Father’s Day memories

June 19th, 2010 § 11 comments § permalink

My father used to remark wryly to his friends that he knew no peace, because his house was infested with girl children. There were only four of us, but we were a fairly rambunctious lot. If we weren’t fighting with each other, we were fighting with our mother, who liked to pay tribute to her Italian heritage with a screaming match every now and again. During these skirmishes, my father would retire to his garage, where he would sit in the car and read his paper until the white flag was waved, and he could return to what Englishmen like to believe is their castle.

That said, in reality he was very much the king of this particular castle. His word was law and we were far more afraid of his disapproval than my mother’s rages. He never lifted a hand to any of us; instead we got the silent treatment, which was far worse. I remember my youngest sister muttering once that she wished he would just hit us and get it over with, rather than leave us trying to work out what the hell we’d done wrong this time.

Of the four of us, my youngest sister was obviously his favourite. The tomboy of the family, she shared his fondness for shooting and fishing. Every Sunday, from the time she was about ten years of age, they and a couple of gun dogs would head out to their game preserves in the Dublin Mountains, along with a rackety gang of gunmen who made up my father’s “game association” aka shooting and drinking club. After a few hours and, with luck, a couple of pheasants, they’d all retire to a pub called the Blue Gardenia, and get plastered, with the exception of my sister, at least for the first few years.

One night they returned home from one of these expeditions, both highly amused. My sister, who was about 13 by this time, had been pestering Dad to order her a glass of Guinness, instead of her usual orangeade. As he refused her for the third time, one of the gunmen remarked “You should let him have it, Jack, or you’ll make a sissy of the boy.” My mother, as I recall, was not at all amused, while Dad thought it was a hoot, and my sister was proud as Punch that someone who’d been shooting with her for two years thought she was a boy.

As to the rest of us: I have the feeling that my father was endlessly amused by the shenanigans of my older sister, the She Devil, as she moved into her teenaged, boy-magnet years. And he remarked to me once, in a letter, that he could sit in a room with my other sister, the Redhead, for hours and wrack his brains to think of something he might say to her. And me? Well I’ve no idea what he thought of me.

He never had any problem finding something to talk about with me; we shared a love of reading, an interest in politics and current affairs and, above all, a quirky sense of humour. (One day, he picked up bath salts I’d received for my birthday, which the label compared to a walk in the woods. “Hmph,” he said. “If any boy tries burying his nuts, I hope you’ll give him a root in the arse.” I was 13, but I got the joke. As he knew I would.)

But there was always the sense that I disappointed him in some way. And he was terribly unforgiving anytime I erred. When we were children, his punishment of choice was to cut off our pocket-money and I got used to poverty from an early age. If I back-chatted my mother, my pocket money was stopped. If I yelled at one of my younger sisters or even looked sideways at them, it was stopped. It seemed to me that I could do nothing right, even when I was trying very hard to be a model daughter. Which, in hindsight, was not all that often.

I left home when I was 19, lived in Germany for a year, and then in England for another five years. When I wanted to go back to Ireland, I wrote to my father and asked if I could stay at home, while I looked around for a job and somewhere to live. He wrote back to say that I was welcome, but to remember that they had been getting along just fine without me while I was away. “We likes us as we is,” he wrote. In the end, I stayed there three years, not moving out into an apartment until the relationship between my mother and me reached the stage of open warfare.

When I told him I was pregnant, a few years later, he enquired whether I knew who the father was. For the first time I realised that, for all that he and I rubbed along quite amiably, he really had no clue who I was, or how I lived my life. I felt like Elizabeth Bennett.

Probably the most nakedly emotional thing he ever said to me was on the day I left Ireland for Canada. Most of the family came out to the airport to see me and the boy on our way. Hurried hugs all round as our flight was called, and then I came to my father, who had been hanging back. He hugged the child, then held me by the shoulders and said “I don’t agree with what you’re doing. But I admire your courage.”

Three years later, I had a call from the Redhead to say my father had had a stroke, after a Sunday of shooting (and drinking) with the gunmen. He was in hospital,  in a coma, and I should come as soon as I could. My aunt, his sister, met me at Dublin airport and drove me to the hospital. She dropped me at the main door, while she went to park the car, and a nurse told me where his room was. I sat beside him for a minute of two, before leaning forward to kiss him on the forehead. That was when I realised he was dead, and I had arrived too late.

When I got to my parents’ house, my youngest sister came out to meet me. “I never knew if he loved me,” she cried. That night, as I lay in my old bedroom, above his, I thought about what she had said. It saddened me to think how much he had missed, and I cherished the fact that my son would never say those words about me.  That much I had learned from my father.

That was then …

June 6th, 2010 § 15 comments § permalink

He came for a visit when our son was two and a half. The last time they’d met, the boy was ten months old. It was also the first time they’d met, and we’d gone there to visit him.

On this visit, we’d agreed to settle where we would go from here. We both knew things could not continue as they were – three thousand miles between us, and a relationship based on late night telephone conversations, with me woken from sleep and him staying late in his office, both of us tired after long days at work.

The boy behaved badly throughout his stay. Normally a sweet-natured, talkative child, he alternated between sulking and demanding my attention, referring to his father as “him,” refusing to address him directly and pushing between us at every opportunity. Months before, his father had sent us a talking camera and the boy believed it was his voice telling us we needed more light and to check distance. He enjoyed talking to the Dad in the camera, but the reality was too much for him.

During the two weeks he was with us, the future was never mentioned, until the night before he was due to fly back home, when I pressed him to make a decision. He told me he had tried very hard to convince himself he didn’t love his wife, but he did, and now he needed to go home and make things work between them.

We drove him to the airport the next morning. My instinct was to drop him off at Departures and drive away, but I gave in to the need to snatch even one more hour together, and we stayed through check-in, waiting with him for his boarding call. When it came, he kissed us both goodbye and started to walk towards the security gate. I was struggling to find the right words of farewell, when the boy raised his voice and trilled “Bye-bye, Daddy!” He stopped dead and turned back to look at us, with his face working. Then he turned away and walked through the gate, passing from view.

Six months later, on the boy’s birthday, we came home to find a bouquet of red roses waiting on the stairs to our apartment. Even before I read the card, I knew they were from him. “Happy birthday, from Dad. Love to you both” was the message.

I’ve done my grieving and moved on, I told myself. Actions speak louder than roses. And, screw him. But I put the flowers in water anyway, although I wanted to throw them in the bin.

The roses eventually withered and my friends assured me I had done the right thing in ignoring them and him. But still, in the back of my mind, I fought the urge to call him, just to see how he was doing, if he was missing us at all.

Late one night, almost a month later, I called him on his private line at work. He won’t be there at this hour, I told myself. If he is, I’ll put the phone down. I just want to hear his voice. But the phone was picked up on the first ring and his voice said “I’ve been hoping you would call! You got my roses?”

“What if I’d ignored them? What if I’d moved away, left no forwarding number or address? What then?” I retorted. And then “How are you?”

Within minutes, we were back on the old, easy footing that had gotten us into this affair in the first place. Before we rang off, promising to call each other again soon, I asked him how things were now, between him and his wife. He told me they were no better, although, when he’d gone back all those months before, they’d sat down and talked things over. “We shared our dreams,” he said, “agreed we wanted more family and would like to buy a boat.”

“A boat? What the hell has a boat got to do with anything?” I asked.

Fast forward fifteen years. We’re in our boat, during a storm on Lake Ontario. I’m hanging on for dear life, while he beams in delight at the 10ft waves creaming over the bow.

How the hell did I get here? I wonder.

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