Death Do Us Part

I claimed to know him well and believed that to be true.

He was the man there for me to love.

While he was absent those six years my twin brothers, who were newborn as he left, and my sister by then three, settled round our mother.

I arrived within a year of his return and he sang me to sleep.

I climbed on him, as those few photos show. Pictures taken at gatherings of grown-ups and cousins, with our grandmother sitting sternly in the middle.

In each I am attached to him, at ease on his body, in those years before self-consciousness and increased use of cameras – in that long ago time now been filled in by later construction.

There are set memories of cooking for him as he came in the gate from the dreary bank.

The bank had an obligation to take him back but possibly wanted him as little as he did them and he wouldn’t move for a promotion.

He often called in at the RSA club on his way home but, in case he hadn’t, I prepared a whiskey for him in a bottle cap, with daisy petals for his favourite biscuits and soil, mixed with water and a few pebbles to be the meat, in beef stew.

He liked stew because the long cooked meat was easy on his troubled teeth and gums.

“The war did them no good and does the government sort that?” our mother said.

Preparing food for him on leaf plates seems a constant of childhood, yet there is no sense of how long that game persisted.

There is another fixed moment, during a special interlude. I was going to a wedding and had a new striped, blue dress, not one from my sister or cousin.

I didn’t ask questions – we had long learnt our mother had no patience with them

“Curiosity killed the cat,” she said, though didn’t say how.

Or “you’ll see when you see.”

She didn’t like to be questioned.

Somehow I understood that the others were not allowed off school, the boys had begun at secondary and my sister had important exams.

But I was to go to our father’s sister, Lily.

I had seen her once, but she and Uncle Tom didn’t stay – they had their own caravan.

Only our grandmother stayed and stayed in our house and we had to be kind. But that wasn’t easy – she scared me and smelt strange.

Our mother’s big brother and one sister lived not far away and there were cousins.

While father’s side were shadowy and his parents didn’t exist. At six or seven it hadn’t occurred to me they were dead.

My father and I left with a battered, though now rarely used, suitcase – my new dress packed with his suit.

Mother would not be coming but put words for me to take through the car window.

She wasn’t having me disgrace her – I better behave or else…

It took a while to leave that threat behind.

We went on and on and stopped when I would have wet my pants any minute.

He was kind, not cross, as I hopped and ran and he bought me a bun with pink icing we weren’t allowed at home.

He had a cup of tea and then another one.

I fell asleep in the car. I’d never known you could go so far but, eventually, we arrived to noise and music.

There was Uncle Tom and Aunt Lily and bouncy big sons, one of whom was to be married and one put me high in the air. Maybe he would be the groom and grooms did that.

It felt strange to think Lily ever belonged with my father.

She chatted about games they played together when they were small but it sounded unlikely to me.

She seemed an eager puppy beside his wiry, old dog feel.

Episodes during our visit are vivid though there’s no chronology.

I had a camp bed beside my father and he wanted to take me somewhere.

A stage set shows a thin faced man with a small moustache, his face reddened by sun rather than tanned.

He is wearing long shorts and a shirt in red and green.

Lily made it for him and I wear a dress to match. It was just my size but how did Aunt Lily know?

She taught dressmaking she said and had sewed another dress for me. That one was supposed to be for the wedding.

I’d seen it but wouldn’t try it on till after a bath.

It had frills underneath and embroidered pink roses and five covered buttons, a tiny rose on each.

I didn’t think I’d be allowed to wear it at home but could maybe keep it in its special box, which had a bright pink bow around it.

I was tearful but my father sorted things – of course I could wear Lily’s gift to the wedding, not the one my mother firmly told me to put on only that day and to keep it clean.

Aunt Lily had four big boys but no special girl to sew for her, it would be kinder to wear her dress, he said.

After milk and a biscuit my father shooed his sister, he was taking only me.

We walked and the quiet was soothing.

He took my hand, smiled and we stayed silent, his shirt matching my pretty dress which was still crisp with newness.

