woensdag 20 juni 2012

All this Father's Day stuff made me think

Father's Day (or Mother's Day for that matter) was never a very big thing in our household. My mum used to think it a bit ridiculous and would always request "nice children" when asked for her wishes. (Now having a toddler of my own, I finally realize how heartfelt this wish must have been.) She was an early riser and didn't enjoy crumbs in her bed, so breakfast in bed was limited to a cup of tea. If we thought of it.

However, what I wanted to talk about is not my mum, but my dad. I've been reading my mum's letters to my grandmother while she was living in Singapore and one thing that stands out is how often my dad would be travelling. At one point he even went to the Netherlands for a few weeks, while my mum stayed in Singapore with us. I don't think I'd let S. get away with that one. Even after we moved back, he used to work long hours, at one point even driving down to Germany on a daily basis. Later, after I'd already moved out, he flew out to all corners of Europe on a weekly basis with thrice yearly visits to Taiwan and China thrown in as well.

So, it's safe to assume that my dad was not a big presence in my childhood.

However, that assumption would be wrong.

During our time in Singapore we used to have helpers, the last one live-in. I have more memories of my dad than of our live-in helper (still called "amah" in those days). My dad has been a constant presence throughout my life. The helpers weren't. I think that is the reason for this seemingly strange discrepancy in number of hours spent in their company and number of memories retained of them within that period. I think it means you do get second chances with children, if you want them. Because my dad (after a talking to by a dear family friend) did mend his ways. A little. (He does love travelling.)

My parents' life for a large part revolved around us. They always came to our events. They stood on the sidelines in the icy winter drizzle watching our hockey games (field hockey, you ice-lovers). They volunteered for parental duties at school, from typing up the weekly newsletter (even though my mum can only type with two fingers) to sitting on the board of our secondary school. But they would also have yearly vacations for just the two of them, leaving us in the capable hands of friends or family, go out to theatre or music performances regularly and have friends over for dinner, while we'd be shoo-ed off to bed.

And it wasn't just my mum. My dad tried to teach my sister and myself mathematics (we both have a masters in decidedly non-science-y history). He taught me about stocks and dividends long before school got around to it, and explained complicated excel files to me. His unspoken assumption that I could understand all this mathematic-y and economic-y stuff has made sure I have no fear of numbers. I never felt stupid for asking questions, as he loved explaining things. He would also readily admit to not knowing stuff and encourage me to figure it out. He loved and respected my mum and would listen to her advice, not just on child rearing and food cooking (in which he would usually defer) but on financial decisions and job related issues as well.

My dad has made sure I can look after myself and he has always trusted me to do so, even when I decided to hitchhike through Albania with a friend. And when we managed to find ourselves without money in Montenegro, his calm voice on the phone gave me the confidence that we could sort it out. And we did. (But that's a whole other story, involving an incredibly nice woman at the bus station, a couple of Serbian soldiers and my love of all things religious.) He never let on how worried he must have been. When my bag containing my passport, drivers license and money was stolen in Bolivia, my first instinct was to call home even though by then I was thirty years old. (S. told me to grow up and sort it out myself. He's really quite like my dad in many, many ways. And I did sort it out, involving a passport, an airport strike in Lima, a new ticket, the ugliest passport pictures ever and a loan from a newly made friend.)

Every day when my dad came home from work, he'd waltz into the kitchen, grab my mum and kiss her, beaming that he was home again. She'd sit him down, get his dinner and while we'd be off somewhere watching telly, they would talk about their day together. To me, this is not an example of classic family patterns. It's not about who does which part of the sequence. It's about the kiss, it's about the sitting down, it's about the spending time and listening to each other. To me, this was the loving heart of our family.

A large part of who I am and what I do today is because of my dad. I, a medieval historian, would never have ended up on the business and energy end of journalism if he had not instilled in me the confidence that, yes, I could understand what was going on, if I would just keep on asking questions. And he taught me the joy of asking questions, how much people love to answer them as long as you are truly interested in the answer. His love of all things technical opened my mind to the wonders of science and his love of travel - well, see above.

I have always known my parents' love for me and my brothers and sister is unconditional. That didn't mean they mollycoddled us. It meant they expected certain things from us, they instilled values and taught us respect and hard work. They thought we were worth going through all that, worth fighting for and with, because they love us. And I fought a lot with my dad, because we are so alike. And after every fight, as I lay in bedroom contemplating further cutting insults and dramatic ways I could prove my point, he would come into my room, sit on my bed, apologize for getting angry and explain himself calmly. And as often as not, I would find myself agreeing. Neither of us is very good at sustaining anger over longer periods of time.

The whole grandfather-thing took a bit of getting used to for my dad. He didn't dare hold E. until she was six weeks old, scared of the fragility of a newborn. But when she was eight weeks old and screaming for her bath, he held her again and his deep voice soothed her so that she lay calmly with her head on his shoulder and her eyes wide open in wonderment. He's looked after E. on his own a couple of times since and the pride he takes in his granddaughter is heartwarming to see.

According to my mum, he never used to do that when we were little. But, mum, I've read the letters and that is not quite accurate.

And dad, you were a good father all along.

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