Wednesday 5 May 2010

Father and Son

When I was about three years old my father, directly after coming home from work or just after dinner, I'm not sure, used to sit me up on his knee and tickle my ear with his tongue. Then he would tell me a story. Sometimes this took place lying on the couch, for I remember my father tucking me in beside him. This is a recurrent and favourite memory of mine, and is both vague and brilliantly clear. I have no clear idea of exactly when my father began - or stopped - showing his affection in this way, and I cannot recall any great 'visual' detail. I don't remember any one of these occasions in particular and can only guess what my father might have been wearing, or how the room in the house was decorated. I think I know how the furniture was arranged, and I certainly remember that the couch was facing a window, in the direction of the kitchen. I always imagine my mother standing with her back to the window, as a silent observer, in silhouette. Her position there, standing watching father and son, cannot be a faithful memory. I now realise that she would have had better things to do with her time, being in charge of two boys under three and a nineteen seventies father who worked hard oursite the home, but who never interferred, we would now say helped, in domestic affairs. But the memory also has great clarity. I can hear and feel my father's tongue in my ear, and I hear his voice say hickory dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock.

This is one of serveral very clear - and very dear - memories that I have of early childhood. Another is one of me playing with my grandfather's pocket watch. He passed away in 1977, when I was four. In another memory I am riding a cart behind a donkey with my uncle, who was only 9 years my senior. This was on my grandparents' farm where the donkeys were pushed to extinction in the middle to late seventies by the arrival of a diesel tractor. (A David Brown 770 which has since mostly melted back into the earth beside the byre, also in a state of decay).

My early memories are very precious because they connect me with people, allive and deceased, who were near the centre of my life at one stage or another. Yet these memories are terribly fragile. I know that people often have false memories of childhood (Scientists of memory say that we often create these memories unconcsciously from a mix of real memories and suggestions by others. This often results in impossible memories, which are recalled episodes which could never have happened, like being present at an event which took place before you were born. This is down to a thing called source confusion where the rememberer cannot recall the source of the information. It could have been a story someone told or something they read, and in the mind it got inserted with other real memories of self).

Even if some of my early memories are false, I don't necessarily want to find out. They are like pillars that are now built into my life story, and I cannot bear to imagine them being torn away.

When my father became seriously ill lately I found myself revisiting a lot of my childhood and teenage memories that involve him. The process happened of course unconsciously and over a period of weeks. I might be waiting for a meeting to start at work when I would remember my father, wearing a yellow vest, his white shoulders exposed to the July sunshine, and hunched over a turf spade. His hair is dishevelled, but thick and ungrey. His motion is fluid and silent, though from time to time I hear the slap of peat on peat.

Or I am getting ready for bed and another memory arrives: he and I are sitting on the pier in Killybegs, hot summers day, me seven or so, and both eating ice-lollies. Mine is an orange ice thing, his a choc ice or a brunch, or one of the more adult ice creams that I couldn't manage. There is no sound but he must be telling me about the boats, the great fleet of trawlers that packed into the harbour then but which are long gone now.

Or while driving alone I suddenly recall my father perched on the tiny stage of the local pub, his paolo soprano accordion strapped on his shoulders, his eyes are fixed in the distance as he inhabits his music.

These are a few examples of the many memories which have bubbled to the surface over the past few weeks since my father suddenly became ill. Thankfully he is making a good recovery now and his prospects are reasonably good. But his close call has vivifyied him in me, and I fell I need to be near him more than before.

The inability of Irish fathers (and sons) to communicate is a well known source of anguish. My father, despite all those shared memories and experiences, remains far too much unknown to me. It hurts to admit that I still can ask, who is that gentle, patient, loving, man that tickled my ear? Or what might have been on the mind of the robust, big-hearted man throwing the sods onto the turf bank? Or where does his music take him?

It is a lonely thought that I might never really get fully inside those memories, never really acquire a fuller understanding of the figure that made them all possible. I had always thought that those memories, which are shared experiences, even if some are unreliably remembered, are a kind of collage which, when viewed from afar would form a meaningful picture that isn't visible in any single part. Yet I feel that I am standing here squinting at the grey and blurry distance.

Now more than ever I want to know my father better, to learn about his inner life and how he views his own life, and mine. But maybe I'm wrong to even try - maybe knowledge is not the currency of love. Perhaps the opposite is true. Maybe it is the mystery, and the unfathomable that sustain love.

Yet the power and immediacy of those memories create a yearning for something more. Something bigger and more complete. So I feel I will go on trying, desparately, to discover more.

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