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, Â 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. Â That much I had learned from my father.