I am writing on Monday 23 May after a swim, a bike ride and a brief replanting session in the Community Garden. The rest of the day is ‘protected me time’: spring sunshine, some Bach cantatas, a cottage pie followed by a large pot of English tea. Maybe a bath later. Even the enforced leisure of a footbath. And I will cook a lamb curry. But no timetable, and anything that doesn’t get done will get done some other day. “When God made time”, my old dad used to say to me, “he made plenty of it”.
What’s all this in aid of? Well it’s in honour, actually, of that man – who would have been 95 today if he hadn’t died pitifully young at the age of 69. If he is unsung as the hero of my life, I will sing him today. Ron Kershaw was no intellectual (Oldham cotton mill at 14, Lancashire Fusiliers at 18), but he taught me more wisdom than anyone else I ever met, and I hear his voice every day.
Planting out young lettuces this morning, I saw the childlike surprise and delight on his face every time the seeds he had sown came up, as they usually did. Turning on the TV and accidentally, for a few seconds, witnessing the horror of politicians talking about this ridiculous referendum (still all of 31 days away, heaven help us), I heard him solemnly declaring his firm belief that things were so bad that the government of this country could not but be in the pay of a foreign power.
Fixing a loose window blind, the image ran before me of his countless DIY efforts, usually successful but occasionally catastrophic, which could reduce my mum and me to tears of laughter. Reading some comic remark, or recalling one of our countless private jokes, I remember always that he taught me the most important of all lessons: how to smile, how to laugh – at yourself above all, but also at the foibles of others, at the state of the world, at life itself.
Eating that curry tonight – taste being the most powerful memory of all – I will remember him complaining that a hyper-Vindaloo he had ordered barely tasted of anything, used as he was to the real thing in India and Burma, where he’d spent part of the war. I will reflect yet again (I am not alone in this) on how stupid it was not to get from him much more than I did about his early life and wartime experience. That he suffered recurrences of malaria for many years afterwards, with fearful nightmares, I know only because an aunt told me.
Growing up in the 60s had much to commend it but a serious downside was the impression that we, teenagers in a world we expected to be dominated by youth, no longer had much to learn from our elders. That, coupled with the almost universal reluctance of his generation to talk about their more painful memories, means I have virtually nothing by way of first hand information about the war that so shaped his life.
When he died, over 25 years ago now after a year sliding downhill following a kidney tumour, I felt lonely: this is not special to me, it’s a very common feeling. I guess it comes from the sudden realisation that it’s over to you now – you have to carry it all on, without the support that may have become weakened but was always still there.
The knowledge, too, that it’s suddenly too late to say things you might have said. Also, though, looking back from today, the relief that someone died too early to have to experience some of the things that might have tortured them later. He would have done anything to see my children grow up and become the adults they now are, raising children of their own. But he might also have had to watch my separation and divorce, and their various consequences, which would have caused him and my mum (who, incidentally, died even longer ago, and much younger, almost destroying him) such pain through no fault of theirs. They were spared that, knowing us only as a young, growing, happy, united family.
Anyway, as a character says in one of the profound Narnia stories of CS Lewis, “No one is ever told what might have been”. For our sanity, that’s just as well.
Some years after his death I began to realise that, in the days running up to his birthday, and especially on the day itself, I was likely to be on a shorter fuse than usual, easily moved, easily thrown. Today is no different: writing this reduces me to the sort of state which used to cause my spaniel, when I had one, to come and put his chin on my knee with a look that said “Don’t worry, I’m with you”. So I keep this as a quiet day. But my memories today are, like almost all my other memories, happy ones.
The older I get, the more I realise how important anniversaries are – dates to be celebrated and made the most of. I rarely celebrated my own birthday that much in earlier years, but I make up for it these days with festivals of Middle Eastern proportions. Everyone likes to feel special from time to time, and I love it.
So, dad, as you rest in peace you can feel a bit special today, the way your powerful love and unconditional support always made me feel special. Happy birthday and (you will never know why I am learning Portuguese but I wish I could tell you): Feliz aniversário papai.