Antrim, childhood memories, Cremation of Sam McGee, father's day, grandfather, Happy Father's Day, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, keith watterson, Lego, lou reed, Lough Neagh, Memoir, Millennium Falcon, pierce turner, Rathlin Island, Seamus Heaney, Van Morrison
This will not be a happy Father’s Day for my father. From far away, he will worry about my daughter and me and how we are doing on this, my daughter’s first Father’s Day without her dad. He’ll wish he could be in Phoenix, to fix things for us, to paint the laundry room or clean the windows or mix cement to repair the brick mailbox. Naturally, he won’t understand why I don’t understand why all those things need fixing. And naturally, I won’t understand why he won’t understand that they don’t.
The truth is that each of us wants to fix the unfixable, to live forever so our children will never experience the pain of loss. We want to stop time, close distance, and find the right words right when we need them.
Sophie’s father was her first word, her first teacher, her best friend. Older – and wiser – than me, he knew he would be gone first. So she knew.
I remember how saddened he was by the death of Lou Reed. He didn’t even want to talk about it. I remember writing about it, and it was one of the first times my husband didn’t want to read something I’d written. Just twelve days before my husband died, I wrote again about Lou Reed, remembering the first time our daughter discovered her beautiful hands. For me, her besotted mother, it seemed an almost magical milestone in her development, as though she were the first child to ever make such a discovery. Her fingers in constant motion, I called it “hand ballet.” Transfixed, as though under a spell, she paid rapt attention, staring intently, unblinking, at those little fingers that would, all too soon cooperate to clap hands, tie laces, create pictures, make music, whisk eggs, and wipe away tears.
Who would have imagined an occasion where I would suspend in the same thought my baby girl and the late Lou Reed, their elegant hands in motion. She saying hello to her hands, he waving goodbye. His wife Laurie Anderson wrote that he spent much of his last days on earth “being happy and dazzled by the beauty and power and softness of nature. He died on Sunday morning looking at the trees and doing the famous 21 form of tai chi with just his musician hands moving through the air.” This time, Ken read it.
Today, I want my father to know that I am beginning to live the way Lou Reed taught me:
There’s a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out.
My daughter has already learned this, and I have her dad to thank for that.
So while I know my father will feel sad, especially for my girl as she steps out into the sunshine today without her dad, I hope he will smile at the thought of all the magic, all the lovely remembrances stockpiled in her heart for when she needs them most. On a day like today.
If he could have his four grandchildren for an afternoon, there would be ice-cream galore, an endless supply of buns and cakes from a bakery in the village, perhaps a trip to the Lough to feed swans and stare out at the grey waters in which my father and his friend, Bobby McVeigh, trained for long-distance, bitterly cold North Atlantic swims from Ballycastle to Rathlin Islind. Certainly, there would be a detour on the way home for a quick run into the sweet shop where each of those youngsters will be indulged by a grandfather with a wicked sweet tooth. He would probably even let my daughter drive.
There are so many minutes and miles between us all, that it sometimes breaks my heart to have missed out on the everyday conversations and cups of tea, the bits and pieces of homespun wisdom from the heart of rural Derry, all the gardening tips and the home improvement projects that would have colored our lives had we lived just up the road. Indeed it is from too far away, relying heavily on photographs and phone calls, brown paper packages and greeting cards, texts and Facebook and Skype, that our parents have transformed into the grandparents they were so obviously always meant to be, eager for news of their grandchildren’s accomplishments that will be broadcast over hill and dale. Our virtual connection has softened the blow of time and distance for them both, especially for our father.
And while I know this Father’s Day will bring sorrow, I know it will bring smiles too. I am smiling as I imagine da standing over my mother’s shoulder, reading something I’ve written, curiosity and anticipation twinkling behind his reading glasses.
Noticing the black and white picture of us, he will wonder aloud where in the name of God the past fifty one years have gone and then, under his breath, a “Boys a dear,” before he falls silent, coming to the realization that this one is especially for him . . .
Guest post by my brother, Keith Watterson, the image of the man pictured here with me in 1963. Keith lives in Limerick, Ireland, with his wife, Ita, and three little boys, Tom, Charlie, and Joe.
“The answers to some questions float just out of reach through and beyond childhood before parenthood shocks you into the necessity of sharpening up your act when an inquisitive toddler asks you, “Why/what/where/who is that, dad?”
Such questions can range from mildly curious inquiries into phenomena as the composition of rainbows, and the tendency of boats to float on water as against the inevitability of stones sinking—relatively easily explained; thank you, Wikipedia—up to more urgent demands for satisfaction on the stickier issues, of why you are working late (again), and why shops close down (a common one in Ireland, that, these days).
Then of course, there are those moments when you are asked to turn one single, jam-slicked block of Lego into a dinosaur; or draw a picture of Buzz Lightyear on a broken MagnaDoodle with a stylus a quarter-inch in diameter.
There is also the expectation that you can do anything. One of my eldest son Tom’s first almost coherent sentences was: “I break it; dad fix it.”
It’s particularly at moments like these that I think about my own dad, Eric. The remarkable thing about him is that he would be entirely unfazed by the challenge of constructing a Millennium Falcon, a Dalek, or some other space-age gizmo with which he had no familiarity whatsoever, out of the most basic and limited resources.
