Today marks 31 years since My father died. Born in Cardiff, the eldest of five boys, Don met my mother, Val, at a dance in the city’s Sophia Gardens. Mum wrote in her diary that Dad had “funny eyes”, but after that, the only hiccup to their getting together was Dad’s ex, Jean, for whom Mum thought he still had feelings. He had bought her a handbag, but they broke up before he had chance to give it to her, so Mum insisted that he take it to her in Scotland where she lived, just to be absolutely sure that he did not want to get back together with his ex before embarking on a relationship with her. The handbag incident (I like to imagine Jean whimpering “A handbag? A handbag?” a la Lady Bracknell) sealed his feelings for Mum and they married in 1953, when Mum was 21 and Dad 24. I was born five years later and, when I celebrated my big birthdays – 40, 50, 60 – wished with all my heart that Dad had been there.
The last birthday party he attended would be his last. I was 30, living in London and working as television critic on the London Evening Standard. I still went home regularly, and even more so when Dad first went into hospital in the January of 1987. I was used to him being ill; he had been a smoker and had always had a weak chest. But he had always come through and we expected him to do so again. The moment I knew he would definitely not survive was the Christmas before he died, when a doctor at the hospital told me that he had suffered three “small” heart attacks that week. “But no one can survive that, can they?” I asked. “Well, no,” he said.
Until that moment, I had not thought of a life without Dad. Although I was very busy in my new job and having problems settling in an alien city, we were in constant touch, either through visits or on the phone. Then, as always, Dad was a huge part of my life, and even the thought of him not being there left a hole that left me gasping for breath. This was what people meant when they talked of the parent becoming the child, and I felt ill equipped for my new role. Feeding Dad his supper one night, when he was too weak to hold the fork, was a moment of grown-upness too far.
The doctor had clearly not told Dad what he had told Nigel and me, because one evening he said to Mum, tearfully: “I don’t want to die.” I suspect he knew, but we all continued to live with hope in our hearts, even if it had gradually left our heads.
But on his 60th, in March 1989, he was just out of Bristol’s Frenchay Hospital again and home in time for the celebrations. His hands looked older, as if, in spirit, they were still in Frenchay, merely on loan until the day arrived for them to be returned permanently. Outside the abnormality of the ward and back home, they seemed more lined and appeared to have taken on a yellow tinge. The fingernails, as always, were perfectly trimmed, with not a speck of dirt. “Hi, Gaggie Nennens,” he said, greeting me at the front door. It was his pet name for me when I was a child and he started using it because when people used to ask my name, the mispronounced words came out as: “Gaggie Nennens.”
The party felt like a farewell: a rehearsal for the funeral that in our darkest hours we suspected was not too far away. When the guests had gone and he was ready for bed, I kissed him goodnight at the top of the stairs and was shocked to feel the smallness of his frame in his pajamas, bones drowning in blue cotton. When I held him close, the softness gave way to small, sharp points, bursting out of his back.
This was not the body that lifted me up to Georgie in his budgerigar’s cage, saying “Night, night, Georgie;” nor the hands that held my clammy forehead over the toilet bowl when I was sick. Dad was slipping away to a place he had not yet been, and I was helpless to pull him back. The more I tried, the further he fell, all the time shrinking, shrinking, and it tore me apart to feel my father so small in my arms. But the inner strength that had always been him was still there; he did not seem like a man who wanted to die.
I was always Gaggie Nennens to Dad, just as I would always be the little girl who was never old enough to cross the road by herself. Well into my twenties, when I went home and would venture out for, heaven forbid, a pint of milk, he would warn: “Be careful crossing the road.” When we went for a drink, after two minutes he would be wiping his eyes, as if he had never even recovered from the fact that I learned to speak.
Dad was an intensely emotional person, whose feelings did not reveal themselves in outbursts, but in still, quiet moments when the tears would come at the slightest prompting. He would be the first to cry at Lassie on a Sunday afternoon when we sat watching TV as a family; he could never talk about his parents without crying; and when our pet poodle Emma died, he was grief-stricken for months.
He blamed himself for not cleaning out the boiler flue that killed Emma by carbon monoxide poisoning. He and Mum had wondered why my brother, who was also near the flue, was sleeping almost to the point of rigor mortis, so in fact Emma saved his life. But Dad never forgave himself and, when we had our next dogs (two, to assuage the guilt still further), he was particularly soft on them.
Sally the Chihuahua and Tara the poodle lived longer lives than their predecessor (indeed, they outlived Dad), largely as a result of Dad’s solicitations. When Dad was taken ill, they had, between them, two good eyes, six good legs, one and a half tails, one womb and no properly functioning bladder. Where Mum would put down one square of the Bristol Evening Post for both dogs for their nocturnal habits and then berate them for the spillage, Dad put down the equivalent of the New York Times. When he was in hospital, his role as acting urologist to the dogs was probably the main thing they missed. That, and his giving each of them a saucer of coffee in the living room last thing at night.
If Dad’s love for the dogs was revealed in such small acts of kindness, it was multiplied a hundredfold when it came to his children. He always treated us equally and also could not bear for him and Mum to have anything without sharing it with us. On the rare occasions when they had a Chinese takeaway (very rarely; money was tight), he put a small amount on two saucers (having been washed after the dogs’ coffee, I must presume) and brought it up to us in bed, two little birds with open mouths anticipating a rare luxury.
Until my late teens, our social life centered on family activities. We were all ballroom dancing competitors and used to travel with Mum and Dad to their evening competitions, where my collection of rubber animals was always a hit amongst the judges. It did no good when they came to awarding Mum and Dad points, though, not least because no lime green latex praying mantis in the world is going to compensate for the fact that your parents cannot dance in time to the music.
