Memories of Mirth In a Well-Mannered Father

SELDOM did I see him smile. But, at six years of age, I did not know that my father's serious demeanor was hiding a wealth of mirth.

As a cartoonist, he spent much of his day in his studio. He fashioned his pens out of bird feathers and reeds. He would work with great warmth and precision. The sweep of goose quill or bamboo in his hand always found a likeness, and, what is more, he would rescue that likeness from stereotype by catching some salient feature and giving it affectionate prominence. No room here for cynicism or political acidity.

Twice a week, his pens would explore one human eccentricity after another -- as if seeking to redefine lineal humor.

Twice a week, chuckles and guffaws accompanied the crackling of the pages of the South Wales Football Echo as one of his cartoons was discovered. That was in the 1920s.

In the 1930s and '40s, the London News Chronicle displayed his work in its Welsh section. (Both papers have since gone out of publication.)

What is extraordinary to me now is how he would come up with what was at once funny and sweet. I've come to see that caricature reconciles affection with reality -- sometimes with unexpected results.

To illustrate: When I was a small boy, I found a book in my father's library filled with dark photography of World War I. The book graphically impressed me with its harrowing pictures. My father had fought in that war, but he was not among any of the soldiers photographed, and I found this disturbing.

After some time, I closed the book and went to find my dad. Finally I came across him in the orchard where he was wheeling a barrow laden with fallen apples. Lost in thought, he hadn't noticed me. I ran over, stood right in his path, and blurted out the question that had been burning in me: ''Daddy, were you killed in the war?''

What happened next quite startled me. My father released the handles of the wheelbarrow with a thump, threw back his head, and let out a kind of inarticulate bellow. His hands went up to cover his face, and his whole body shook uncontrollably.

He was laughing.

This was a caricature of the father I knew. But suddenly it was all over, and he was standing there in silence, moving his head gently from side to side. Then he smiled broadly at me and lobbed an apple into my open hands.

''Well, I'm alive now!'' he said, lifting me up in his strong arms.

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