This year, as the past four, I am in LA, and everywhere I walk, there is the promise of gifts, drinks and meals at special prices – deal after deal, and every one of them encouraging you to spend, spend, spend on that special man in your life. Every celebration here dwarfs its equivalent in the UK, and some are all the more painful for doing so.
It is over 23 years since I last sent my dad a Father’s Day card, and this day more than any other is particularly poignant and has been so ever since he died in 1990 at the age of 60, and the celebratory images in shop windows never lose their impact.
Twenty-three years since the first Father’s Day after his death passed with a gut-wrenching sobbing and feeling of resentment towards children buying cards and gifts for their dads. This year, as every other, flower and gift services to which I have subscribed have been reminding me to send something to Dad, despite my having told them, as the first Father’s Day approached after his death, how much their automated prompt had upset me.
Even the online Apple Store, which I seem single-handedly to be keeping in business these days, now suggests Father’s Day gifts. This year, it’s suggesting an iPad Touch or an iPad Mini. Or there are headphones and cameras – and a “Fuel” band, whatever that is.
But the things my dad loved were not computers, movies and music. They were not nights spent down at the local pub with his mates. They were not flash holidays, fast cars and other material goods bought only to keep up with and surpass the Joneses.
What my Dad loved most was his family.
My mum, my brother and me.
And now, every Father’s Day, I try to put aside the immense sadness I still feel at his not being here and celebrate the fact that I was blessed with such a kind, thoughtful, strong and loving man who, all these years on, continues to have such a huge, positive impact on my life.
Dad was born in Cardiff, the eldest of five boys, and met Mum at a dance in the city’s Sophia Gardens. Mum wrote in her diary that Dad had “funny eyes”, but she soon overcame any doubts and they were married when she was 21 and he 24.
The last birthday party he attended would be his last. On his 60th, in March 1989, he had just left Bristol’s Frenchay Hospital where he had been in and out since 1987. He was pleased to be home in time for the celebrations, but his hands looked older, as if, in spirit, they were still in Frenchay, merely on loan until the day came for them to be returned permanently. Outside the abnormality of the ward and back home, they seemed more lined and appeared to have taken on a yellow tinge. The fingernails, as always, were perfectly trimmed, with not a speck of dirt.
“Hi, Gaggie Nennens,” he said, greeting me at the front door. It was his pet name for me when I was a child and he started using it because when people used to ask my name, the mispronounced words came out as: “Gaggie Nennens.”
The party felt like a farewell: a rehearsal for the funeral we all suspected was not too far away. When the guests had gone and he was ready for bed, I kissed him goodnight at the top of the stairs and was shocked to feel the smallness of his frame in his pyjamas, bones drowning in blue cotton. When I held him close, the softness gave way to small, sharp points bursting out of his back. This was not the body that lifted me up to Georgie in his budgerigar’s cage, saying “Night, night, Georgie”; nor the hands that held my clammy forehead over the toilet bowl when I was sick. Dad was slipping away to a place he had not yet been, and I was helpless to pull him back. The more I tried, the further he seemed to fall, all the time shrinking, shrinking, and it tore me apart to feel my father so small in my arms. But the inner strength that had always been him was still there; he did not seem like a man who wanted to die.
I was always Gaggie Nennens to Dad, just as I would always be the little girl who was never old enough to cross the road by herself. Well into my twenties, when I went home and would venture out for, heaven forbid, a pint of milk, he would warn: “Be careful crossing the road.” When we went for a drink, after two minutes he would be wiping his eyes, as if he had never even recovered from the fact that I learned to speak.
Dad was an intensely emotional person, whose feelings did not reveal themselves in outbursts, but in still, quiet moments when the tears would come at the slightest prompting. He would be the first to cry at Lassie on a Sunday afternoon when we sat watching TV as a family; he could never talk about his parents without crying; and when our pet poodle Emma died, he was grief-stricken for months.
He blamed himself for not cleaning out the boiler flue that killed Emma by carbon monoxide poisoning. He and Mum had wondered why my brother, who was also near the flue, was sleeping almost to the point of rigor mortis, so in fact Emma saved his life. But Dad never forgave himself and, when we had our next dogs (two, to assuage the guilt still further), he was particularly soft on them.
Sally the Chihuahua and Tara the poodle lived longer than their predecessor (indeed, they outlived Dad), largely as a result of Dad’s solicitations. When Dad was taken ill, they had, between them, two good eyes, six good legs, one and a half tails, one womb and no properly functioning bladder. Where Mum would put down one square of the Bristol Evening Post for both dogs for their nocturnal habits and then berate them for the spillage, Dad put down the equivalent of the New York Times. When he was in hospital, his role as acting urologist to the dogs was probably the main thing they missed. That, and his giving each of them a saucer of coffee in the living room last thing at night.
If Dad’s love for the dogs was revealed in such small acts of kindness, it was multiplied a hundredfold when it came to his children. He always treated us equally and also could not bear for him and Mum to have anything without sharing it with us. On the rare occasions when they had a Chinese takeaway (very rarely; money was tight), he put a small amount on two saucers (having been washed after the dogs’ coffee, I must presume) and brought it up to us in bed, two little birds with open mouths anticipating a rare luxury.
