much to the dismay of our girls when we returned – they didn’t even have a body to bury and were completely distraught. I remember us returning home after a few days away and finding that he’d been down to the house and left me a list of things that I “needed to do” on the house!
He was a quite a deep- thinker and quite a creative person in some ways – he always claimed that he invented cellophane wrappings for food, for example (but, obviously, only in theory!)(he’d have a lot to answer for in these eco-conscious days).
Despite his relative shyness, he was quite gregarious in family situations (organising the games at Christmas, for example). Having said that, although he very much loved his family, he seemed to have an awkwardness when it came to dealing with his grandchildren (and his daughters-in-law!).
I think my most treasured memories are our occasional chats in the pub when they came down to Oxford/Thame on a Sunday. That was the time when I think we were closest. These were probably the only occasions that he “let his guard down” a little. He wasn’t a man to tell his sons that he loved them (well, certainly not in so many words!) and was frequently critical of both Alan and me – but, over our pints of beer, I came to appreciate that he was very proud of us both. This sounds awful but, whenever Mary accompanied us to the pub, it was never the same – he would clam up (and so would I!).
Apologies for rabbiting on, but I sense that if I don’t write down some of my recollections now, I may end up forgetting altogether!
He died from lung cancer when he was just 70. He was a thoroughly good man and he’d be incredibly proud of his sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren and great-grandchildren if he were alive today.
Photo: My mother and father (late 1991? and 1947, Ilfracombe).


bigdaddystevieB said...

for some annoying reason, I'm unable to edit this blog (infuriating!)... instead of "He was a great tinkerer – he could just sit and read a book", it SHOULD read "He was a great tinkerer – he could NEVER just sit and read a book".

Tracey Wheeler said...

Beautiful. It does us all good to spend a little time every so often to remember the people that made us who we are.