“All that we love deeply becomes a part of us” (Helen Keller)
Yesterday I had a two-fold daughterly mission. To furnish my mother with a new, easier-to-use mobile phone. And to take a bunch of orange roses up to my father’s grave. This week is the tenth anniversary of his death – so today’s blog is in his memory.
Strange, these days partly devoted to the living and partly to the dead. It is as though one wafts over an invisible line somewhere in the sky between the two. And although in general I find cemeteries creepy, I feel quite differently about the one inhabited by my father’s remains. It’s almost as though because he’s there it must be an OK place.
To say he was everything to me sounds melodramatic. But it was true at the time; it was true when I was a child. As a teenager I put up the usual fierce fights and I now recognise he was often too protective of me. But he never stopped (and never will) being very very important in my life. My mother said it the day before his funeral, when I had a meltdown about ‘viewing’ him: “Ah yes … everything you were to each other”. It was so reassuring that she understood.
I’ve since had many conversations with girlfriends who feel the same way about their fathers.
Mine was Spanish, born in Barcelona. And crucially, I believe, for the man he became, he was caught up in the Spanish Civil War as a Republican soldier. Exiled in the bitterly cold early months of 1939 to one of the brutal concentration camps set up on French beaches, he later escaped and found himself in London. Quite alone, without a word of English, aged just 20 or 21. The details are sketchy and I will always regret not pressing him for more.
What’s certain is he graduated from Birmingham University and began a long career at the BBC, broadcasting news back to a Spain repressed by Franco’s regime. His story of survival has knocked me into shape many times when I have wobbled over much more minor obstacles.
Dad was an intensely private man. Although he had an air of casual charm, he often gave way to anxieties over matters others might consider trivial. But for those who knew him and with whom he made friends, he was loyal, attentive and often very, very funny.
He would always notice the small details of life. The way the feathers on his aunt’s canary would rise – just a little – when you talked to it, as if it was embarrassed by the attention. Or the subtle differences in the way the Germans and the French play mini-golf.
And he made a lifelong hobby of studying the peculiarities of us – the British. Our pallor. The way men enjoy sitting alone in a pub staring into a pint glass. How he once saw a woman apologise to a dachsund after treading on its paw.
But his gentle mockery of his adopted country belied a real fondness for many things English: tennis at Wimbledon, the fashion for wearing hats, Sherlock Holmes, cream teas and having cats as pets.
One thing I’ve learnt in these 10 years since our lives officially stopped overlapping is how those we have physically lost have a way of popping up again unexpectedly. Most notable is the discovery of my father’s voice as one of the recording artists on the Spanish CDs I’ve used recently to teach my adult evening classes. So now he ‘helps’ me explain, to groups of unaware students, the Preterite tense or useful expressions for food shopping.
I’ve learnt something else too. It used to concern me that as time ticked on the dead might slip further and further away from us. That they would somehow become more ‘inaccessible’ with each passing year and we’d need a stronger lens to make them out in the increasing haze. But that’s not true. If anything changes it’s us, not them, and the way we choose to remember.