My father’s mother, my grandmother, died recently.
He immediately threw himself into his plans for her funeral arrangements and sorting out all her affairs. I phoned back several hours after the initial call and asked, in the middle of all these details, whether he’d taken a moment to feel her death. He was far too busy.
She had the traditional Christian funeral she’d demanded, with the exceedingly nice vicar she had met a few years earlier as she had arranged with my father. If she’d been alive to witness it I think she would have enjoyed it. Less so for the rest of us who, for the most part, don’t share her beliefs.
My father wrote most of the tribute which included a quick biography of dates, places and things done. It was quite lacking in feeling but did acknowledge the loss of her other son, saying that she possibly never got over it. I don’t think my father ever got over the loss of his brother either.
He talks of her being a very strict parent who scared him into obedience. My father also feels that his mother stopped him from developing a good close relationship with his father, an absence he now keenly feels. So he had a father he was not close to, a mother who was very strict and a younger brother who died when he was a young man.
When I first remember my father, under the age of 7 I think of a man who took me to work with him occasionally although he would leave me with someone else to entertain me at his office. He also used to tell me bedtime stories of his days of National Service, or climbing into his university rooms late at night.
Other than that he wasn’t there, working long hours and my mother looking after the home. He took good holidays and we’d drive off after work and get the midnight ferry or equivalent.
Aged 6 my parents went to their very first ‘posh’ dinner, with the Lord Mayor. I made a card for him which I put in an envelope and licked. I never thought at the time that my father showed great confidence in me by not opening the envelope before giving it to the Lord Mayor and I treasure the answer given.
After we moved, the bedtime stories stopped; he immersed himself into his new job and maybe I felt I lost him. He still was away a lot, although he was working from home, although not available when he was working at home (door shut – can’t go in, door open – can go in).
He would come home, notice the dishwasher needed emptying and call on me to stop whatever I was doing to come and complete whatever task. Because of this I started taking my books into the bath and staying there for a couple of hours so that I could shout out “I’m in the bath, I’ll do it when I get out”. What a minor victory.
He was aware that he wasn’t around a lot and started periodically to take me out to dinner when we would discuss school work, his work, politics and other grown up subjects. I used to enjoy the one-to-one but as I got older the personal questions got harder to answer and I got to the point of dreading our little chats.
He had no emotional awareness at all, no understanding that emotions could get in the way of doing things. Whenever there was a crisis in life he would be wonderful, sorting out the practical issues without getting upset or angry. There were tremendous advantages to that but his ability to compartmentalise his emotions shows him to be severely flawed. It meant that when I said “I’m unhappy therefore I can’t do my homework to the best of my ability” he just didn’t get it, not at all and would just tell me to stop being so ridiculous.
I remember being ill, with the flu or similar and he would come home and say to my mother “is she going to school tomorrow?”, not asking whether I was feeling better, just whether I was going back to school. I knew both my parents loved me, but I never really felt that my father did.
As he got older he started to realise this and from his 50s onwards has really tried to start to understand the emotional world the rest of us live in. He still barely gets any of it but at least he’s trying. He is aware that he was quite difficult as a parent and husband and will apologise for things he said or did.
I find him enormously frustrating now. Because I feel he understands so little I am reluctant to say many of the things that I would like to, because on the few occasions when I do he is just bewildered and seeks further explanation which I can’t give in words that he understands. He then worries more about me and I worry about that so it’s easier not to bother.
But, unlike my mother, he is aware that he has deficiencies and he is trying to address them, however slowly and badly. My mother has buried hers and doesn’t want to know.
That’s the key difference.