Reading Granta magazine’s excellent new issue on fathers, I’ve been wondering about the obvious: how do we remember our fathers—the men, as Granta’s editor, Alex Clark, says in her introduction, who made us—and how do our children remember us as fathers?
Not very long after I started
wondering (aided by dipping into other favourite books of mine about fathers—Philip Roth’s Patrimony, Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father?), the matter boiled down to this (unsurprising, given the sort of self-absorbed guy I am): How do I remember my father from when I was a child? And how, years from today, will my daughter remember me?
For years now, my father and I have met only twice a year. Fuelled by food and alcohol (we both are partial to medium-rare steaks and single malt whiskies), we get along well enough when together.
But when I think of him, and think of what I remember of him from when I was a child, what do I come up with? Well, contradictory things, I suppose. I remember him as benign but stentorian; gentle but firm; freighted with responsibility and yet, on occasion, carefree.
When I try and associate a particular image with him, here are two things I see. Him standing before a stained, half-length mirror, tucking in his shirt before work and me, in the background, trying to memorise every detail of that getting ready, so that I could ape it. And him in sunglasses, silhouetted against the light on a bright, windy morning, leaning against the rail of a ship as we sailed from Dover to Calais.
He seemed to me those days the epitome of the grown-up.
I suspect that’s not quite how I appear to my seven-year-old. ‘Grown-up’, I suppose, is not what she thinks of when she thinks of me.
But it is important, this thing about what we think about when we think about our fathers when we are children. Kind, stern, friendly, stupid, smart, knowledgeable, tyrannical, what? How do we appear in their eyes? They’ve had no choice in the matter of us being their parents and, saddled with whom they have, what do they make of us?
Of course, those notions change (what doesn’t as we grow older ?), but something from them clings to us, I think, in a mutated, muted way.
So one evening, I asked my daughter. She was lying on the floor on her stomach, painting. Looking up from my book, I asked her, trying to appear casual. “Oishi, what comes to your mind when you think of me?”
She looked up, grave and surprised.
“I don’t know, what do you mean?” she asked.
“You know, how do you think of me when I am, say, not there with you?”
“Why do you want to know?” She’d gone back to the picture.
“Because,” I said, trying to look at my book.
“Do you intend to write about this?” She was smiling now. (“Got you,” that smile said.)
“No, no, just curious,” I lied.
“I don’t think of you when you are not there with me.”
That sorted it. At least for the moment.
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