My father died on a Saturday, 17th June 1978, just over 2 weeks after my 18th birthday. I blogged about his death last year, but I wanted to spend a bit of today thinking about his life,- specially this weekend when the whole world seems busy celebrating fatherhood (just as they were the weekend that he died).
My father was indisputably the most important person in my childhood universe.
I loved my mother dearly, and we share many many characteristics, but she never enjoyed good health, and was often hospitalised for months at a time while I was growing up. I never quite knew if I'd return from school to find one of my honorary mothers on duty, because Mummy was poorly again. In contrast, Daddy was the rock on which my world was based, the one whose presence meant home. My clearest memories have him standing at the sink in a stripy butcher’s apron washing up, or sitting on the end of my bed reading me poetry before he tucked me up for the night, or making up wonderful stories about a girl called Belinda who lived on a farm and had all the animals that the heart could desire. When I discovered the Swallows and Amazons books, long before I was really old enough to camp alone, he would cheerfully subject himself to chilly nights in a flimsy tent at the bottom of our garden so that I could be as many of the Walker children as I fancied, and was always prepared to light me a bonfire to allow for charred toast and rock hard jacket potatoes (the limits of my campfire cooking)
When I was 6, my endless pleadings for a dog "of my very own" bore fruit with the arrival of Robin, a Springer Spaniel puppy whom we collected just days after my birthday. From then on, no weekend was complete without long walks, Daddy, Robin and me…still telling stories, sometimes having adventures, or perhaps just wandering along in companionable silence.
One walk took us to “Boaz Wood”, where a tramp had lived for some years in a tin hut. Mr Boaz (surely not his real name) was long gone, but the hut remained, and we played wonderful games in and around it, as in an abandoned van that we found on another walk. Naval battles melted into Narnian adventures, and if my legs got tired (my father was over 6’ tall, and never one to dawdle) then a piggy back was always available, to bring me safely home. Piggy-backs, incidentally, were known as camel rides, and their theme tune, to be sung full voice by anyone in the vicinity was
“We’re off on the road to Morocco. This taxi is hard on the spine”
Whose spine? You may well ask…
Home was a chalet-bungalow, with most bedrooms on the ground floor, and my room was next door to the sitting room, with an air-vent for the chimney opening on one wall opposite my bed. I could creep out of bed on winter evenings, slide open the grating and listen as my father played the piano,- Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn. The piano, which is part of our family life to this day, had been given to him in his teens, - after the wooden-framed piano on which he’d first learned literally exploded under the tension of its own strings, one hot summer in the 1920s.
Daddy loved the 19th century composers, and never quite “got” what I saw in Bach, though he would loyally attend every concert in which I sang or played during my teens, and learned the accompaniments for everything I was working on. He wasn’t a great musician, but he loved music so much,- and never concealed his delight in my singing. It was Daddy that took me to my first concert, my first opera, and, every year on Good Friday, to hear Messiah. He had a large and splendid voice, - which was a joy when the audience rose to join in the Hallelujah chorus, but a colossal embarrassment on the odd Sunday when he expressed his disapproval of any dodgy theology he encountered in hymns by a sudden, agonising silence, which left the whole congregation floundering! Generally, he was an 8.00 man, a quietly traditional Anglican, who preferred not to discuss his relationship with God. When I was indulging in the essential teenage rebellion by worshipping at a church much further “down the candle” than the one in which I’d been baptised and confirmed, I used to try and corner him to discuss “real faith”,- but Daddy was essentially reserved and refused to be drawn. I’ll never forget the evening when Mummy and I were talking (gossiping?) about a family whom we knew,- and tried to involve Daddy in the conversation. He simply said “They’re not on my social list”……….and thus reduced both his women to completely hysterical laughter. The idea of Daddy, who would have been totally content as a hermit, provided we were OK about it, having even the vaguest concept of a “social list” was so ludicrous……I’m still smiling, 30 years on!
He taught himself German so that we could explore the Lieder poets together,- which I loved. He also taught himself “New Maths”, which I was considerably less keen on, so that he could help me make sense of that. Maths homework nights were agony for us both, as he was naturally quick with numbers (he had had an Oxford place, which he never took up due to the outbreak of war, and his subsequent struggle with tb) and just couldn’t see why I couldn’t see!
He demanded much of himself, and though I was in no doubt that I was loved unconditionally I knew too that he took the greatest pride in my achievements. I was so glad to be able to tell him, days before his death, that I had been made the first ever girl head chorister at my school, and his pleasure is one of my strongest memories of those last days. Aside from my mother and me, his great passions in life were the countryside and above all the sea. His father’s family had been boatbuilders on the Thames for generations, but Daddy broke with tradition by seeking wider horizons and was probably happiest during his wartime service in the Royal Navy. After his death, I discovered that he had collected a DSC for his courage while serving in Burma, but he never spoke about it, pointing me instead to the wartime classic The Cruel Sea. "I don't need to talk about it. It's all there".
Books held the key to most things. He read thoroughly, absorbing more along the way than I ever manage,- and rarely re-read “The world is so full of great books, I don’t want to miss out some I could have read, by revisiting others”. Perhaps it was his wartime experience that gave him a sense of the value of time, a constant awareness of mortality.
When I discovered the classic English whodunnits in my teens, he was reading Maigret in French. In his last weeks, when he knew he was dying (though we sadly never managed to talk about it) he determinedly went on reading Proust,- again in the original.
There are no madeleine equivalents, no particular food that recaptures memories of Daddy for me, but if I smell the faint whiff of pipe tobacco mingled with new-mown grass on a summer’s evening, then I’m a small child again, hearing the soothing sound of the mower as Daddy pushed it over the grass outside my window, and I know that everything in the world is safe in its proper order.
My father would hate to be the subject of a public tribute like this, so I'm almost uncomfortable about sharing these memories. His funeral, like his life, was quiet, private, understated, but I was proud of him then, and I’m proud of him still. Part of me is still incredulous that I’ve lived more of my life without him than I enjoyed with him, and I'll always regret that the children never knew him,- but he’s alive in them in so many ways, and I thank God for him not just today, but on every remembrance.