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One hundred years old.
How can one imagine living that long? My fiftieth was a discomforting milestone. Old age creeping up unnoticed, stealthily, sniggering in the background. One husband, two sons. Alive. Limbs and faculties intact. I got away with it? Mirror, mirror on the wall pulled no punches:
“Look at yourself. How much longer? Will you outlast your father?” No. Never. I approached his birthday with considerable trepidation, my emotional baggage heavy. But this day was his. As were his memories. A hundred years of them.
Born in Gowerton, South Wales, to a poor family. Stole coal to keep the winter fires burning. Got to Grammar school, studied Latin, played rugby, kept fit, fit, fit. University. World War II. Squadron leader, the youngest almost ever. Married teacher in Milford Haven Grammar School. Taught, taught, taught. Latin, history, PE. Two children.
“You stand at the blackboard, Daddy, in the picture I have of you.”
Like Sylvia Plath’s father, he spoke German, learnt it in the war.
Didacticism and pedantry still run in his thinning blood even after all those years of teaching. Barking orders, correcting grammar, asking endlessly about my boys’ exam results. As a teacher he put in extra hours, unpaid, for those he felt shared his passion for Latin and Greek. His methods verged on the tyrannical – no benign Mr Chips character he. Renowned for throwing the wooden duster at those hapless enough to mix up their ablatives with their datives, he was also known as the one master likely to get you into Oxford.
I finished my Latin O-Level exam, taken a year early, in half an hour, because, for me there were no “unseens” – I’d seen them all before, with him. Colette, the invigilating teacher, thought me stupid for having left so soon. I got a grade 1. It made me really popular! His delight was marred by my sulking all day as a means of revenge.
Do you remember saying, “I don’t want any fuss on my birthday”? But I know you. If nothing had happened there would have been trouble, some obscure Ciceronian recrimination I would have had to research.
All those years of checking obituary columns and saying, “Ah, I’ve outlived him.” And there’s the rub. They’ve all gone. Mindful of that I gave you the chance to see, reminisce and say farewell to those who played a role in your life.
On the occasion of your hundredth birthday, Daddy, I presented a funeral party for the living.
Marks and Spencer are indispensable on these occasions, as was the wonderful carer who gave up her day to help cater, make tea and keep the peace between visitors and my brother, unnerved by an occasion made more stressful by his Asperger’s Syndrome.
You never did make time to understand him.
He’s always been scared of you, Panzer-man.
As a family we dealt with verbs and conjugations, not feelings. Mens sana in corpore sano and all that. Still, we had good holidays, touring Europe with you convivially speaking with the natives in their own language, whether French, German, or Italian. We would look at Latin inscriptions in churches and cathedrals, you translating the bits I didn’t get.
Do you remember those walks across the fields, with our cat, following us with dog-like devotion? You sang about the “tit willow with the rather tough worm in his little insides” plunging into his watery grave. It always had me heaving with sobs.
I was amazed by the forty-six birthday cards. I read each message as we tried to work out who, actually, had sent them. The Queen’s card was particularly impressive, a lovely photograph, quality paper festooned with gold braid.
And she had teeth.
“Daddy, daddy please, put yours in and your hearing aid…”
“What? Enunciate girl! Leave me alone, I’m perfectly capable of masticating with the teeth I have left.”
And so, tired of arguing, I dutifully cut up your food.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
Aneurin, the retired farmer from my mother’s side of the family was the first visitor. He brought a box of butterfly cakes, exquisitely made. I stared at them, remembered childhood, mother. She was beautiful. Aneurin stayed a while, asked about you but didn’t want to see your bedridden self. He explained, “I’d rather remember him in his full vigour.”
I respected that. And understood.
Every woe and frustration, every feeling of helplessness and frailty that you have uttered are magnified to me as I feel equally helpless in turn. When you sobbed I have raged against the dying of your light.
The mayor came to visit, in his glittering regalia, heavy chains almost down to his knees. A short man, made me think of Mussolini and Napoleon. Same height as you. His face fell when I explained that they would have to see you in bed. Our local councillor and childhood acquaintance, invited to the party, had not told them that.
But then everything changed. They saw the photographs. You, young and handsome in your squadron-leader uniform looking down from the mantelpiece at the gathered few huddled tightly in the shabby bedroom. The mayor honed in on it at once, for he also had been in the RAF squadron. His chauffeur took a picture. And you came alive and spoke. Your conversation, animated, enthusiastic as you reminisced and laughed with the mayor, was as a Lazarine conversion.
The young man in the picture speaking through the old wreck in bed.
I was so proud of you.
Of all the cards received, one stood out the most, the one from the ex-pupil who became Head of Music for BBC Wales. A message of heartfelt thanks to his old Latin teacher:
“For awakening my interest in etymology and Roman culture … for giving me a range of English vocabulary which meant I could hold my own in skirmishes with Eton/Oxbridge heavies in BBC London … for holidays in Italy, visits to Pompeii and Ercolano and appreciation of the work of classicist Mary Beard. For always making clear your irritation with schoolboy sloppiness of any kind: of verbal expression, dress or failure to meet deadlines … for preparing me for the discipline required to achieve some measure of success in later life…”
How well he knew you.
I had no idea.
And so, following him, I write down what I cannot bring myself to say in person. I love you, amo, I have loved you, amavi, I will always love you, amabo, and when you are gone I will remember how I used to love you, amabam.
What more is there to say than just that?
The Birthday Party was all going swimmingly. A group of twenty-five were gathered downstairs, waiting to pay their respects. The chauffeur asked for a picture of you with the mayor. Waving your arms, you airily declined with a stern:
“No, no publicity please.”
The sandwiches, the votive offerings of homemade cakes, gradually disappeared with the visitors, leaving me and a few others to recover from the exhaustion of the day.
My father did well, did himself proud on the occasion of his hundred years.
There was one last thing:
“Will there be an article in the Llanelli Star?”
“Well no, you asked for no publicity, remember?”
The answer came, more as an instruction than a request:
“Write something … something modest!”
And so I did.