He died fifty-one years ago, yet I see him every day. Each morning, all I need 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 these mutterings as an early indication of approaching dementia.
Even though he was maybe two inches taller than I, and had straight hair and a mustache, we still looked alike and, now that I’m nearly ten years older than he was when he died, I know that we share many quirky mannerisms. Yet in other ways we were about as different as anyone could be.
Sadly, it was years after he’d gone that I really began to realize what an unusual and lovable man he was. Perhaps, before his sudden death at the age of seventy, I wrongly evaluated people in terms of their material success. Now, I hope, I’m older and maybe even a little wiser, because by those criteria my father wouldn’t have measured up. Like their ancestors, doctors and surgeons for generations, his two brothers became professionals, Bill a doctor and Frank a lawyer. But after his stint at a boarding school in Somerset, my father didn’t go on to college; instead he became a clerk in a rural branch of the Westminster Bank, and spent the rest of his working life in small country towns.
He was the most extraordinary mix of seemingly incompatible traits. On one hand he was warm and 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, and he certainly never kissed 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. In a solemn voice he’d recite:
“Oh dear Mama, what is that mess?
It looks like strawberry jam.
Hush, hush, my dears, ‘tis your Papa,
run over by a tram.”
My father had three brothers, and a sister, Janet. All four boys were in the army in World War I, and three survived. Arthur, 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 patching up the wounded under enemy fire during the Battle of The Somme. My father, Harold, caught a chunk of shrapnel in the stomach, and after being shipped home to hospital, finished the war running a prison 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: 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 fifty 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 job as a warden was fairly leisurely. He and other older villagers prowled the streets and farm buildings to check that windows were 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 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 more nearly seventy years later.
There was one poignant scenario near the end of my father’s working life about which my mother didn’t tell me until he was dead. It revealed one chronic cause of anxiety that I realize we shared during our lives – a hell that, for lack of a better word, I will call job anxiety. For years, as far back as I can remember, he was the Number 2 at his bank in the little market town of Sittingbourne. And one day in the Thirties he was short-listed for a post as Number 1 of a bigger branch, and summoned to London.
He was almost shaking with fear when he boarded the train for London to attend an 11:00 a.m. interview at the Westminster Bank headquarters. Eleven o’clock passed, then twelve, and he had still not been called. At two he was sent out to lunch, and it wasn’t until nearly four p.m. that the interview began. By that time he was in such a state that he was barely coherent. He didn’t get the job.
I’m retired now, and have two children, thousands of miles away with on two different continents with their own families. Sometimes I wonder whether, forty-odd years from now, in the distant, impossible-to-imagine 2050’s, my son will ever look into 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.