Until my late teens, our social life centred on family activities. We were all ballroom dancing competitors and used to travel with Mum and Dad to their evening competitions, where my collection of rubber animals was always a hit amongst the judges. It did no good when they came to awarding Mum and Dad points, though, not least because no lime green latex praying mantis in the world is going to compensate for the fact that your parents cannot dance in time to the music.
It was one of the rare skills Dad could not master. In other things, he had a lot of knowledge about a lot of things, and his practical skill at all things electrical and mechanical (he was a mechanical engineer) is something I have inherited from him, albeit on a small scale (I read instruction manuals from beginning to end in order to master a product; my mother and brother have no patience in such preambles and are still screaming at the gadget's incompetency three years down the line).
I also inherited from Dad a strong work ethic that was instilled in me from primary school age. If you are not in work on time, he used to say, it is not your employer’s problem. But what if the bus breaks down, I used to say. Still not your employer’s problem. The responsibility to do what one is asked, to the best of one’s ability and deliver it on time is something to which I have adhered to my entire working life, and it astonishes and frustrates me that others do not adopt the same philosophy.
His practical skills manifested themselves in all areas of our lives. It was to him my mother turned when the Betterware man, Tupperware man, Avon lady, or whoever else my mother had taken pity on, rang the door for payment for the useless goods she had ordered (there was a Cancer research man, too, but he died). Whatever they required – the Avon payment book, invoices, insurance certificates, cash – Mum could never find to give them. Along with car-keys, lipsticks, cheque-books and pens, these items were Dad’s responsibility in the midst of Mum’s mounting panic over their apparent loss.
When Dad died, the first car through the door was from the Avon Lady.
My first thought was one of surprise that Avon ladies still existed; the second, that Mum still bought from them. Within two hours of Dad’s death, Mum picked up the card from behind the door, opened it, smiled, frowned and started to cry.
“It’s from the Avon Lady,” she said, passing me the first bereavement card of the day. I read the message: “You’ll never be able to find the book now.”
Don’t bother calling again, Avon.
Both my Mum and Dad gave my brother and me a happy childhood. There was not a vast amount of money, but we lived a comfortable life in which we felt no deprivation - well, apart from my resenting the cooked meal we had every day after school, when my friends up the road were enjoying Ritz crackers and cheese.
Our holidays were spent at Butlin’s, where we enjoyed late nights drinking hot milk and watching the doughnut-making machine sugar our supper.
On summer weekends we went to the beach, where Dad really came into his own packing the car (and unpacking it at the other end) the essentials Mum deemed necessary for a day at the sea - wind-break, Lilo, Flotina, deck chairs, table and chairs, cold-box, hamper, sun umbrella, Tupperware for sandwiches and squash, flasks for tea and coffee, dog bowls, towels and swimming costumes, eight gallons of Calamine lotion. By the time we left the house, dusk was falling and our day out became 40 minutes. But, as with everything, Dad bore his lot with equanimity.
Dad’s calm nature was in stark contrast to that of Mum, Nigel and me, whose rather wacky humour put us in tune with each other in rather more obvious ways. Where Mum had me dressed in psychaedelic dresses and wearing cowbells to school when I was 11, Dad practically needed oxygen when I wore my first pair of platform shoes with a bright red plastic heart on the sides. His views on fashion were, as his values, old-fashioned by today’s standards, but I remain grateful for them.
He taught me manners and respect; the importance of hard work and being driven, but not to the point of negating the people closest to you. Despite his intellect and enormous success in his work, his family came first, ambition second. I doubt he ever thought of it as a sacrifice, but it is one that I believe he made in order that his children might have better lives. His goodness and love live on in the special relationship I continue to have with Mum and Nigel, and, every year, on Father’s Day in the UK, we call each other and remember just how lucky we were to have him - just as I will be doing this year in the US.
The day of his death is as clear today as it was in 1990, when I woke in London to the sound of my answer machine clicking in the living room. When I played back the messages, the last one said: “He passed away a few minutes ago . . . Jac? JAC? Oh, my God, it’s the answer-machine! What do I do? What do I do? It’s her answer machine!”
The nurse, having heard my voice, passed Mum the phone, without realising that it was a recording.
I took the train from Paddington to Bristol and, hours later, was looking at two bags on the kitchen unit under two separate pieces of paper. The first said SMALL ITEMS OF VALUABLE PROPERTY and listed: £1.25 – cash, 1 watch, glasses and case. The second, PROPERTY TO BE KEPT SECURELY IN GENERAL ADMINISTRATION OFFICE, listing toilet requisites, 1 track suit, 1 vest, 1 pants, 1 pair slippers, 5 hankies, 1 book, biscuits and container, cards, 1 towel, 1 dressing gown.
On paper, it didn’t look much to show for 60 years, but I continue to regard them as tributes to a man for whom avarice was anathema, and I stood crying next to a half-eaten tin of biscuits where, true to form, Dad had eaten only the plain and left the chocolate.
And now, as then, I give thanks both to, and for, my Dad.