I think this may be the only photo I have of my dad as the centre of attention, proposing a toast at the wedding of his brother Alec.
Like everyone else’s dad, especially men of his generation, he could have been so many things. He could have gone to Grammar School, but my gran couldn’t afford the uniform. He won a scholarship to go to art school, but it ran out after a year, and he had to leave. He was a rambler, a birdwatcher, a singer in the chapel choir. And for fifty years he was a woollen spinner.
In his heart, I think, he never accepted it; he bore it. He just got on. It never struck me at the time, but it does now, that he had no ‘best mates’. He was sociable, he was good company, but never had any close friends. It bothers me, quite unreasonably. It never seemed to bother him.
I’ve found myself writing about, and for, him more and more recently. For this Father’s Day, I thought I’d share the first poem I ever wrote for him, and the most recent.
His hands cross-hatched as a chopping board
from breaking yarn- a million creels.
I think he dreamed moors and opera, in the mill;
his nails were horny, blue with old dark blood,
caught by flying shuttles in the humming sleet
of shivering threads. Miming in the din,
the racket of machinery, the deafening beat
of spinning-mules, close air thick with lanolin.
Chapel choir – his tenor voice came reedy-light.
Round and ringing if he thought he was alone
with Jussi Bjorling on the gramophone,
the gathering wave of ‘None shall sleep’;
a duet to bring a dreamed La Scala to its feet,
his voice like a moorland wind, and rich as night.
The latest one was harder to write. My dad’s father, grandfather John, by all accounts, was not an affectionate man. My dad was, but he found it hard to show it, spontaneously. He wasn’t cold, or distant. But something in him was withheld. This is just to say, ‘I love you, Dad’.
How do you know that this is love? Is it
the moment that draws you in, the saving stitch?
One moment out of all the moments,
out of all the wrong notes, the missteps.
Because I thought he didn’t know the way of love,
didn’t know the tune, the words,
they were what other people spoke,
they were borrowings, and he wasn’t one
to accept with grace, always on guard. But
he’d go out, not saying where, come back
and give his grandchildren each a Marathon.
He wasn’t a man to pick up a child
so a child could slip into his shape
as cats do. A silent gift of chocolate bars
was him articulating love.
What they remember of him, my children,
what they tell of him, is Marathons.
Remember when our granddad gave us Marathons?
What remains of us might just be love
but the story’s always Marathons.