I think he was to show me where he lived as a boy but all that is forgotten, eclipsed totally by what must have been short lived.

We stopped and my father began to gently hum.

Gradually it turned to low song – I knew it – my grandfather’s clock – but didn’t join in.

Everything stopped – that moment sealed in to stay.

I have not known happiness quite like it again.

It promised forever and it remained, anchoring me to him.

My father’s version of our story was of him being the one I ran to greet and the one helping me to sleep, which suited my understanding that the older three were mother’s and I was his.

He came out of a war camp and was soon sent to the sun porch.

It was because of nightmares my sister said, knowingly.

Did our mother have any more time for his emotionality than she did for mine?

It felt she steamrolled ahead, satisfied to have coped as efficiently as she did with three little children and without him.

With me he vibrated in a shared watery realm where tuning in seemed inevitable, and connection fostered an over-confidence that I knew him.

She moved in a different sphere.

In her small community she knew what was what, she liked to say.

Or she might proudly tell us there was nothing new under the sun, which apparently meant there was nothing important she didn’t know.

He must have seen something outside her ken. But in our hearing he never said so, leaving her as authority on the ways of the world and children.

He went off in uniform and did not challenge her power when he got back – he just walked away from any fight.

She could be fierce and punishment was her domain.

He might comfort where he could but he was thin while she was substantial.

Fat I would think with wrinkled nose in adolescence – all that flopping flesh held in by corsets.

Like him I was lean – “a scrawny pair looking as though I never feed you,” she said, with a hint of derision.

Though as a child I had no words for it, there was a tightness in him, something unseen took effort.

As far back as I remembered I tried never upsetting him.

He stayed taut where she could flop on the sofa and toss off all concerns. His responsibilities hardly ever seemed to fall away even if they were only making her a cup of tea.

Where she ruled, in control not just of four children but of things around us, there was no hidden threat to her.

She was only ever on her knees for God and it was her God.

Our father did not go to church except when summoned for the full family presentation at celebrations or when our grandmother stayed. Somehow I came to believe he had been reduced as a prisoner or by the killing and knew keeping upright was not inevitable and that being able to do so was never just a matter of personal virtue or strength.

But what drastic test had her authority ever faced?

We children certainly could not imagine being the ones to do it.

She might keep her power with us, but his sense of things seemed to be wider.

Somewhere mid-teens the flow I’d known shrivelled – connection with him sank to subterranean.

Yet it was then I attempted questions. We heard about the war at school, the war which at home was mentioned only as blame for his teeth.

“Family life encircled us as soon as we got back and who wanted to hear horrors around children?” He said, ”only at the RSA might some told black jokes but no one went into details. That was best kept shut away.

What’s in your school books is all they want you to know of war.”
Although, once clearly in decline, he began to open up.  But that was years ahead.

Getting away from a watchful mother, with fixed notions, meant leaving him as well.
In Australia a school friend introduced me at a party saying I, too, had escaped a battle-axe – like her own mother mine had taken over the full domestic territory and was not about to budge over for the poor returning male.

Her broken father had already died, she said, while mine got banished to a shed.

It shocked to realise people could see us.

Our visibility had not occurred to me.
I was still taking for granted that if you said nothing others would not know.

And there was a lot I didn’t say, even to myself.

But I was also huffy – it was a porch not a shed and she shouldn’t call my mother a battle-axe just because hers was well known as one.

Her mother argued in shops and fought her noisy neighbours, while mine got her own way about town with brazen confidence.

She did not stomp around without any care for appearance and with a shadow moustache and eyebrows meeting in the middle like the battle-axe mother.

When, unexpectedly, our mother had a heart attack all four of her adult children were stunned.

My older sister, still never daring to offend, had breast cancer and we expected our forceful mother to outlast her.

But there was another heart attack, quickly followed by a third that killed her.

She was seventy-four.

Our thin and fragile seeming father was eighty.

Even before the funeral he moved off the porch and into his original bedroom.

He also took his place in her armchair as people came with condolences. The tap of talking was now fully open, to the surprise of visitors and his offspring.

