Fathers and Sons

As I sit down to write this, it’s Thursday the 22nd of June, four days after Father’s Day.  My last grandparent, David Black, passed away on the day before Father’s Day.  Like the death of any family member, his passing has been weighing heavily on my mind.

I have no idea how other people consider their families.  I suspect, for example, that my wife sees her family as some massive, interconnected web of relations, all equally important and loved.  It’s messy and chaotic and looks, from above, like an emotional subway map.  For me there has always been a strict hierarchy, a rigid succession fixed in my mind from my youngest years.  There were My Grandparents, My Parents and Us (my sisters and I).  Each generation was a rank or tier higher than the others, with clearly defined roles.  With my Grandpa Black passing away, I’ve suddenly realised – despite being a parent myself – that I still had this order of things in my mind.

Davey represents the end of that whole generation: both of my grans passed away within a week of one another a few years ago, and my maternal grandfather passed away when I was still in my teens.  This feels significant to me, which is not the least bit surprising.  A death in the family should always make you take stock, it’s an unfriendly reminder that the conveyor belt doesn’t stop for anyone.  My Parents are now The Grandparents and I’ve stepped into the role – but not the shoes – of My Parents.

My Grandpa Black was not my biological grandfather, he was my Dad’s stepdad: my paternal grandfather passed away long before I was born.  This distinction isn’t important to me – he was the only Grandpa I ever had on that side of the family – but it’s worth noting because any man who becomes a stepfather inherits a family, and there is a measure of a man in how he takes on that responsibility.

When I was little, I was terrified of him.  I can’t place my finger on why, exactly.  He was a big, hard seeming man who always reminded me a little of Herman Munster and a little of John Wayne, despite looking nothing like either.  He appeared to smoke constantly, and his laugh had a rattle in it even thirty years ago.  My Gran would give us biscuits out of this big hermetically sealed tub that lived on top of the fridge, mainly soggy Custard Creams and the like (the one sound you never want to hear from a biscuit is SILENCE).  Davey would make a spectacular row about how we were stealing his biscuits, and that made them special to us.  “Haw you!  They’re for ma piece the morra!”  It was this kind of fuss that probably scared me: he gave off the distinct impression that he was willing to murder us over those biscuits.  If I pretended to shoot him he performed some of the most theatrical, gruesome death scenes I had ever seen.  In my little boy brain, this was surefire proof that my Grandpa had probably shot a man before (as opposed to, you know, watched a lot of Westerns).


I remember giving myself a serious case of alcohol poisoning in August of 1997, and telling him that my drink had been spiked.  I was in bed with a sick bucket beside me, lying while lying there, and the thought of telling him the truth never occurred to me because I couldn’t handle his disapproval.  A similar conversation played out one Christmas when I was around twenty years old and he found out I was smoking.  He loved all of us grandkids, but it was an older brand of tough love that had to be earned.

I saw another side of him when my Gran died.  Her death hit him like every clumsy metaphor you care to conjure up and set him on the path to his own death last Saturday.  I always thought of him as this obdurate thing, but he loved my Gran about as much as I think it’s possible to love another person and he wore his grief like a mortal wound.  Sometimes the lessons you learn from your elders are surprising ones, and I would never have guessed David Black would have anything to teach me about love.  He mourned for my Gran, and his grief broke my heart.  Over and above all else, I’ll always love him for that.

The timing of his death, the day before Father’s Day, is one of those details that will forever be a part of the coda of his life now: we may forget the date, but we’ll never forget when it was.

I don’t know where you do your best thinking.  It may be in the shower, or on the epiphany toilet.  For me, it is inevitably when I’m doing something that requires a certain amount of manual autopilot: washing the dishes, say, or playing computer games.  Keep the hands and a large part of the brain busy and the subconscious can really get to work.  Given the timing of Davey’s death, I’ve been thinking of my own father a lot.  While loading the washing machine this morning, I came to a few conclusions.

People are keen to flood social media on Father’s Day with images and tributes and dedications and platitudes, and they’re precisely as saccharine and cheesy as you are already imagining.  Very few people ever actually say something meaningful about their old man.  I was thinking about legacy after Grandpa Black died – hence what you’ve read so far – and I wonder what, if anything, my Dad would say about his stepfather.  It is a conversation we will likely never have.  We are not, by design, a family given to analysis.  This, in turn, set me to musing on what I would say about my Dad if I had to sum him up.

The cliché of “my dad taught me what it means to be a man” does not apply here.  For one thing, I think that that notion of manliness is a little outmoded for my generation.  For another thing, I haven’t the first clue about manhood.  The crushing weight of expectation for men nowadays bears returning to at a later date, but for now let me just say that I haven’t figured it out.  My Dad is very much one kind of man, and I think it’s fair to say that I’m a very different type.  We’re two versions of the same song, if you know the melody you can sing along with either but keep an eye out for sudden key changes.

He worked hard for his family and without complaint.  Now that one unfortunately is a cliché, but it’s true and it’s worth acknowledging.  We were never financially comfortable, but we never went without what was important and in the village I grew up in I knew plenty of kids who weren’t so fortunate.  He just took care of things in that straightforward bloke way of doing things that seems to belong to the 1970s and 80s.  While he has undoubtedly instilled a work ethic in me, I complain constantly about my lot in life and spend more time daydreaming about a Lottery win than I do improving said lot.

My Dad loves my Mum, and it’s the sweetest love I know.  I think you need to do quite a bit of growing up before you can really appreciate your parents, you need to be able to see them at a discreet remove and be able to consider them in abstract.  From the moment I was old enough and emotionally mature enough, I set my parents’ love as the high bar to aim for.  They are just the cutest, and I think I’m far too cynical and jaded to ever do what they do, but if you’re going to aim for anything you have to aim to be the best.  Craig and Tina Rodger are the best.

