5th September 2017
Today marks 5 years since I enrolled on my teacher training course, and 3 years before that, since I walked down the aisle with Mr Dubs, and 67 years before that, since my dad came into existence: September 5th 1942.
The 5th September has been one of those dates that has been etched into my consciousness throughout the whole of my (almost) 37 years. Dad would have been turning 75 today if he was still around. Collecting his free TV licence perhaps?
When my first sister died- ‘first sister’ sounds so throwaway, as though she was a lover I had grown bored of, but ‘first’ she remains. After she had gone and the days became months, I worked like mad not to attach any significance to birthdays of dead people, by which I mean, her. ‘Dead people don’t get birthdays’ I would tell myself petulantly. Looking back, I suspect it was a form of self defence. As though, remembering to remember the recently dead with any more emphasis than was normally attached to them, was just another bloody form of self-flagellation.
My first dead sister died before the explosion of Facebook- Friends Reunited was as cutting edge as it got- and so in some ways, her life in pictures seems to have been forgotten, in a way that would be seen as heartless in today’s world of social media. Now, if someone dies, particularly the young (she was 25), are celebrated; feted if you will. Their lives so frequently airbrushed with the sugar-coated, whittled down, highly abridged ‘best bits’ that any self-respecting producer on X Factor would be proud of. But the fact that she died pre-all that, means that if and when we do think of her, or hear that Erasure song she always sang her heart out to, posting an old pic and attaching some warm words are the best we can muster. Of course lives are not measured by how many sad face emojis our passing raises on social media, but this seems the state of things in 2017.
It wasn’t until a cousin of mine died 7 years ago, that I began to come round to the idea that remembering dead people’s birthdays is perhaps an ok thing to do. His wife, sisters and friends flooded social media with tributes at every anniversary of his death and birthday and I began to admire it, and see how that could bring comfort instead of pain. Also having children changed my outlook. As a parent, I would be devastated to let one of my own son’s birthdays pass unmarked, for my sake, as well as theirs. ‘Birthing’ days are so deeply ingrained in parents’ psyche, that no sooner have the labour pains subsided, than the day itself in all its groaning, and sweating, and pleading, and swearing glory becomes impossible not to mythologise. What was just 24 hours earlier ‘the most f**king godforsaken painful experience of my life!’, becomes ‘Ah, wasn’t that just such a special day?! I wouldn’t change a thing from start to finish, would you, dear?!’ Such is the miracle of our bodies…and minds.
Growing up, the lives and marriage of my parents was always an open topic. Quite the opposite to current social media trends, mum didn’t sugar-coat much and told us quite plainly how it was. I don’t remember being ‘told’ that my dad was dead, but instead it was just something I knew in my being. The presence of his publicity headshots around the house, reportedly prompted myself or one of my sisters to ask, ‘Why didn’t daddy have any legs?’ He became a figure of wonder, one that was anchored by the dates mum churned out on her countless retellings of their life.
1st August 1972: the day they got married. It was a Tuesday and in the afternoon there was a thunderstorm.
5th September 1942: Dad’s birthday. Born in Bristol to Muriel and Fred. His father died of an aneurism in 1949.
2nd September 1980: the day he was pronounced dead in Newcastle General Hospital, aged 37 and 363 days.
And so many more. These dates became part of my own life. Except, it is very difficult to feel anything about them when you weren’t alive to experience them in real time. Instead, I would try very hard to put myself in my mum’s shoes, imagine how she might be feeling, and make an effort to wish her happy anniversary every August, and suggest going to the cemetery every September. They became very much things I did for her, or at most out of respect for my dad’s memory, than I did to gain something for myself. I suppose it is only now, as an adult that I am beginning to make a connection with these milestones myself, and I hope that as the discoveries about my dad progress, these dates will begin to carry more emotion for me.
16th July 2017: A phone call to my aunty in Ireland
When I began this project, it was my aunty Steve (Stephanie) that I had hopes of mining for new perspectives on who my dad was. After all, she was his sister; they grew up together. What she had to say about my father was most certainly going to differ from anyone else I might speak to. And more importantly, she was the one remaining sibling left. Though my mum has remained in contact with that side of my family since dad died, it’s fair to say that they had a more hands-off approach to us as kids growing up. Granny would send us all £3 postal order every birthday. I am sure I may have met my dad’s siblings at some point, but I really have no memory of it, and the last time I was in Bristol was for my granny’s funeral 20 years ago. Despite being an adult myself then, I really don’t recall a lot.
So it was with trepidation, but embracing the last remnants adrenaline following my bereavement this summer, that I called the number that my mum thought was right for my aunty Steve (she wasn’t sure, on account of not having her address list to hand). It was a number in Ireland to a woman I had never spoken to. You’ve only got one life. Her husband passed me on to her me. ‘Hi there,’ I said, ‘It’s Fred’s daughter?’, a question at the end in case she had forgotten which Fred I might mean. But she knew me. It was a relief.
I had high hopes. I had already been planning EasyJet flights, and rental cars, and cover for the kids…But these things are never straight forward. She was ‘waiting for a cataracts operation, you see’, and her husband had recently had a heart attack; she didn’t want to put me off, but this year really wasn’t a good time. But she did ever so want to meet me.
After a 4 minute chat and a promise to call again at the end of the year and see how the land lay, it was over. I felt a but deflated. I felt a little teary. But come on, I decided. There are many other people to speak to and leads to follow. And she still wants to see me. I will definitely call her in a few months.
And that’s when I checked my email to see if I still had a contact for my dad’s old theatre colleague, James.
Time to plan another visit, I decided.