It’s something that he’s done throughout his life. Dad made a guitar, when he was little more than ten years old, for his younger brother Ben, who then was just a toddler. Ben still plays guitar and a variety of stringed instruments to this day.
Later in life, after he and mam bought their first house, dad pretty much gutted its ground floor, knocking two rooms into one for an extensive kitchen/dining area, and at the back of the house, he added a utility room, fully wired it, plumbed it for a washing machine and added a W.C. He even constructed a permanent glasshouse in which he grew his own tomatoes. Built into one corner of the courtyard, was an enclosed patio area, complete with an ornamental cottage fireplace that had a replica forged iron crane and pot. He painstakingly decorated the outside of the glasshouse with dozens of scallop shells that he had collected from a beach in County Donegal.
From mixing concrete to stripping apart a faulty iron to mend it and rebuild it, it seemed there was nothing he couldn’t do.
Sadly, I inherited none of his impressive skills in handiwork. However, I may have picked up some of his more artistic impulses. He’s one of those people who can sit down and pick out a tune on the piano, even though he has had no formal tuition. It was not uncommon to hear him in full song as he played by ear “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I remember well the huge piano accordion he picked up from time to time to pump out melody. “The Black Velvet Band” was one of his favorites.
Even though dad reads the newspaper every day, I’ve rarely seen him with a book in his hand. However, one of his party pieces when I was young was to recite from memory ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’ and ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ by Robert Service. Where he learned those poems, I have no idea, but it’s probably my earliest memory of poetry. And listening to his fellow County Derry man Seamus Heaney reading his own poetry always connects me with those impromptu Service workshops from many years ago.
Sometimes all of these memories collide, as memories often will, in a sound or a sensation in an entirely unexpected context. I’ve tried in vain to persuade my sister of my, admittedly whimsical, view that Robbie Robertson of The Band somehow channeled the sound of my dad digging potato drills (or “purdy drills” as he calls them) into the tambourine shiver and tap that punctuates the chorus of ‘Tears of Rage.’ Every time I hear the song, it stops me in my tracks, because somehow it is the sound of my dad’s spade slicing through the soil in the flowerbeds and gently shaking it out, before slicing into the earth again,in a steady rhythm.
I don’t really know what any of this tells you about my dad. There’s a great song by the Wexford artist Pierce Turner, called ‘You Can Never Know’, from his brilliant 1988 album The Sky And The Ground. The song is about how difficult it is to put another person in your shoes; to convey to another person the emotions you experience in particular situations. It begins with the narrator driving along listening to Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ before telling us we can never really know what it’s like to experience his childhood memories of standing in a church “full of boy sopranos singing ‘Faith of our Fathers’ at the top of our hearts.” Echoing Lou Reed’s famous lyrics when “the colored girls go …,” he sings “It felt so good to hear those choir voicings.” Then the barriers to understanding melt away in a triumphant climax as he sings straight out the hymn’s refrain: “Faith of our fathers! Holy faith! We will be true to thee ’til death.” For me – and I’ve had almost violent disagreements with people about this – it’s one of the most profoundly moving moments in late 20th century popular music.
Seeing the man perform this song in Whelan’s Pub in Dublin, was simply amazing. In live performance, rather than the polished persuasion of the studio version, the closed door of the title is gleefully kicked open by Turner, as he jumps onto pint-strewn tables to belt out this 19th century hymn, leading the dozens of people in the audience in euphoric accompaniment. In the live setting, it was as if Turner decided that if, indeed, we can never know what that childhood memory truly felt like, then so what? He would give us the next best thing, and make us feel it through music.
There is a moment in the song when he talks about his father, standing in the church with him on that day, “My father’s hand on my shoulder, nicotine-stained index finger, big and rough, but love can’t always be articulate…”
I’ve shared many of those moments, those Van Morrison would refer to as “inarticulate speech” times with my dad, especially in childhood, and unfortunately with much less frequency these days. Dad took me to my very first football match on a foggy St. Stephen’s Day (I think it was at Glentoran, but it was an awfully long time ago); indulged my every request to make things; endured my complete and utter failure to grasp the principles of algebra, of which, naturally, he has an instinctive understanding to rival that of any mathematics teacher; taught me to drive; and he let me ride ‘shotgun’ with him every weekend and on school holidays on his rounds for the Mother’s Pride and then Golden Crust bakeries, for whom he was a delivery man for 10 years or so. He even helped me write a poem about my hometown, Antrim, for a homework exercise assigned by some sadist of a primary school teacher. Actually, he didn’t help me. He just wrote it. “Antrim was a little town, there wasn’t many stores; but many buildings have sprung up, the population’s soared,” went the opening. “The Bluebird Café in the Square, and Craig’s the cobblers, too / have vanished from the local scene; I don’t know what we’ll do,” was another couplet. Alas, the rest is lost in the mists of time.
He’s always been there for me, and has picked me up and dusted me down and set me off again, probably many more times than I’ve deserved.
As I think of him on this Father’s Day, particularly now when I’ve had the pleasure of watching him get to know my own sons, Tom, and his little twin brothers Charlie and Joe, all I can say is that if they learn half as much from me as I’ve learned from him, I’ll be a happy man. And if they don’t, they have the fortunate consolation of a granddad who can actually turn a single block of Lego into something that might meet, or even exceed, their wildest imaginings.
Happy Father’s Day, dad.”