Their Story of my Father

Eventually I contacted Margaret, the first of my father’s unseen sisters.

Daphne, the second sister, lived somewhere in Scotland, while Margaret, like my now dead grandmother, belonged in England.

Unseen is not quite correct. My father having followed his girlfriend back to her New Zealand home, married and stayed there, but made one return trip with me as a new born.

As I found out, my mother sent many letters and photos to his family, but it was my father, Mark, the middle child, his relatives wanted.

Along with a few photos, only those with my father in them, his meagre letters, less than a handful, had been faithfully collected in a special box by his mother and then Margaret.

The regular correspondence from my mother was not kept.

They weren’t ungrateful for news or her effort but she, after all, was the one who took the son and brother far away.

I would have liked to read what our mother wrote of life with me and my two younger brothers.

My father wrote little about his children and all the photos I’d seen before.

I was attached to my father, proud of him, but… and there was a “but” I couldn’t articulate.

He often carried tension and relaxing didn’t come easily.

He wanted to please his wife and children yet rarely seemed to enjoy us much.

Though not a playful man, he could delight if our mother had us laughing or dancing.

His questioning about our day was a set piece, which somehow didn’t flow naturally, as if it required effort to be an interested father, although there was no doubt he loved us.

Our mother slapped occasionally, while he kept control and was more likely to walk away, saying he was disappointed, than to erupt, as she did a few times.

Each Christmas Eve our father made a brief call to England and we all knew how much one minute cost.

Otherwise there was little mention of his family.

Our mother vowed never again, after their one visit.

The trip was hell with a baby, she claimed, and her in-laws too big a strain.

Besides, once the boys were born, there was no chance of affording the fare.

By twenty three, I was in London, living in a hostel and got round to writing to Aunt Margaret.

A prompt reply invited me for the weekend, to a bedroom with pretty flowers put beside the bed and good food.

Yet there was awkwardness.

My aunt and uncle were formal. I might have been from the local political party having to account for my presence in their home (I had once gone campaigning, unsuccessfully, just before leaving New Zealand).

Was I at a distance with my aunt because my parents so distanced themselves, leaving behind responsibility for the ageing, widowed mother?

That obviously was a factor. It came up several times how painful my father’s absence had been.

I heard myself prattle about home, assuming my aunt’s interest in her brother and his absorbing new greenhouse for orchids.

But that failed to ignite conversation and my questions about their two grown sons also went nowhere.

Those cousins were considerably older than me and both lived abroad.

My uncle, tall and upright, was a surprise.

He seemed too glamorous for their house.

My aunt had on pearls but looked frumpy beside his quiet elegance, which no one had mentioned, not even my mother who cared about such things.

Something of this uncle drew me but what was there to say?

It was asking after my only girl cousin that, to my relief, drew animation. Aunt Daphne’s youngest child, Sheila, apparently was a joy and would be driving out to join us that Sunday.

My uncle picked up a photo to show me Sheila smiling between the absent sons.

Beside it on the mantelpiece was one other wooden frame.

We had the same photo at home, sitting on a shelf.

I had stared at that picture as a little girl, once I was just tall enough to be at eye level with it, but hadn’t thought of it in years.

The woman in the foreground looked too small and contained to be a grandmother.

There was no smile, expansive gesture or warm flesh to invite a child in.

She is wearing a hat to walk along the street in her suit, gloves in one hand and a neat bag in the other.

People were behind her on a pavement I knew to be in England.

She is the person my mother found a strain and she is black and white.

Our other grandmother was pink, with fine blood vessels visible through near translucent skin.

We ate dried cake on visits to her and had to behave.

She was tired, old people get tired we were told, and five of us visiting was a lot for her.

If we showed reluctance to go our mother told us to be grateful we didn’t have to visit our stiff grandmother, the one who was in a frame and sounded croaky over a brief Happy Christmas.

Our father spoke a bit more than us and put concern in his voice for his old mother.

Sheila hooted twice as she arrived and hurried in with warmth and familiarity – teasing our shared uncle and putting an arm around Margaret before turning to me.

“Look at her! How wonderful she has so much of Granny.”