Once he’d aged, my attachment had revived as living pulse, not just memories.

His often tight smile unfurled wide at each of my visits and love swam in that.

I assumed my importance to him so, when he didn’t want to move to me, after her death, I arranged to go to him.

My children were both at university and the plan was to take two months leave while our father adjusted and maybe shifted into a retirement set up.

It was soon obvious my picture of this man, I assumed loved and known, was far too tidy. And he had no intention of moving out of the house he bought before the war.

He preferred simple meals anyway. He would manage and was perfectly capable.

For a while women brought us scones or a cake, then one I didn’t know arrived with a dish of chicken and rice, tasting of ginger and spice with chives on top.

It was delicious but for my father it was clearly special.

He told me this dish was the first meal with meat they were given in Asia, at the end of the war.

This was news – our mother’s meat and two veg never included rice.

The following week he went to visit this Mary.

She had apparently been widowed eight years before and he’d helped with probate.

Her husband had been an RSA mate, badly damaged during his war.

Our mother had only been dead several weeks, it didn’t seem right for him to be visiting a lady friend.

My husband on the phone told me to let it go and stop judging. The old man should be entitled to whatever company he could find. Don’t think you should be enough for him.

At dinner that evening my father said he’d been a fool. He could talk to Mary, she’d been through it.

He’d moved out of the bedroom, way back, ashamed of the way he woke himself and our tired mother who needed sleep.

Mary made him see he hadn’t given his wife much of a chance to understand, but then he was a going concern and could cope, while Mary’s man came home wrecked and they had only one child, not four. Four to bring up well was hard work for your mother.

As my father talked more, an unreasonable bubbling anger hit the surface.

He was not one I had been angry with before but suddenly it looked clear that his big silence imposed reticence on all of us.

I was constrained by some misguided belief he needed protection. Fighting distressed him and four children were trained to make no verbal outbursts of fury or jealousy.

There was a lot we did not find a way to shape in words.

Such things were not ours in a good family our mother made clear.

Yet here was my father able to articulate and startle. He talked of the various keys in the ring parties of the ‘50s and how he hadn’t fancied it back then. Though it might have been that he didn’t trust himself.

Now he only wanted women he could talk to – a woman who didn’t gossip.

He seemed at ease with letting me know he’d been, and maybe still was, a sexual being but it was not easy listening for me.

He also let out disconcerting rage at how he’d not fought but put up with his mother-in-law, who was a nasty vindictive gossip.

He called the woman we had to be nice towards, or else, a righteous prig, oblivious to her own cruelty and control, who felt entitled to rule her five middle aged children, imposing herself on each in turn after she was widowed.

How he loathed those long weeks when she stayed and felt entitled to insist things be done her way.

“Why didn’t you say?”

“Before I went to the war there was some hope of harmony. As she was recently widowed, there was sympathy and I foolishly expected she’d become easier not worse.

By the time I got back the pattern was entrenched.

It would have been one hell of a battle to take her on and I was too tired of having to fight.”

I thought picking up on undercurrents and having some imagination was my strength yet had no idea how he despised my grandmother and the judging women she liked to spend time with when in town.

And what might he be saying of his wife?

He didn’t mention her and I failed to push, though when he eventually died at eighty-eight, he left me with that question of whether he made allowances for our mother because she had learnt from the worst, yet was not as bad?

How often had he told us not to speak ill of others and shared a parental mantra that if we had nothing good to say of someone, we should just keep quiet.

He apparently lived by this, and little did we know his own sharp thoughts or see that silence was another way to shut things down and control.

The last few weeks of his life I moved again to his house, our childhood home.

I managed as my mother had done – my sister had died and my brothers were not much use.

I coped but maybe was still holding a grudge that I did not soften to sink back deep into the connection with him.

Perhaps as he sank out of life, those silences I resented had been put to use against him and against myself.

Or was it lack of courage and fear he’d take me with him if I opened to everything there had been between us – that love and all the memories which would flood me weeks later?