Thursday 29 September 2016

'Dad was one of the world's finest writers, but I recall only the pictures'

Published 22/02/2016 | 02:30

'I can't praise walking enough. Looking back on it now, I think my Dad trained me in. We used to go for long walks when I was a kid. Miles and miles through bog lanes and country roads'
'I can't praise walking enough. Looking back on it now, I think my Dad trained me in. We used to go for long walks when I was a kid. Miles and miles through bog lanes and country roads'

The evenings are getting longer and the geese are getting fat. Before we know it, Lent will be over and I'm beginning to wonder if there's any point at all in giving up sweets and drink.

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As ever, I've given up broccoli, although a man who is full of little and large enough wisdoms told me only today that a clove of broccoli is very nice when it's roasted. Or is it a clump of broccoli, or a sprig, like shamrock.

The same man says there's more vitamin C in one Brussels sprout than an orange. I'm not sure if that's true and his proposition is a definite argument for the premise that size doesn't matter. I wouldn't be gone on the sprouts either. For some reason, I turned against all the good vegetables when I was a child. I do like carrots, though, especially the bunches from the sandy soil of the Maharees, but I still can't see in the dark, which was the promise that was made if we ate up our carrots.

I was a thin child and people were always trying to fatten me up. Any time I went in to a neighbour's house, there was a mug of milk put in front of me and a wedge of bread enough to feed those gathered at the meeting of the loaves and the fishes without any need for a miracle. It bothered me that I wasn't a bit heavier for football and rugby, but Eric Browne, one of our mentors, consoled me with the words "you couldn't fatten a thoroughbred". I've made up for it now: I have to walk a lot to keep down the weight, as well as make up the ideas for this column.

I can't praise walking enough. Looking back on it now, I think my Dad trained me in. We used to go for long walks when I was a kid. Miles and miles through bog lanes and country roads. Wouldn't I love to have him now for a long walk, but back then, I suppose I took his company for granted. I can't even remember half the stuff he said on the walks but we were at our happiest then, with no one to bother us. Dad would talk all the time and I listened to every word.

The stories are gone now, but most of the time he spent cracking jokes, talking about football and railing against injustices.

What I do still feel with some clarity is the physicality of the walks, the breathing in of the cold crisp air and the crunch of leaves under feet, like biting apples. I have always thought in pictures and I can see the two of us now, with him striding out and shoulders back, looking straight ahead like the captain of a discovery ship.

Small boys look up to their fathers. He was my hero and even many years later when he was slipping away from us, I was sure somehow he would cheat death and stay on, him being Superman and all that. But he didn't and I have the home movies of him and me showing at home in my head.

Strange isn't it that there I was with one of the finest writers the world has ever known and I remember only the pictures. I seldom look at him on YouTube or TV because I want to preserve the images of us out walking or sitting down opposite each other at the dinner.

I was at the opening of Big Maggie and even though I have seen the play a hundred times, his lines seemed new and fresh. So I'm lucky in that I still have his words in that shape, but I miss the one he made up especially for me.

I haven't forgotten it all. My mother, as ever, was trying to mind him and he too wasn't a broccoli supporter. It was my Dad's custom to eat the most of a packet of chocolate biscuits after the dinner. He was beginning to put on a bit of weight and my mother replaced the chocolate cookies with a packet of plain biscuits.

Dad looked at the boring biscuits before him and said to my mother "will you take away the workhouse biscuits".

I'm not sure why that one lunchtime quip stayed in my mind because there were hundreds of fast one-liners and multi-liners, but it's the film clips I remember and the aura of Dad at his happiest. So in retrospect, it's plain to see the everyday matters we take for granted at the time are now precious moments. Would I trade all I have now for one more long walk with my Dad? Yes, I would. So there you have it: the secret of happiness is found in the taken for granted moments of daily life.

I do believe he's with us. And my Mam too. They are with us in our thoughts and who we are, but we still miss their physical presence and the constancy of that presence. Spirituality is more fleeting and harder to access, but it's still there if you know how to trail the heart for the index of home movies in the head. Sometimes you will not get through and that's fine too. It can be very frustrating, but the thinking about our loved ones keeps them alive and with us. There's the rearing and that comes out in us too, and so, even if we cannot bring our loved ones in to sharp focus, our deeds and actions keep them with us.

It took me most of my life to realise that the company of those we love is a treasure in itself, even if it's only doing something easy and simple like talking about the events of the day. But sometimes when I walk with the man who turned me against sprouts and broccoli, the old days merge in to the present.

Irish Independent

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