How could I look anything like that old lady in a suit?
But after hugging with strong arms, this cousin Sheila went to a drawer, tossing off a ‘may I’ and not waiting for a yes.

She drew out old, mostly small photos, except for a larger cream and tan picture of a bride and there she was – this woman who might almost be me.

Why had no one told me?

Obviously I had connection with this dead grandmother – a woman my mother had not liked.

Sheila then got out several photos of grandfather.

It had never occurred to me that I’d not seen any pictures of him and he was another surprising man.

He being long dead and gone, my mother didn’t meet him, and my father never spoke of him.

Grandma lingered on through my childhood. She had a face, handbag and gloves.

This man towered over his wife and was striking – quite as handsome as the new uncle I had just met.

It was then I realised that our father, too, was seen as far better looking than my mother, though like Sheila she had an attractive energy.

My cousin soon firmed our plans for a Scotland visit, with the welcome generosity of train tickets then a hire car.

I was hers – a relation and that mattered. She also had only brothers, though hers were older.

Sheila warned me that her mother had become touchy about family.

Despite increasing tension with her only sister, Daphne never attempted to disrupt Sheila being such a favourite with Margaret.

Another warning – although Daphne might seem as restrained as her older sister, emotions pulsed very close to the surface.

Eventually we arrived in the Highlands, driving across land that could almost be New Zealand.

Sheila was right – this aunt looked far more like me than she did her own daughter and her big smile melted over me.

By her, too, I felt claimed and she was interested in the new glasshouse and showed me her own.

Up here I might feel nearly at home and was sure I would return before going back to New Zealand.

It was late and after whiskey when Sheila began with questions.

What sort of father had Mark been?

How much had he escaped by getting far away?

If my aunt seemed uncomfortable with this, she was quiet but didn’t go to bed.

Sheila then told me how her own father turned out to be too like our grandfather, and as Daphne recognised this she fought back.

That wasn’t pretty for Sheila as a child, watching what she didn’t, then, understand. She just wanted peace between her parents.

Once Daphne realised she couldn’t make her husband see how controlling he was, she returned to teaching so she could leave him.

Grandma never forgave Daphne and Margaret also disapproved. Divorce was just not done.

It’s not that simple with Margaret, came sharply from my aunt.

Standing up to my husband was also a protest against our own father, and that was the bigger threat.

My grandfather, I learned, had sneered and put his children down and was brutal when punishing Mark.

Daphne told us meals were a horror, with her father’s mood controlling everyone.

They never knew when he’d start to shout – or hit them.

But it was not a time when wives had the strength or financial means to leave a bully.

Who could stand up to him?

Mark just escaped to New Zealand and came back, only that once, after the old man was dead.

It was difficult, Daphne said, that our widowed mother still would not hear criticism.

Having made what she could of living with her husband, probably more than half aware of ways he crushed his children, and doing her best to compensate, she put a hard vanish over the past and expected us all to accept that glossed surface.

She would not listen to anyone judging him, especially not her son’s colonial wife!

Daphne seemed sure that if her mother was to admit how it had been, she would have to face her inability to protect her three children, especially Mark.

“Father wasn’t a brute outside the house and he earned for the family.

Perhaps he put himself aside at work then felt entitled to be utterly self-indulgent, taking every frustration out on us at home.”

Her saying an emphatic no to her husband put in question her own father and Daphne expected to be able to talk with Margaret, sharing what they witnessed –“ the way our father took off his belt slowly and knew his power to humiliate us as he told Mark to take down his trousers.”

Daphne soon gave up trying to talk to her mother but pushed Margaret to speak of their father and his controlling ways.

However, her sister absolutely refused to discuss such things.

“It was the way of parenting then”, was all she would say. “Even after our mother died, Margaret thought my divorce a disgrace, and I was too hurt to tolerate that dead end with her.”

Sheila suddenly stood and was clearly in a state. Why had she never been told the reason for the estrangement from Margaret? Yet what had not been shared with her was offered immediately to me.

“She looks like you and I can’t help having so much of Dad – no wonder I vowed not to have children,” and with that Sheila strode off, into the night, leaving me with an aunt I didn’t know and a story of my father I didn’t want – not then.