For those catching up, I’m writing a few posts that followed on from my father’s death in 2005 and my newly minted relationship with my mother. We’ve now reached the funeral itself. Interspersed with some recollections are a couple of dad’s poems.
The day was overcast. Rain threatened. A warm, sort of decaying damp day. Fungoid. Dad would approve. ‘Lets go and see if we can find some mushrooms, and pupae,’ he might have said. A couple of hours of chit and chat as we strolled amongst his memories on his beloved New Forest and then a pint of something hoppy. That would be a perfect day for him.
That would be ideal for his funeral, too. Friends, chat, laughs, beer. Or as near as we could recreate it. Only you have to have songs.
That was a challenge, agreeing the songs. He never talked about his funeral, understandable of course. Mum, the Archaeologist and I had to agree. What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong was easy enough.
And the Glen Miller, In The Mood
But what was the third piece. He loved Abba – the short skirts I think – but somehow Dancing Queen didn’t convey the man I knew. My Way? Too cheesy. Jerusalem? Too WI. Always Look on the Bright Side? Too modern. As I type this I realise I’ve forgotten what we chose. That bugs me.
It’s so easy to forget. The day was episodic, with the emphasis on the ‘sod’ as in a sod of a day. Did I speak first or the Archaeologist? Did it rain? Did everyone come? Did we eat sandwiches or rolls? It’s like a Swiss cheese my memory of that day, even though I was a main player. I bottled one aspect. Dressing him. I couldn’t but mum wanted to so she chose. His trousers – cream slacks – and blazer – blue with silver buttons, white shirt and regimental tie. I’d have done the same tie but the rest? Walking gear, had it been me deciding. Probably as well we didn’t debate this. You need a friction free day, really, don’t you?
Misty (their much loved cat)
Our Misty is an English cat
Whose natural feline grace
Conceals inside a haughty pride
In her native English race
Her sire sprang from New Forest stock
And her dam from a Midland shire
And she was born on St George’s morn
In the warmth of a Hampshire byre.
On her mother’s side, generations gone,
Cats more wild than tame
Saw Royalists yield on Naseby field,
Cursing the Roundhead name.
And earlier yet her father’s kin,
Of the Wessex woodland race,
Watched an arrow fly, saw the Red King die,
And Tyrell fall from grace.
The law of the countryside she knows,
As a kitten the lesson was learned,
That to live and thrive, to stay alive,
Is a privilege hard earned.
She knows this land on warm Summer nights,
She has hunted through the snow,
She has heard the trees sing their symphonies
When the great south-westers blow.
And now, on this black November night,
I doze by my fireside warm,
While the windowpane is lashed with rain
Of our first real Winter storm.
Down at my feet our Misty lies,
Silent, she slumbers on,
What dreams are hers? Ears twitch, she stirs,
Stands, stretches – and is gone.
I do remember talking. My aim was to make it happy, a cliched celebration. I did generate a few laughs and the occasional dab of an eye. It felt both pleasing and a bit cheap. It was my version of a send off, not his and not mum’s. She said she liked it, thanked me profusely. I watched her as I spoke, for her reaction to my tribute. She smiled, she shut her eyes a few times but sometimes she didn’t nod in recognition of the man I tried to capture in a few words as I hoped she would. Maybe she was thinking about him and not focusing on my words. Understandable.
I’ve thought about it since. She was very grateful that I read his poems without losing it, giving them a proper chance to shine. But I’m not entirely sure about the anecdotes. You see, if dad had one trait above all others that brought you back to him after he had said something to piss you off – he could be as irritating as viral nits – it was his ability to laugh at himself, to poke fun at himself. His biggest joke was always himself and some of the best, most well loved of the stories about him had him as the centre of the funny. So when I told a story, with me as the joke and dad as the hero, mum nodded. But telling something at a funeral, at the going down of someone’s own little bit of sun, has to respect them and perhaps some were not what she really wanted because they didn’t do that completely. B+ probably.
Not that she ever said. It’s probably me being over sensitive. And anyway mum was being mum that day and making sure everyone was comfortable, so I’d never know. If someone cried, she was there to comfort them. If someone lost their words, mum filled in. She took the condolences offered with a gentleness and sincerity that helped people feel like they’d said something helpful and special, not, as is often the case, something trite and repetitive. She surrounded my father’s bereft family and friends in a kapok of love and a lake of tea.
My most vivid memory is by the grave, looking at a dark hole and wondering if he’d have planted potatoes or runners in it before concluding he’d have lined it with old newspaper and planted sweet peas. His coffin was a wicker box that wobbled rather, much like a few lips. I held her arm and she squeezed mine. ‘Bye darling’ she whispered at that box before she moved to her grandchildren and held them in turn. I don’t like graves, I decided. Too gloomy.
I worried rather about the ‘after’. How would she deal with the ungraspable future, stretching who knew where? An empty house that would remain empty. Her solution was to buy two more small radios and leave them on in each room. The incessant chatter, the tone, somewhere between a rant and a fit of giggles replicated life with the old boy around.
She had plenty of support from family who lived locally and friends, delightful if somewhat intimidating members of the Women’s Institute. But even so, once the funeral was done, she began to withdraw, to go in on herself, to avoid engaging in anything that smacked of the ‘future’. She’d deal with the now only. It may have been imperceptible to many but to those closest to us, her batteries needed changing.
I pottered around, beginning the process of sorting out his estate and waited for a sign that we were moving onto the next stage. I knew we would. I knew she wouldn’t cry. Never ever would you see mum cry. ‘I cried when daddy died’ that was 1940 ‘and I’m all cried out,’ she once told me. Nor would there be self pity. But a period of introspection? Yes I think so.
It took some months, three probably before I realised we were moving on. It was when she announced, ‘I really do have to get a new car. Your father (never ‘my husband’ or ‘Des’ when it involved a criticism – something I was to learn about my role as her apprentice) refused to change it but, frankly, it’s utterly buggered.’ Yep my mother was back, she was firing and my life with her was about to become very different.
To Barbara – On her birthday, 21 October 1985 (Her sixtieth)
Thanks my Love, for all these years,
So often smiles, so seldom tears,
Thanks too for many, many joys.
(Thanks especially for the boys!)
There’s so much here that’s part of you;
The house, the garden – everywhere
I look and know that you’ve been there.
Alone, I’m just an also-ran,
But when you’re here then I’m a Man.
You’re my lover, friend, companion, wife,
Dear Barbs – you are my very life.