He died 60 years ago, yet I see him every day. Each morning, all I have to do is look in the bathroom mirror, and there he is.
“Morning, Dad,” I’ll say as our eyes meet, though usually under my breath, for fear that Lynn, my wife, will take this muttering as an acceleration of my actual but mercifully slowly developing dementia.
Even though he was maybe two inches taller than I, and had straight hair and a mustache, I can tell from old photographs that we still looked somewhat alike and, now that I’m nearly 87, seventeen years older than he was when he died in England.
Like his three brothers, my father went to a boarding school. Bill became a doctor and Frank a lawyer, but my father didn’t go on to college; instead he became a clerk at what was then the Westminster Bank, and spent the rest of his working life in banks in small country towns.
Sadly, it was only years after his sudden death that I began to realize what an unusual and lovable man he was. He was the most extraordinary mix of seemingly incompatible traits. On one hand he was kind and generous, yet at the same time he was wracked by anxiety about money, and an irrational fear of being burgled. While he was fervent in his attempt to nurture my brother David and me, and to see to it that we were well-informed, he was one of the least tactile people I’ve ever known. I don’t think he ever hugged us. From my early teens I addressed him as ‘Sir,’ and whenever we met or parted -- even later when I might have been overseas for a year or two -- we only shook hands.
But for all his apparent remoteness, he was capable of making us laugh, bursting spontaneously into song and verse, or posing some silly riddle from his own early childhood in the 1890’s.
“What kind of noise annoys an oyster?” he’d ask.
“We don’t know, Dad. What noise annoys an oyster?”
“Why?” he’d say, “a noisy noise annoys an oyster.”
When you’re five or six that’s pretty funny, but sometimes his verses were a little too macabre for our mother, who thought we were a trifle young for some of them. For example, in a solemn voice he’d recite:
“Oh dear Mama, what is that mess?
It looks like strawberry jam.
Hush, hush, my dear, ‘tis your Papa,
run over by a tram.”
My father had three brothers, and a sister, Janet. It was she who generously paid for David’s and my education, which my father could never have managed on a bank clerk’s salary. All four boys were in the army in World War I, and three survived. Arthur, whom I haven’t mentioned yet, the youngest, a shy, fragile youth, died in the trenches in Flanders, while Frank and Bill served nearby in France. Bill won the Military Cross for courageously operating on the wounded under enemy fire during the Battle of The Somme. My father, Harold, caught a chunk of shrapnel in his stomach, and after being shipped home to hospital, finished the war running a German prisoner-of-war camp in Belgium. He must have been the most benevolent commandant, for our house was full of strange artifacts that German prisoners had made for him out of brass shell-cases, including ashtrays, a dinner-gong that hung in an oak frame, and a pipe tobacco jar with a lid, all with ‘Kapt. H. Birch’ engraved on them.
Father was 50 when, in 1939, the Second World War broke out. He became an air raid warden, and my mother a volunteer ambulance driver. We lived in a village on the estuary of the river Thames, along which the German bombers came and went during their raids on London. Our county, Kent, was the stage on which much of the Battle of Britain was played, and it bristled with searchlights and anti-aircraft batteries. My father’s voluntary job as a warden was fairly leisurely. He and other older villagers prowled the streets and farm buildings to check that windows were properly blacked-out, and to watch for fires from incendiary bombs. My mother, on the other hand, found herself carrying hundreds of casualties after air attacks on the fighter and bomber bases dotted around the surrounding countryside.
One moonless night there was an incident that typified the clown in my father, and at the same time, his serious-mindedness. For an hour or so, after hearing strange sounds in an apple orchard, he crawled on his hands and knees, believing himself to be stalking a German parachutist. When he at last threw himself, unarmed, on his prey, it turned out to be a startled sheep, much to the later amusement of his fellow wardens in the village pub.
Father was an inveterate walker, and as teenagers on our long summer vacations from boarding school, David and I would stroll with him between the tall hazel-wood hedgerows in the narrow lanes around the village. He called these excursions ‘informative walks’ and, as patriarch turned pedagogue, would quiz us about which river flowed through what city, dates of the reigns of English kings and queens, quotations from Shakespeare, and even Latin common nouns, most of which I still remember many, many decades later.
I’m long retired now, and have two children, thousands of miles away with their own families. Sometimes I wonder whether, in the distant, impossible-to-imagine 2040’s, my son will ever look in his shaving-mirror and see and speak to me. If he and his sister remember me even a fraction as fondly as I do my father, that’ll be just fine by me.