Today would have been my father’s 81st birthday. He never cared that much about his birthday – though he went along with how much I care(d) about mine; our plans for my 40th birthday were to go to Pompeii together, so I could be around things that were older than Me – and he would almost certainly dislike the way I cannot help but commemorate both his birthdays and his deathdays.
Indeed, Megan and I were talking about Dad’s birthday on Wednesday morning, when she brought the car back. Her co-worker asked her to switch shifts with him, which means that she will work Saturday and Sunday, then Wednesday and Thursday. So she’ll be working St. Patrick’s Day night. Any night of a drinking holiday like St. Patrick’s Day or New Year’s is not a good one in the ER. But Meg said, “The whole world is throwing Dad a party!”
As it should.
Here are some things you need to know about my father.
- He was my best friend. He knew the worst things about me, and still loved me. Also? vice-versa. He never judged me. Indeed, he admired my brother’s free-spirited, full-bore approach to life, though his own was the opposite. He never made me feel bad for anything I felt, thought, or did. This is not a small thing.
- When he was a small boy, his scientific gifts soon became obvious in a very practical way. Everything was rationed in England during (and after) World War II, including the coal that heated the house. Coal, as you may or may not know, tends to create dust, which was usually swept up and thrown away. Dad, at the age of eight, decided to see how much cement he could mix with the coal dust which would still produce a viable briquette to burn and warm the family house. It was fun! And useful. Even then, he couldn’t stand to waste anything.
- He used to walk five miles to school and back every day. When he first retired back to his native land, I made him go on a sentimental journey to the house he grew up in – a whole 12 miles away from his home – and was kind of shocked by how far it would be for a young boy to walk every day. Or, you know, a grown-up.
One day when walking these miles home from school, there was an air raid near the train station. My father, about ten years old, buried himself under bodies to stay alive. His terrified mother, knowing he was walking home, stood in the front garden, watching for him. Nothing would induce her to go inside the house or into the bomb shelter. When Dad made his way home, bloodied and exhausted, nothing could express her joy.
He had nightmares for the rest of his life.
- He was an amazing cook. His mother was a very good, even excellent Victorian cook, one who made a roast on Sunday and made the leftovers into shepherd’s pie on Monday and baked once a week. I don’t think a clove of garlic ever appeared in her kitchen. But Dad loved the garlic, and made food that would have appalled his mother.
Yet…I remember when Tesco made its unwelcome appearance in the village where my father grew up and his parents lived all their married lives until their deaths in their 80s, my grandmother was appalled, and not without reason. She continued to shop every day, at the butcher’s, who knew what she liked, and the Lincoln sisters’ greengrocers (the five unmarried sisters had inherited the business from their father), where they knew that Daddy’s Daddy liked bananas and Grammie did not, and where they would cut a hothouse cucumber in half and keep the best peaches for you.
There are so many things I do in the kitchen that I do because of him: hot pan, cold oil; when making an omelette, put in half an eggshell of milk; roll a lemon or lime hard on the counter before cutting it to get the most juice; the less done to good fish the better.
- His parents never said to their only, over-achieving son, “I love you.” That was understood. But he never stinted his own children in saying that. One of my earliest memories is waiting for him to come home from work, and when he did, he rolled around on the floor with us in a very un-English manner.
When we went to Maine in the summer, I would swim in the cold, cold Atlantic until my lips were blue and chattering, and I would emerge from the frigid waves and go and lie on my father’s sun-warmed back, where he was lying reading either the “New York Times” or the “International Herald Tribune”. I’d pull my towel over my back, and snuggle my wet, cold head into his neck. He never flinched or complained. It’s still one of my best memories.
- The last thing he ever said to me was “I love you lots”