Dad was incredible to me as a child

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I couldn't, as a child, imagine my father ever having had a mother.

In fact, there were quite a number of things I couldn't imagine about him. I couldn't imagine him playing the drums, or even the piano. Yet it was passed down to me by my older brothers that he had, indeed, at some time been a player of both (though not simultaneously, I presume).

He never spoke about his musical abilities. I occasionally begged him to play the piano, and he always refused. He never spoke about his past much at all. In many ways he was a bit of a mystery.

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Thinking about him now, I realize that I have no idea where he lived before he lived in our house. I have no idea what his father did for a living. I have no idea where my father's love of gardening originated. A host of things I don't know.

I never saw him play tennis, either. And yet again the word was that he had "played for Yorkshire," which meant that he had been pretty good. I was very proud of this, though the tennis court by the time of my arrival had become (in dutiful deference to wartime necessity) our chicken run.

Instead of knocking balls about on a summer evening, one of my childhood delights was feeding wriggly worms to the hens through the netting as they scratched and ransacked the all-weather surface of the court (now as pitted and undulant as an unruly sand dune). Collecting the chickens' eggs was an even greater (and less callous) sport. That may explain why, years later, I retain a soft spot for eggs and no special affection for tennis balls.

The warmth of a new-laid egg is a tangible pleasantness, even though the hens would flurry and squawk rather terrifyingly as they were rudely dislodged from their nests on behalf of our breakfasts.

When I first met my father - I mean when I first became conscious of his separate existence, since he was certainly as permanent a fixture in our home as the unplayed piano - I started to learn various things about his present-day life, even as his past remained an unexplored land. He wore black shoes (brown was for "spivs") that he polished daily before going to work at his wool-combing-and-cleaning mill.

Back home at teatime, he would stand in front of the coal fire with his back to it, warming the fundamental part that presumably had been chilly all day at the mill. As he stood there toastingly, he liked to count the coins he had in his pockets, clinkingly arranging the denominations.

In public, he wore a trilby hat with two indentations in the front. Whenever he met someone, these large felty dimples were pinched between thumb and finger and the hat raised in a "good day" salute. This hat was so much a part of him that now, decades on, I find it hard to picture him without it. Did he even wear it to bed?

The only snapshot I still have of him shows him (in monochrome) lying on a grassy bank. This was presumably during a picnic (he always protested the discomfort of picnics). His legs are straight out, and his trilby is pulled down over his brow. But he is only pretending to be asleep, and has a humorous eye for the photographer (my mother with her box Brownie?).

I never knew him when he wasn't a car driver. Vauxhalls were the only make of car he ever bought. (How consistent people were then! My mother never had a dog that wasn't a golden retriever.) And Vauxhalls were distinctive for their long concave flutes along each side of the hood - sort of trilby cars, come to think of it.

I was not only proud of my father's prowess as a tennis star, I was inordinately proud of our succession of Vauxhalls. Since they were his unvarying preference, they were bound, in my admiring eyes, to be the best cars in the world.

So I knew he drove cars. What I could not imagine was that he had once owned, and actually rode, a motorbike. I really could not bend my concept of Dadhood around that startling notion. He'd have to have been so young and rakish. Yet, again, the family tradition was certain.

I asked him once. "Dad, did you really have a motorbike?" I'm sure my tone was incredulous. He admitted he had.

In fact, he told me about how the elastic band that drove the wheels was always breaking on the most inconvenient occasions, usually when he was miles from home and descending an exceptional gradient. But then the first cars he had, after his callow biker-days had ended, were also mechanically primitive. He'd had to drive them in reverse up the more testing slopes. No other gear was adequate.

Looking back, I'm amazed at how little this rather self-effacing man told his family about his past. We knew - because this much he often said - he was a true Londoner, having been born "to the sound of Bow Bells." We knew he had lived in New Zealand with his parents, brothers, and sister after leaving school. When he'd returned to Britain, only one brother later followed him "home."

Anyway, in my young eyes he was far too old to have ever been a child.

But one thing above all stretched the elastic of my imagination to the doubting point. It illustrates, perhaps, the reason my father didn't dwell on his past. He must have thought of it as another world. Not so much because my mother was his second wife. Or that my two oldest brothers were half-brothers. Or that their mother had died. It was that my father's views and attitudes had in certain ways radically altered through these experiences.

My suspicion is that he had once been far more sociable. We were not exactly reclusive as a family, but I do not think my father had many close friends. There were children's parties for us, but my parents didn't go out.

The most outgoing part of our lives, apart from church, was going to the pictures once a week, with fish and chips as a treat on the way home afterward. But one of the changes in my father's life was that he no longer drank any form of alcohol, and he no longer smoked a pipe. And at that period, not to drink or smoke was a kind of social death in some circles.

So this is what I simply could not imagine my father had ever done. Smoked a pipe. Impossible!

Now, Uncle Dick (my mother's brother) - he smoked a pipe all right. Or at least he made great efforts to do so. The performance, in fact, was a protracted and undeliberate comedy. Boxfuls of matches were struck and went out. Sudden gasping intakes of air followed - great puffings and suckings. However, he rarely managed to light the thing.

But my father? Even attempting to smoke a pipe? It would be easier to imagine he had a mother.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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