They were occasions when Mum and Dad were guaranteed to argue, each blaming the other for dancing on the wrong beat. As with all their disagreements, they were little more than surface spats. My mother was the more volatile of the two, and Dad a placid person who let what he saw as pointless conflict go over his head. But I never doubted their love, and even after 37 years of marriage at the time he died, Mum said that her heart still missed a beat (a bit like her dancing, in that respect) when she heard his voice at the end of the phone.
You would imagine, having such a good, strong role model, that I would be drawn to men of similar emotional stature; but throughout my entire adult life I was drawn almost exclusively to weak, cruel men, who undermined me and drained my confidence. I had a wonderful childhood that equipped me with high self-esteem, and, until the age of 16, considered myself an extremely happy person. Becoming involved with one of my schoolteachers at that time set me on a destructive path that would color – or, rather, discolor – my life to this day, and he could not have been more different from my Dad in every respect: selfish, a user, emotionally inept. It just goes to show: you can have everything going for you, have the best role models in the world, and you can still screw up.
Dancing to the wrong beat was one of the rare skills Dad could not master. In other things, he had a lot of knowledge about a lot of things, and his practical skill at all things electrical and mechanical (he was a mechanical engineer) is something I have inherited from him, albeit on a small scale. I also inherited from him a strong work ethic that was instilled in me from primary school age. If you are not in work on time, he used to say, it is not your employer’s problem. But what if the bus breaks down, I used to say. Still not your employer’s problem. The responsibility to do what one is asked, to the best of one’s ability and deliver it on time is something to which I have adhered to my entire working life, and it astonishes and frustrates me that others do not adopt the same philosophy.
His practical skills manifested themselves in all areas of our lives. It was to him my mother turned when the Betterware man, Tupperware man, Avon lady, or whoever else my mother had taken pity on, rang the door for payment for the useless goods she had ordered (there was a Cancer research man, too, but he died). Whatever they required – the Avon payment book, invoices, insurance certificates, cash – Mum could never find to give them. Along with car-keys, lipsticks, cheque-books and pens, these items were Dad’s responsibility in the midst of Mum’s mounting panic over their apparent loss.
When Dad dies, the first card through the door is from the Avon Lady.
My first thought is one of surprise that Avon ladies still exist; the second, that Mum still buys from them. Within two hours of Dad’s death, Mum picks up the card from behind the door, opens it, smiles, frowns and cries. “It’s from the Avon Lady,” she says, passing me the first bereavement card of the day. I read the message: “You’ll never be able to find the book now.” Don’t bother calling again, Avon.
Both Mum and Dad gave my brother and me a good, fulfilled and joyous childhood. There was not a vast amount of money, but we lived a comfortable life in which we felt no deprivation – well, apart from my resenting the cooked meal we had every day after school, when my friends up the road were enjoying Ritz crackers and cheese. Our holidays were spent at Butlin’s, where we enjoyed late nights drinking hot milk and watching the doughnut-making machine sugar our supper. On summer weekends we went to the beach, where Dad really came into his own, packing the car (and unpacking it at the other end) the essentials Mum deemed necessary for a day at the sea – windbreak, Lilo, Flotina, deck chairs, table and chairs, cold-box, hamper, sun umbrella, Tupperware for sandwiches and squash, flasks for tea and coffee, dog bowls, towels and swimming costumes, eight gallons of Calamine lotion. By the time we left the house, dusk was already falling, and our day out became 40 minutes. But as with everything, Dad bore his lot with equanimity.
Dad’s calm nature was in stark contrast to that of Mum, Nigel and me, whose rather wacky humor put us in tune with each other in rather more obvious ways. Where Mum had me dressed in psychedelic dresses and wearing cowbells to school when I was 11, Dad practically needed oxygen when I wore my first pair of platform shoes with a bright red plastic heart on the sides. His views on fashion were, as his values, old-fashioned by today’s standards, but I remain grateful for them.
He taught me manners and respect; the importance of hard work and being driven, but not to the point of negating the people closest to you. Despite his intellect and enormous success in his work, his family came first, ambition second. I doubt he ever thought of it as a sacrifice, but it is one that I believe he made in order that his children might have better lives. We were lucky to have him.
The day of Dad’s death is as clear today as it was in 1990. I woke in London in my flat in Belsize Park Gardens to the sound of my answer machine clicking in the living room. When I played back the messages, the last one said: “He passed away a few minutes ago . . . Jac? JAC? Oh, my God, it’s the answer-machine! What do I do? What do I do? It’s her answer machine!”
The nurse, having heard my voice, passed Mum the phone, without realizing that it was a recording.
A moment of numbness quickly became one of hysteria. I played the message again and again, hoping for a different conclusion.
I took the train from Paddington to Bristol and, hours later, in my parents’ home, looked at two bags on the kitchen unit under two separate pieces of paper. The first said SMALL ITEMS OF VALUABLE PROPERTY and listed: £1.25 – cash, 1 watch, glasses and case. The second, PROPERTY TO BE KEPT SECURELY IN GENERAL ADMINISTRATION OFFICE, listing toilet requisites, 1 track suit, 1 vest, 1 pants, 1 pair slippers, 5 hankies, 1 book, biscuits and container, cards, 1 towel, 1 dressing gown.
On paper, it didn’t look much to show for 60 years, but they are tributes to a man for whom avarice and materialism were anathema, and I stood, crying, next to the half-eaten tin of biscuits where, true to form, Dad has eaten only the plain and left the chocolate.
And then, as now, I give thanks both to, and for, Dad.