All of these are just musings, they’re the equivalent of word association.  If I had to distil my Dad down to a single, immutable concept – if I had to say he taught me anything valuable – it’s that he taught me to be fair.

Being fair may not seem like a big deal to you.  It seems like a pedestrian concept, but in everything my Dad said and did I think he taught me how valuable fairness was.  There are the obvious examples: I grew up with two sisters, and that automatically suggests a certain amount of parental refereeing and dispensing of justice.  But as I mentioned earlier, sometimes the lessons you learn from your elders are surprising ones.  My Dad taught me what it is to be fair by showing me how to react when things simply aren’t.

You meet so many people in life who don’t want life to be fair.  A side effect of getting older is that I’m noticing more and more people seem to possess a sense of entitlement in all walks of life, a sense that the world owes them something or that certain conditions don’t apply to them.  I think the way I was raised was designed to stop me being that kind of person.  So much of what happens in life is patently not fair, and my Dad never once sought to sugar coat that.  Can’t afford that toy you want for Christmas?  The other kids have better trainers on their feet?  You’re grounded because you got alcohol poisoning last week, but this week is THE party of the year?  Well life is tough, not fair.  Dry your eyes, dust yourself off, pick yourself up.

True story.  I was once walking along an icy Hyndland Road when I took a bad slip. I took the impact on my right hand side, and in those first moments a few things flashed through my mind.  The first was that there was rush hour traffic stopped at the lights, and they would have seen me fall, and that was inherently embarassing.  The second was that the cold concrete was hard.  But the clearest thing that happened was I heard my Dad’s voice, as if he was right there, saying “Get up” in the same tone he’d used when I was a little boy.  I couldn’t have been on the ground longer than a second or two, because that voice contained an imperative that spoke to my very DNA:  I shot back to my feet and kept walking.  It was only as I reached the corner that I realised I was limping pretty badly, and when I stopped at a bus shelter to sit and take stock of my injuries I noticed that my wrist was swelling up like a small child holding its breath.

Slipped on the ice, fractured your wrist and bruised your pelvis?  Well, what’s done is done and can’t be undone.  A lot of people have it a lot worse, son.

There is a lot my father could have taught the Stoics of history about being the best person you can be.

stoics stoic

There is a turn of phrase that my Dad never, ever uttered, but it always makes me think of him: “You can shit in one hand and hope in the other and see which fills up first”.  He always made sure to treat me fairly, but he had no time for people who complained when life didn’t play fair.  He has an incredible moral compass, and a fucking granite jaw for life’s suckerpunches.

He’s the same to this day.  My Mum has had several serious health problems over the last year and is right now gearing up for yet another fight, but my Dad hasn’t once protested about the unfairness of it all.  It is unfair, it is the most horrendous situation I’ve ever seen her endure and she absolutely does not deserve it.  And while his number one child and only son spends his time fretting and complaining about how unfair it all is, my Dad just shrugs.  Life isn’t fair.  Shit happens to good people.  No need to be a dick about it.

To end on a lighter note, here is my favourite lesson I’ve ever learned about fairness from my Dad.  It’s a story I’ve told often and written down before, but it bears repeating.

At least once a year while I was growing up we’d take a family trip to a burgh in South Ayrshire called Girvan.  We’d almost always park at the same spot at the corner of a park.  The park was really just a large, hilly green space with a few picnic benches and a big obelisk in the middle commemorating those who had died in The Great War.  We’d do the usual family stuff.  Fall out over sandcastles on the beach, visit the arcades and the funfair and eat candy floss and 99s.  As afternoon gave way to evening we’d begin thinking of the hour or so trip back home, and the route back to the car almost always ended with us arriving at the corner of the park directly opposite our car.  And every year, as far back as my memory goes, my Dad would challenge me to a race to the car.

I’m probably wrong, but I can’t have been much older than my son is now the first time we raced.  In those days, and for years that followed, my Dad would let me win while giving the illusion of competition. That’s fair, right?  As the years wound on, the races got a little more legitimately competitive.  With every growth spurt, I closed the gap on my Dad.  Even as a sulky, surly teenager I was never too cool to race my Dad in Girvan.

Now again, my recollection could be flawed – my memory is not so much a collection of facts but more a repository of anecdotal evidence – but I think I was seventeen the last time we raced.  I say this because it would be the last time I went to Girvan with the family as the summer after that I left to go to university.  That would make my dad forty-two, and I had two inches in height on him by then.  And we raced.

It was a close run race.  There were families at the picnic benches cheering us on.  There was no jostling, no cheating, just a pure race, arms pumping, chests out.  For the last couple of years, my Dad had won fair and square and he was holding nothing back this time either.  Fair’s fair.

The last part of the race was always a short, sharp incline which I thought of as being like the Travelator in the old TV show Gladiators: you hit this 45 degree climb when your legs were already lead.  We hit it together and in the mad scramble to get up to the car I finally took him by the narrowest of margins, my hand slapping the passenger’s side door in triumph.

This wasn’t a passing of the torch moment.  As we stood there, hands on thighs and wheezing, he patted me once on the shoulder and said “Well done.”  It was the first and only time I’d ever beat him fair and square after over ten years of trying, and it felt like a monumental achievement.  Nothing more had to be said.

It is only now, years later, that I wish my Dad hadn’t played fair.  I wish he’d tripped me, or pushed me, or done something to falsely extend things so that a rematch would be needed some time to set things right.  But he didn’t.

Life isn’t fair.  But my Dad is.

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