A Tribute To My Father
Photo: My father in his Flintstone tie on Christmas morning, one week before he died.
My father, known to his parents as Beel, was born in Elgin, Scotland, on 15th April, 1914. The middle one of three boys, he was raised, largely, by his mother and maiden aunts, because his father, a Captain in the Gordon Highlanders, was away in the war. Under their tutelage, Beel grew up with a great reverence for women. As one of his Carers remarked to me only last week, he loved to cuddle the girls, but he was always, utterly, the gentleman.
An adventurous child with a ready wit, he was, by his own admission, quite a handful. When I visited him latterly in his dementia home, I'd remind him of the stories he used to tell of his childhood.
"Now what did your mother say to you when you went out to play?" I'd ask, wagging my finger in fun. "She'd say, 'you must not swim in the river.' And what did you do?"
"I'd swim in the river," he'd reply, laughing with delight at the recall.
"And then you'd have to run up and down stark naked to get dry so she didn't know," I'd respond. He'd laugh again.
A LOVE AFFAIR WITH LIFE
A pupil at Elgin Academy, Bill excelled in Maths, English and Art. However, his zest for a life of fun whilst at Glasgow University proved too tempting. Abandoning the chance of a degree, he went into civil engineering. When this job folded due to the depression in the 30's, Bill headed for London and a post in the Civil Service.
For digs, he booked into a residential hotel owned by a widow with six children, and fell instantly under the sway of her youngest daughter, Dorothy. My "pretty sweeting" he addressed her, quoting Shakespeare, in a letter written in April 1938 when their courtship began. Despite describing himself as "never a whale of a bloke at letter writing," it was to be the first of many dozens that followed throughout the years of WW2, in all of which he declared his undying love of her.
A LOVE OF LITERATURE
Bill and Dorothy - or Little Dorrit as he dubbed her in Dickensian style - were married in Clapham, on 30th March, 1941. The war gave them little time together. Bill trained as a pilot and, with a dashing RAF uniform, handlebar moustache, impeccable manners, and ready wit, he might, quite possibly, have had his pick of the girls. Certainly, by the time I came along, he was the heart-throb of my school friends.
The marriage produced three daughters : myself, Merrilyn, or Merry as he dubbed me; Jenniffer - Jena; and much later Janice - Jinny. Daddy read our bedtime stories; applauded the plays and concerts we put on before the days of television; taught us to ride our bikes - and Janice her pony; encouraged us all to fulfil our potential - and roared at us if ever we failed to do so!
A LOVE OF LEARNING
Jena and I can't count the number of times we were sent to bed with the threat of smacked bottoms and bread and water. But Daddy was an affectionate and tactile man, and in no time, we'd be in his arms with a cuddle. The one enduring feature of our childhood, was the instruction to "be good for Mummy". An adoring Daddy he might be - but Dorrit remained his number one girl.
Theirs was a sparring relationship, each of them delighting in ribbing each other to the point where it could become quite disconcerting to outsiders. But however they might bellow at each other at times, Bill's hand under the table affectionately pinching Dorrit's knee, his arms draped around her, the jewellery he showered upon her, and the pride he showed in her gardening, entertaining and cooking skills, were testament to a love that endured for nearly seventy-one years of marriage.
Open hearts and open house was the motto in our parents' home. Their hospitality was renowned, their parties the envy of all, and no one, in need of a cup of tea, a meal, or a bed, was ever turned away. In the early years, they played tennis, Solo, and learned ballroom dancing. Harry Judd and his Strictly partner, Aliona, had nothing on the dance partnership of Bill and Dorothy. Without doubt, they would have won Craig Revel Horwood's highest accolade: A-maz-ing, Dah-ling!
A LOVE OF THE ARTS
Their move to Devon in 1957, brought new interests into their lives, as they took up golf and bridge. Always a literary buff, Bill tried his hand at short-story writing, but it was his artistic flair which came to the fore. Joining the Salcombe art club, he began painting in earnest - water colours and oils, landscapes and portraits - and sold some of his finest work.
Between them, our parents lovingly created a garden from the derelict field on which they built their new home. Always ready for a challenge (I'm told my father once tried his hand at smocking a dress for me when I was tiny) he learned dry-stone walling and topiary, built a pond - and a rose walk leading to a secluded seating area carved out of the hillside, where visiting family and friends could congregate on warm summer days to debate the topics of the day, and reminisce.
Known to the locals as Black Jake, during his working life, Bill could display a ferocious temper at times. What was less well known about him was the compassionate heart that had him weeping at television pictures of starving children, or those caught up in man-made or natural disasters. Unbeknown to most of his family, he sent cheques off regularly, to support the work of agencies seeking to relieve poverty, and to bring justice, education and nourishment to the children of the world.
Always a fun person to be with, his eight grandchildren - and at least some of the subsequent fifteen great grandchildren - loved his clowning about and his willingness to build sandcastles on the beach; to play racing demons on the floor; to run up and down teaching them to rise to the trot on the pony; to laugh and have fun.
Never one to suffer fools gladly, he was proud of his intellect. At the age of eighty, while Dorothy was visiting her sister in Australia, he took himself off, secretly, to Bristol, to take a supervised MENSA exam, passed and became a MENSAN, joining the ranks of those whose IQ is in the top 3%.
Sadly, in his nineties, dementia set in. With the additional loss of his hearing and sight, the ultimate loss of his mind was devastating for him. "I'm so stupid," he would say. That wasn't how we saw him. But, for his own safety and well-being he had, ultimately, to spend his last few years in a dementia home. There, after a brief bout of pneumonia, during which we all visited him, he passed away, peacefully, on Monday 2nd January.
GOD'S AMAZING LOVE
My father was not what you would call a "religious" man. However, he talked about God all the time. One of my earliest memories is when I was just four years old and, in response to my question, "Who made God?" he explained that God was eternal and, like the sky, had no beginning or end.
When I started school - at a Convent - and began questioning the validity and purpose of nuns shutting themselves away, his response was: "How do you know that without their prayers, the world wouldn't be in a far worse state?" Without those conversations and the book my father won as a Scripture Prize at Sunday School, my own faith might never have developed.
However, in later years, my father became increasingly angry with God. "How can you call him a God of love when he allows such terrible things to happen?" he would ask me, repeatedly. Long, frequently upsetting, debates would follow, and I'd despair of his ever being reconciled with his Maker.
Then a few years ago, following a friend's funeral, and while my father was still of sound mind, I plucked up courage to raise the subject again.
"You've always said you wanted a church service when you died," I reminded him, "but you've never told us what hymns or readings you'd like."
A discussion followed, then I asked: "Do you know where you're going, when you die, Daddy?"
There was a stunned silence. Then he said: "Well, to heaven, I hope."
"And does God know that?" I asked.
"I hope so!" he exclaimed. "I talk to him all the time."
A conversation - even a rant, like that of the Psalms - constitutes a relationship. That relationship between God and my father might have been as invisible as a mustard seed to others but, thankfully, God has ex-ray vision. He sees the heart.
So now my father's gone, I'm at peace, and I hope his friends and family will be, too. The Bill we all knew, loved poetry, beauty, colour and music - and there's plenty of that in heaven. He won't be alone, either. He'll be with my daughter, Sally, who, as a child, sang in the choir at the church in which my father's thanksgiving took place, and who went to be with the Lord in 1994. I like to think that, true to their personalities, they'll be clowning around together. And I expect Bill will continue to clasp women to his bosom - while never ceasing to look for Dorrit. But above all, he'll still be talking to God.
BBC Radio Devon Interview
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