That stuff, is it beautiful?
Some articles you owe, they’re a debt you have the need to repay and this is one of them. April, as TS Eliot wrote, is the cruellest month and I’d agree, if only because it contains the anniversary of my father’s death. This April, I will finally settle that debt and walk away. One way or another, I will do him justice or crash and burn on this last and final attempt. So, chin up Pointy, let’s give it a good old go. Forge on ahead and damn the torpedoes.
One of my sisters, a brother and their still beloved paramours stayed over for the weekend. We ate some leisurely grazing type of meals and discussed anything and everything around the communal table as we speared various roasted things out of a big earthenware dish set in the middle of it. I’d forgotten how well they could argue the hind legs off a charging elephant – any fool can take the fore legs off the poor creature. Jokes aside, it was the usual verbal slashing sabre fight, with them pretending it was merely a bit of foil tomfoolery.
All that was missing was the petulant argument or small-scale food fight breaking out towards the end before the alpha female did her mountain wildcat growl at us to settle us young savages back down. Old times are not forgotten.
We played with my brother’s gorgeous little toddler, who has a lovely spin on her mother’s Turkish looks, split off to watch the horse racing or do a multi-generational guitar jam session or just leave me alone to wander off into the study to do a bit of scribbling, and nobody cares about everyone going away to do their own thing like that. Despite what people might commonly think, being a part of a large family doesn’t mean you’re all the same. Quite the opposite actually.
Having fought for your own individual space, you’re fiercely protective of your siblings right to do their own thing. Okay, so not many girls are interested in taxidermy but that’s my sis, so you keep your gob off her buster or there’s really going to be a big problem between us. We were the only ones allowed to kill each other and of course we did that on a regular basis, but nobody outside la famiglia was allowed to touch a made man.
When all the young ones were safely abed, we ended up chatting away until about four in the morning and giving YouTube a real work out. We’d already done the news about the kids and each other and after all that usual small talk, moved on to the meaty stuff; putting the case for various pet ideas, movies, books and pieces of music and defending it to the death against all comers, which was everyone else since even if we agree, we perversely like to keep the conversation hopping along.
If there’s one thing to be said about us mutants on table nine, it’s we all have the slag off gene. We can seriously dish it out and we can take it too, and no hard feelings. I think the adrenaline of a bit of combat conversation does pop out of people why the really like or dislike something. I, like them, wouldn’t have it any other way or mebbe I don’t know any different. I do love their company, I could just sit and watch, and do so on those rare occasions when a bunch of us meet up. Like a starving man, it’s enough to just watch a witty and lively conversation.
As naturally tends to happen on these intimate occasions, we will eventually come around to talking about our childhood and parents, and specifically in our case that still enduring and bothering enigma called Dad. They’ve all got some very vivid memories of moments with him, but like me are like someone holding a piece of a jigsaw puzzle between their thumb and forefinger, turning it over and over and trying to fit it into some larger fractured picture on a table in front of them. Every one of those moments were ones he had exclusively with them, only them. We swap pieces but are no nearer to that bigger more comprehensive picture of him.
It really is frustrating, especially for me because I have the conceit to think I’m rather good at solving people conundrums, folding them up into neat tidy almost Japanese department store packages, and having done that, forgetting about them. I’m too close to him to use any objectivity; he made me after all. My sister shared with me a new piece of the puzzle that was him and that was a moment of realisation.
I finally recognised that my dilemma was no different from their one – complex people like him are not amenable to simple solutions, no neat boxed set collector’s edition will ever be available. Every one of us have at some time arrived at our own pet theories but abandoned them knowing it really didn’t quite capture him. My sis is perceptive and a thinker and perhaps thought sharing her own piece of the jigsaw puzzle might help us both to finally get some sort of comprehensive grip on him. You see, all the pieces are private, personal and yours alone.
He didn’t go through the motions with any social interaction with people. He was there, planted. You talked to him directly, he’d talk back to you with that same directness. There was only him and you in the world and for that moment in time you had his complete attention; that’s why we all have those special memories of him. Ask a question of him, any question, and you found he’d mull over an answer. I think that’s why we as children pushed what might be considered impertinent questions by any child to their father. It was a way of ensuring you got a bit of exclusive attention as that big brain slowly clicked over to an answer. When Zeus was having a think, you just sort of shut the fuck up and waited.
Having finally accepted there’ll never be the grand Unified Theory of Dad, I can finally discharge my compulsive need to write something about him, and I’ll do it not by defining or drawing some neat circle about him, but by doing nothing more than sharing my few pieces of the jigsaw with you. If you can put them together, good luck. Slow learner that I am, even I know that in the end all you’ll ever get of any man’s history are pieces of his story. Just pieces.
