Friday, March 23, 2012

I want to tell you about my dad

I never knew my father DennisAll I had, growing up, was his absence, and the awkwardness, that results as a child, from not having a father. Sometimes this was cruel. I remember to this day a class teacher at primary school demanding to know, at dinner register time, WHY I had free dinners!! I had no idea why. I just knew we didn't have much money, received help from various organisations in the form of a hamper at Christmas, money on birthdays, plus visits from a rather nice man and woman on occasions...(turns out the help was from NALGO my dad's union) I'd internalised that all THAT was something to do with not having a dad, but other than that..... I remember bursting into tears and mumbling something about not knowing. I grew up, with a tiny photo of a man (whose identity I had obviously learned at some point), caught in the  corner of a mirror frame. We were taken as very small children to a grave (which later turned out to be his). We were NOT encouraged to talk about this empty space in our lives, or to ask questions. So what I now know, has been gathered up from the broken fragments that you amass during a lifetime.

The first significant event in this 'amassing' took place one wet and dark August afternoon when I was 13 or 14. Something had happened to alert my mum that I'd gone off the rails. She'd done the unthinkable and read my teenage diary. No need to go into details here, but, yes there had been some associations with boys, not always entirely innocent ones. How I'd expanded on events in my diary *may* be another matter altogether.(Years later in therapy I was told in no uncertain terms that my behaviour was completely normal for a teenager). Anyway, to get back to that pivotal afternoon I remember being confronted with the things she had read......I wasn't used to fighting my corner, undoubtedly I was quiet and sullen before the sobs began.....and then, in the midst of this, she thrust an envelope at me, and demanded that I should read its contents.

It was my father's suicide letter

On 11th August 1959 (it was a Tuesday I now find), my dad went off to a council meeting, and when it was finished he went to his office. He blocked off the windows and the doors. And then he turned on the gas. When he didn't return home as usual, anxiety eventually turned into action. My grandad (who was for some reason may already have been at our house, otherwise he was summoned), reverted into his former existence as a policeman, and a search was made. Events (as told by sisters and others over the years) led to the suicide note being found in a pocket of his jacket left hanging in the hallway at home, which in turn led to the police breaking down the door to his office, and finding him, beyond help.

They are the facts. Some of them were the angry, shouted soundtrack to my traumatic reading of the letter. (note: the handwritten letter my father left was actually taken away and replaced by this typewritten one. My mum was never shown the original - was something omitted from it to protect her?)

So, 'that' wet August afternoon must, almost certainly, have been the 11th August, the anniversary, and most probably the significant 10th anniversary. So 11th August 1969. 

By the end of that day, my adolescent fumblings were inexorably entwined with the suicide of my dad, and the guilt that inevitably went alongside it.

The remainder of my time before I left home at 18 to go away to college (which was inevitable under the circumstances, there was no chance I would settle down, marry and raise kids in my home town) consisted of an awkward 4 years, with battles and truces.  I wrote about my mum on Sunday, and said how hard it was after my sisters left home. The hardest period was from Nov 1972 when my middle sister married, to Sep 1973 when I went away to college. For there were just the two of us. Even the odd weekend visit home, and Christmas and Easter remained difficult. That's why, after my grandad died in May 1974, my 3rd term at college, I used to look forward so much to my nan Emma coming for the weekend. Amongst other things there was safety in numbers. My nan was a chatterbox, and filled up the awkward silences that my mum and I often endured.

Over the years, I have been able to talk a lot with my middle sister. She was able to tell me the story from her point of view. I was able to join the dots. It was she who confirmed the place of his death. Finally I understood why my mum was always most reluctant to take me to the library as a young child. The Sandringham Hotel was where the library was situated in the early 1960's. I loved going there, I was a voracious reader. I've always loved books. Why did she always seem to put off the beloved library visit? Well now I knew.

In subsequent years my mum and I continued to have an uneasy relationship. On the surface we got on well, but we didn't ever really talk or share confidences. I never went out of my way to relate things happening in my life. There was an evening a few years before she died, when she summoned the three of us, and said we could ask her whatever questions we had about our dad. We all duly went, but my memory of that evening was that one of awkwardness. It should have happened 30 years earlier. She told us that the reason his death was a taboo subject was the fault of her parents, who felt it shouldn't be talked about. She revealed that she, herself, had been unable to grieve properly because of them. They didn't allow it. Or rather my grandad didn't. By the time he died in 1974 we had all deeply buried our feelings. I feel so sad for her, writing these words.

After mum died in 2001, I immediately started to research my family history. She had done quite a lot on her own family, but not on my father's, nothing at all. She wanted me to have her family tree, on a roll of wallpaper, and also the photo albums. In addition I found old newspapers from the time of my dad's death. The whole, unread newspapers neatly folded. I have a large collection of wartime correspondence between my parents (which I still haven't read in their entirety) I also have the 1959 letter.

In looking into my family history, especially seeing all the photos, I have been able to somewhat 'flesh out' the man he was, or, more accurately, the child he was, as there are many, many photos from his childhood. The man remains a shadowy figure. To this day I do not have a single memory of him. I was told in therapy that the trauma had caused me to put up a wall.

There are some practical things I can still do. I want to go and read the transcript of that final council meeting on 11th August. Maybe there will be something there. Maybe I just want something concrete to show he was there. I also want to read the inquest papers. It was reported in the local paper but I'd still like to read the actual transcript.

Over the years I have felt the whole gamut of emotions including anger, abandonment, blame, loss, guilt, sadness and finally compassion. I now understand that he had no control over events. He was in that dark place that doesn't allow for logical, joined up thinking. I truly believe that it was impossible for him to have any concept of the effect his suicide would have on his wife and three children.


Sheila Pratt said...

Oh, Sis! I feel your heartbreak so much and my heart goes out to you. Some more amazing parent's anniversary was August 11th! So many important events happened on that day.Did you ever notice that?

And when I met my Dennis,same name as your Dad,I was struck by how many little things about him reminded me of the good memories of my Dad who,most of the time, had his emotions sealed up like a drum, as did so many fathers. My Den has healed a lot of pain caused by my father's rigidity and controlling ways.

I know that Mark does the same for you.

I am so proud of you for finally opening Pandora's Box, naming and claiming what's inside, sharing it, and thus diffusing the pain, which in the end will help you to let go of it.

Eric said...

It's so amazing that you have been able to recall and share this is such detail and with an even balance of fact and emotion. Anything I might comment would feel completely inadequate. There is just so much I want to say that I feel unable to do so within the confines of this forum. I wish so badly that I could just pick up the phone and talk with you. Perhaps I will relay some thoughts in a IM on Facebook. Just feel such empathy and admiration that you have kept this commitment or promise to yourself and taken this HUGE healing step.
So very proud of you!