Big, strong, safe and kind. That is my earliest memory of him. Hugs and cuddles were generous whenever he arrived home, but it seemed to a five year old that he would always quickly move on to more pressing things. I don’t have a memory of him sitting with me and listening or talking to me. Not that I remember being particularly bothered. That was just the way things were.
It seemed he was away a lot. Even when he was present, it seemed he was available to me only on his terms. It’s not that he was gruff or forbidding: not at all. It was as if there was nothing there to give. To outsiders he was entertaining and outgoing; everybody’s friend; always ready with a harmless practical joke or a song. The centre of attention. That’s how I remember looking up at him from five year old eyes. Nobody disliked Chas. well maybe somebody did, but it was not evident to me. But when it came to his children, and I guess, his wife, he was not really at home in any real sense.
In a sense, I think he might have viewed his children something like household pets: there to be petted, fed and housed; and to have a place in his affections; but peripheral. I realise now he really had no clue how to be a father. I don’t say that with any sense of hurt, or desire to hurt. It just helps me understand him a little.
He was a big bear, but he was gentle with us kids, on the occasions we intersected his orbit. My mother was the disciplinarian. Dad was the one who bought treats and played jokes or told funny stories for a few minutes before he had to do more important things. Only once can I remember him being directly involved in disciplining me. I was about eight and I had discovered the location of his petty cash tin. I had removed some of the coins and notes, not because I wanted to do anything with them, but because they fascinated me. Innocently I told the next door neighbour what I had done, who of course told my parents.
Dad’s response was to take me aside and talk gently to me. He decided that from that time forward I would receive a small amount of regular pocket money, to teach me how to manage money. I still have a strong memory of the shame I felt. In retrospect, the incident had a strong and lasting effect on me. It was not said, but my intuition also told me that my mother was far from pleased with his choice of intervention. I guess she would much rather some short sharp justice had been administered. Dad never hit us. At least I don’t remember him doing so.
He would never talk about his upbringing when we were kids, and I now appreciate why. The biographical details are stark and tell a story causing strong emotion to rise in me, as it plays through an adult mind:
Dad was the second of six children. His father, according to Dad, ran a struggling small business, had a disabled foot and was the butt of jokes. Perhaps as a response to this, he was a cruel man to his family. His mother, again according to Dad, was a delicate woman who could not cope with the pressures of six young children. She would doubtless have received little help from her husband, suffered a breakdown and was admitted to a mental hospital when Dad was eight years old. She died twenty years later, never having left the hospital. Dad saw her only once in that time at a strictly supervised family visit. I guess that was what happened to people who suffered debilitating depression in the 1930s. Dad’s father’s unmarried sister moved into the family home to care for six children under the age of ten. He told me much, much later, how he used to hide under a railway bridge rather than go home from school. One piece of graffiti he left under that bridge was “I hate Auntie Beetroot”. Beatrice was the name of the aunt who was drafted to look after the children. In his late seventies, he told me he didn’t hate her. She was a good person, but she was not his mother.
Dad was clever at school, particularly at Mathematics, but received little help or encouragement from home, and left school at twelve to work in the local brickworks as a labourer. In what was to become a recurring and predictable pattern in his life he soon quarelled with his boss and walked away from the job, and left home, catching a train 2000 km to the North Queensland town of Ayr, to cut sugar cane at the age of 13! He told me that this was a very hard time as the other cutters were grown men and they used to bully him, until one of them pulled him aside and taught him how to fight back.
Dad’s stories to me became repetitive as the years went on. They had a common theme that I soon picked up. He had been treated unfairly or cheated by employers or business partners. Dad was the eternal victim. His life, according to him, was an unbroken series of bad breaks. Even the younger me could see he had to have contributed to that, and at about that point I began to avoid him. I cetainly never tried to talk to him about issues affecting me. If he couldn’t control his own life, how could he have anything sensible to say about mine?
His habit of impulsiveness, even to the point of recklessness, led to my feeling uneasy around him as I was never sure what he would come out with or decide to do at the spur of the moment. All of this growing alienation was aggravated by his departure from the family home when I was 13. After that, for many years, I didn’t want to know him, more than anything because he was a threat to my equilibrium. A person trying to grow into a young man with few if any role models did not need a father figure like Dad. Nevertheless it became obvious that somehow I had inherited his strange sense of humour and his ability to charm.
Years at a time went by without any contact.
Thankfully that wasn’t the end of the story. Dad and I learned to accept each other for who we were, even if it took us nearly 50 years. Late in life we began to realise we enjoyed each other’s company. I’ve never met a person with whom I share so identical a sense of humour. We shared an easy companionship that we had not been able to all those years ago. He learned that I loved him because I eventually told him so. I learned that he loved me, as best as he knew how, because I could see it in his face. Better late than never I guess.
Dad is now in his late eighties and lives about 1500 km away. I see him rarely.
I hear that he has settled happily into his new Nursing Home and is ‘charming’ all and sundry on the staff. With Dad, some things will never change.
I feel the sadness of the ages when I think of him in that Nursing Home. A man who was so very talented and with so much potential and who never realised a fraction of it. A man who was so badly treated as a child that he never grew up, and most significantly for me, never learned how to be a father. A man who had so many opportunities to feel the love that surrounded him and who failed to accept those opportunities.
Now it seems like he is at home finally and maybe he feels like he belongs. No one would know as he is now dealing with dementia, but I would like to think so. Who says there are some stories without a good ending?