I’d be no more than a toddler. It was night time. We were visiting someone deep in the country, all I can remember is there was a white picket fence. It was country dark but half way to their gate he stopped and pointed at the sky and said, that’s history. I didn’t understand and asked so he put me down, told me to get behind him as he knelt down. I held onto his shoulders and looked along his pointing arm as instructed. I saw a little dot of light moving purposefully across the night sky. It was something called Sputnik he told me. That’s my earliest memory of anything.
To this day, I can look at a night sky and spot the satellites sliding across it. Using exactly his impromptu hands on shoulder technique, I’ve shown so many people how to look. I do love the look of joy on their faces. Thanks for that Da.
We were on a street somewhere. Not sure how old I was, perhaps five or six. I grabbed his leg and held on and shook it to get his attention. “Da, Da.” I’d felt the pure paralysed anger and the resultant frustrated rigidity radiating out off him like a rage shock wave and wanted to break the spell of him staring at them. My Da was easy, over easy, my Da was mellow as the day was long, nothing like this, this wasn’t him, I wanted him back because I was scared, really scared at what I’d seen.
We’d both watched a man accompanied by his woman beat a child, and I mean beat, and I’d never before seen anything like that. I asked him about it many years later and his hackles still rose. He’d had a bunch of children and never once resorted to beating them. He said it was stupid, and anyway if it didn’t work, the only place to go to after that was beating them harder and all you’d be teaching them to do was how to take a good beating. He’d a habit of nonplussing you with simple but incisive common sense. Simple honest ideas, simply expressed, a pure gorgeous thing and a lodestone that still guides me to this day.
I’ve never raised a hand against my children. Put simply, the idea never occurred. That’s not me being some sort of new-age enlightened Dad, but absorbing his brand of parenting without ever realising it was even happening. I count myself fortunate, they gave me all the decent first impulses when it came to parenting, and I know how difficult it can be when life has dealt you a different set of parents. Having to dump the first impulses a crappy pair of parents taught you produces the real heroes – the ones who’re breaking some shitty and dark multi-generational family traditions. I admire such people.
He had a way of looking at you like a disappointed Odin whose patience was in danger of running out with you when you’d really done something totally bloody stupid. You really felt the pressure to fix it, and boy did you make with the feet. You had to. He didn’t do kiss and make up fudges when it was important.
As a child, I never said much but missed nothing and he knew it. Wherever he went, I’d be the mute retard welded to his side. I suppose I’d be what’s termed a special needs kid nowadays. I could understand, could read despite all the worry. We were looking for a new house and he ran his fingers down the adverts for houses available and involuntarily stopped at one. It read “No Blacks, no Irish, no pets” but without the punctuation.
He knew by pausing he’d fucked up and the question that was going to come at him, so he headed it off at the pass straight away, before I could even form it. God looked down at me and said “We’ll talk about this in a few years when you’re older.” That was a valuable lesson. You don’t always have to give reasons and it’s okay to say you’re too young to understand, which I was.
My sister, who thinks she was fifteen years old at the time, asked him what was the worst day of his life and he took his time sorting through a varied life to come up with an answer. In the end, it was the rains coming early and smashing a crop he’d tended for a year flat into the ground just days before it was to be harvested. The seed heads trying to turn upward for life in the aftermath broke his heart, a year’s worth of farming and a financial disaster. Bless her, she’s in so many ways a smart cookie who wouldn’t know Barley from Wheat, and yet she’s never forgotten that reply. It’s one of her own little pieces of the puzzle.
I’d be entering my early teens. It is the nature of children to be takers and the nature of parents to be givers. At some point, you notice that, and it’s the beginning of really growing up; you stop being a taker. He’d get home, wash up, have some dinner and catch the six O’clock news. We were all in the living room and there was a hell of a lot of us who’d settle down to watch the TV. If there was something decent on, he’d stay around but most evenings, he’d retire to the front room, the one that was kept unused but immaculate for weddings, funerals and the occasional visit by that fool called the parish priest.
He’d play the violin. Some people are sickeningly talented when it comes to music. Hand them anything capable of making a noise, and they’ll very quickly make it sing. One of my kids inherited that gene. It creeped me out a bit as I saw it emerge from him but it reminds me of Da doing strange things like playing the Balalaika like a Russian. You’ve never lived until you’ve seen Cossack dancing done at a Wicklow wedding.
Part of his routine was to go for a walk in the evenings. Though by that time we lived in a city, we were fortunate to have a large piece of heath at the end of our road. Most evenings, he’d go for a walk around it. I watched him carefully and usually caught him leaving the house, so I could go with him. The big man wasn’t too bothered. Some nights we just walked around together without saying a word, some we just chatted. I remember the Summer evenings the best. So warm and the clouds of insects buzzing away as we walked through them. I picked them out of my mouth as we discussed Omar Khayyám.
