Father’s Day memories

June 19th, 2010 § 11 comments

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.

§ 11 Responses to Father’s Day memories"

  • wisewebwoman says:

    I relate so strongly to your writing, Tessa. Very similar trajectories with father and his treatment of me and siblings.
    It is sad how much is always left unsaid, isn’t it. To feel unloved at our most vulnerable.
    We never quite recover.
    Much love to you today.

  • Pseudo says:

    This was a beautifully written piece. I could relate to so many things, even though I grew up in LA. I have two sisters and my father was a man of few words. You’ve brought your dad to life in this post and it is a lovely tribute.

  • Anne Gibert says:

    I think he must have loved all of you. Brits have a hard time with love. My mother complained of the same thing with her parents.

    As always, that was beautifully written.

  • Jungheart says:

    My father will be dead thirty six years on Wednesday…and I still miss him. At 18 I was just getting to know the ‘man’ and bam…he was gone!through the experience of my own kids, 16 and almost 18 I am developing a new understanding of my deceased parents ( my mother is gone just three years, living into her 90’s). I feel most put out that my teenage kids relate to me in the same way even though I tried so hard not to meke the same mistakes that I perceived my parents made…sometimes I regret not hitting them on the head with the psychology books I devoured when raising them!!

  • JES says:

    I’ve heard it said that the dead, after death, take the opportunity to look back and see what lesson(s) they might have learned had they not been so focused on living. Whatever your dad did or didn’t think or know of you at the time, it’s inconceivable that in retrospect he would not feel honored to have had such a daughter, nor regret the missed chances.

  • Andrew says:

    Lovely stuff, Tessa.
    While frantically searching for a last minute card the other day, I realised that there were absolutely none that felt appropriate, given that my father isn’t into barbeques, beer, football or fishing. And the smarmy messages inside always seem way off the mark. But I guess they don’t make cards with “Dad, you’re a decent bloke and I’m glad we have a cordial relationship” printed in them.

  • Powerful memories. My own relationship w/my father was one of barely tolerating each other for short bursts at a time. We’d chat but we never quite connected. He felt I was not worth sending to school and chose to educate my brother instead while I learned to type. Horrors. I watched him slowly give in to Alzheimer’s and die in 1992. I was the only one at the funeral not weeping – I felt guilty in not missing him, but you can’t miss what you never had. I see friend’s fathers and I realize what I missed with he and the stepmonster raising me — and yet I managed to make it to adulthood fairly unscathed. Amazing.
    By the way I’ve moved Crap on a Crutch. New name: Oh Crap On a Crutch. New site: http://ohcraponacrutch.blogspot.com. Cheers.

  • As you can imagine, I identified with this, Tessa. So sad to learn what *not* to do with your own children from your parents’ actions. God, I’d die if my kids did that.

  • conortje says:

    Here I am in Ecuador with watery eyes and a head full of thoughts, both yours and mine. To say that this was an incredible blog post is to do it no justice at all. My dad died five years ago and any litte thing at all can bring me back to that time so easily.

    One thing I know for sure, he did love you all, in his own way.

    Thank you so much for this post, it’s a gem.

  • What a lovely piece of writing.

    It sounds like your father was just a product of his times and own upbringing really. He cared in his own way, only not necessarily in a way emotionally fulfilling or nurturing to his children.

    My father can show affection to cats only. I suspect Asperger’s Syndrome may be involved. But since he’s always been pretty indifferent to me, I find I am much the same in my responses to him and never wish for any more. In fact for the last 10 years he doesn’t even seem to know the difference between myself and my sister (and he only has two of us to confuse!).

  • Rona Maynard says:

    What a lovely, understated piece. It leaves me sad for your father and all the men similarly cut off from their emotions, but glad for you that you found another path while building your own family.

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