I try to recall some positive memories about Dad; it’s something I find quite hard. I have an old black and white photo of him sitting in a chair in what looks like a living room. He’s wearing a white smock coat that looks a little stained in places. So I’m guessing he’s just come in from work. In the crook of one arm, he’s cradling a baby. I’ve no idea who the baby is. I wondered if it might be me, but I was born when dad was thirty four and he looks older in the picture.
I guess I dug out this particular photo because I was looking for some evidence of tenderness. I’m not sure I see it there; there’s a matter of fact look about the whole scene and that just about sums up my dad. Life was just about hard work. About getting on with things. You faced challenges with stoicism. Life wasn’t complex back then.
He came out of the RAF after the Second World War and used his savings to set himself up with a roadside canteen, as a means of making a living. Probably a pretty shrewd move on his part as I think unemployment was quite high back then. I don’t know how or when he met my Mother but I know that they got married in a bit of a hurry. Of course, I was never told this; families in those days being a bit quiet about that sort of thing. No, I had to figure this out for myself when two months before my 25th birthday, they had their Silver Wedding celebrations.
To his credit, he took on what in those times was quite a challenge for a post war working class family, as my mother already had four daughters and a son from her previous marriage. I doubt that there was much in the way of social assistance back then, so he clearly had to bring enough money in to keep us all. Over the next ten years he progressed from the roadside canteen to manager of a works canteen and then on to his own roadside cafe. Nothing fancy, just a typical greasy spoon place selling breakfasts and lunches to passing motorists and lorry drivers. He’d clearly reasoned that people would always want food, and that this was always going to be a straightforward money over the counter transaction. A good business to be in if you had a sizeable family.
I don’t remember much in the way of quality time with him. His idea of playing seemed to be vigorous tickling sessions to the point that I got panicky. If he tried sports with us he usually ended up frustrated and angry with us. He had no patience with me at all. I’m guessing that, as I was his eldest, he had quite high expectations of me, but anything I did elicited no praise from him whatsoever.
There was much more of a gender divide back then. For boys, particularly working class boys, the education was about training in practical skills based on what they might be required to do in the world of work. So I was given toys that were appropriate to nurture me in that direction. Things like Meccano, Lego, and other toys that had a construction element. Later on I was allowed to progress to tinkering with odd broken down domestic items. One occasion sticks in my mind. Dad turned up with an old cylinder vacuum cleaner. He gave me a selection of tools and told me to take it apart. I set to the task with relish, and when I’d finished he came over and began to explain how it worked; in particular how the electric motor worked. He must have made a half decent job of this bit of tuition, because I remember the details to this day. It was one of the rare occasions that one might consider to have been some sort of bonding exercise between us. Mostly these little training sessions ended up in tears, my tears.
He seemed to have very little patience with any of us; very quickly getting quite irritated. Like many men of his day, he was the family disciplinarian. The go to person for punishment. We weren’t regular recipients of beatings, but he could certainly dish it out. Holding one of our arms so we couldn’t run away, he would deliver several sharp slaps to the back of our thighs. Always with an open hand and, “where it wouldn’t leave a bruise”, he would say to my mother. The effect on me was to make me fearful of authority. Which, from a social perspective, was quite useful for the world of work; one has to have compliant workers who know their place.
Yet, the same man was capable of very kind actions. There was an old tramp who would appear at the back door of Dad’s business, and this old guy would pick up a brush, mop and bucket and set to swabbing out the Ladies and Gents toilets. As payment for this little chore, Dad would fill up his billycan with hot tea and give him a sandwich; which he would consume while sitting outside leaning up against the wall of the cafe. Not exactly an attractive welcome for prospective customers, but he was tolerated. He would then disappear, turning up weeks or months later and doing the same again.
Occasionally other rather more furtive characters would appear at the back door and there would be a quiet huddle where my Dad would hand over some cash. I later discovered a drawer containing a selection of odd watches, electric razors and other assorted bric-a-brac. It seemed Dad was also a bit of a soft touch for people who were short of money; so he was a kind of unofficial pawn broker. I think it’s fair to surmise that some of the items were knock offs, and so they were rarely reclaimed.
Come to think of it, most of his kindnesses involved giving out money. On a trip to a fairground I was witness to him hand out money to some local children, so that they could enjoy the rides. Later in life, whenever I or my brothers visited, he would suddenly push his hand into our shirt pocket and leave behind a wad of notes; ignoring our protestations that we didn’t need it. If he got wind that they were struggling for some reason, he would wrap considerable sums of cash in newsprint and post them to family members at the other side of the world.
I came to the conclusion that this was the only way he could show any form of caring or love. Because of his psychological make up, other ways of expressing these feelings simply weren’t open to him. Thinking about it now; I find that very sad.
I realise now that I learned very little of his early life. He wasn’t one for talking much about the past. He reckoned that his grandfather was a master mason and had worked on the Liver Building in Liverpool. Even this story only ever came out if we were passing through that city and his memory was jogged. He would also occasionally talk about his time in the RAF. Some of these stories were pretty grim. He was ground crew only and from what I could gather he didn’t seem to have a specific role; just called on to do whatever was needed. One of these tasks was to recover bodies, usually from beaches. One story he told was of the time he joined a team digging out what remained of an aircraft that had nose dived into the ground. He would relate how, when they got to the poor sods who were still in it, the pilots face had literally peeled back to one side of his head. He told this story in a very calm and matter of fact way; with no intention to shock or horrify at all. I can’t help feeling though, that these experiences must have had a formative effect on his psychological make up.
A friend asked me why I delve into the past like this. It seems it’s something they couldn’t do themselves; fearful of what they might dig up. I was taken off guard by the question and so struggled a little to answer. I guess for me thinking about the past helps me to understand myself a little better, and what I’m reaching for in remembering Dad is, that if I can find some level of compassion and understanding about him, I might also achieve some form of self compassion and understanding.