That was my substantive education.
Dad and son. It doesn’t get any better really. Coming from a big family, it was my exclusive time with him. He introduced me to so many things I was to find joy in. The mind of William Blake, the poetry of WB Yeats, classic music via Fritz Kreisler, his hero violinist, and of course books. I’ve never since encountered such a rich and fertile intellect. Christ, if he’d had the educational chances he enabled me to have, he would have shamed me with his accomplishments
If you wanted anything extra outside the simple necessities of life, you got a job and after a kickback into the family pot, saved and paid for it yourself. I bought a broken down wreck of a motorbike and it was always a bit of a lemon to be frank. The battery kept running down and he as a mechanic flatly refused to repair it. No help at all, throw it off the nearest cliff was the message. Neither of them approved of me being on a motorbike. Bikes were evil.
Abandoned to my own devices, I got the books out of the library and finally worked out it was the Zener diode which was kaput, but at the same time I also learned the sacred litany of induction, compression, power and exhaust. It was only many years later that I learned the stubborn bastard had actually raced motorbikes. Not your nice race track stuff but that evil satanic bitch from hell glory called road racing, where if you make a single split second misjudgement, it’ll splat you up against someone’s dry stonewalling. Any bike racer who hasn’t the stones to take on the Isle of Man TT, is a wimp.
I’d turn up on the crappy bike of a Saturday at his lock up garage where he worked on his customers’ cars. It was my day off from hitting the books and I could spend some time helping him out. There’d always be a tranny radio doing Play for Today or something as we both worked inside the innards of some beast. We fought some noble battles against mechanically intransigent problems but always won out in the end. He really did have some seriously good moves.
He taught me some wonderful stuff that only a master of a craft could. How to hold a screwdriver in your teeth, walk it along the top of a rocker cover and feel from the vibrations precisely which tappets needed adjusting. The point is, anything can be elevated to an art form if you’re a certain type of person. He was. We always finished the afternoon washing the oil off our hands in a paraffin filled hubcap. When we got home for dinner, we’d do the soap and scrubbing brush thing to get the final traces of oil out from under of our finger nails. Even then, I was proud to smell like a mechanic and always felt I’d earned that meal.
There are so many more pieces. The fortitude to be on the wrong side of fifty, take the hit of an illness that took you down to nearly seven stone while every business you’d spent a lifetime building up withered and died. He got up, dusted himself off and started rebuilding. That’s a brand of courage you rarely see. Uncommon valour.
Me, deliberately mentioning his name to my mother in her old age, just to see that involuntary smile flick cross her face – he was her man and her man alone. Girl power. He was always her darling man, hers and hers alone. They had something special. There was never anyone else and she survived him by several decades. She was just waiting until they could get back together again. I do hope that happened.
I’m going to close it off with a final fond remembrance of the man. It’s my special secret, a bit of the puzzle I’ve never shared with anyone else and yet goes to the heart of the man.
I’d be in my late teens, studying for my university entrance exams and coping not too well with a bad decision. I was slated for literature, history and languages but because of a stupid requirement to have at least one science subject, had no choice but to study that hated maths. I of course embraced the horror and fell in love with it and that became what I wanted to do at third level, so I took on the whole barrage of math exams. However, a few fine teachers I loved had put some effort into the other areas of me and there was no way I was going to let them down, so I just did the whole bloody lot anyway.
Looking back on it, the last few months before the finals I was walking wounded, a few steps away from a breakdown and living in a sleepless induced virtual world before that idea ever became fashionable. That was my dreamtime and it was sort of beautiful. I started going a bit wobbly and writing equations on the ceiling over my bed so I could see them before I fell asleep. They were so elegant. Lovely, lovely, oh so lovely. A first love will make that sort of fool out of you. I’ve no doubt my mother tasked him with the mission of sorting me out.
He came into the boys’ room, sat on my bed and looked upward at the precise sequences of logic marching across the ceiling and finally asked me a question. “That stuff, is it beautiful?”
Only he could ask such an odd question. In my juvenile arrogance, I was a sighted man trying to figure out how to describe a sunrise to a blind man I respected, and then just as I was searching for a simile good old Da could understand, the whacking bloody great airburst comet exploded all over me – that’s exactly what he’s been trying to show me for so many years. The reply just popped out.
“Yes Da, it is, it really is. It’s wonderful stuff.”
He thought about it for a while, got up, tapped me lightly on the shoulder on his way out of the room and we never afterwards discussed my scribblings on the ceiling. In this new age, that’d be an embrace but back then it’d be apples on an ivy tree. I’ve never yet missed an embrace with any one of my children.
There should be a rule. You really shouldn’t be allowed to love anyone that much.
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