I’m struggling to identify a defining moment in mine and my dad’s relationship.
I’m struggling to pinpoint the qualities by which I can give you an idea of who he was as a man and who he was to us as a father and husband. I’m struggling to split out the spectrum of emotions he evokes in me into black and white words – but there’s nothing new in that, even a year-and-a-half after his death, he still remains something of an enigma to me – although these days in a good way. And I think he probably always will.
But I guess the reason why I’m finding it hard to distill our relationship into a few episodes typifying him – was that he really was atypical – not like any other man I’ve ever known – not in a mad, shouty Jewish eccentric way – although he had his moments in that guise – hard not to when you’re the youngest of five siblings the offspring of Polish Jewish immigrants trying to make it in the schmatter business in the East End of London. His family, my colourful aunts and uncles were loud people – good people – but, man, they had volume!
Yet, and from where it came, I don’t know, he had this quiet, still inquisitiveness about him, that somehow pervaded all interactions with him.
Behind his constantly steady gauze, was this half quizzical, half shrugging look, combined with a faintly ironic smile that played on his lips. In a lexicon of facial expressions, it was the Jewish equivalent of an Indian head waggle – but with a question mark at the end of it. When talking with him – and we did a lot of talking in our family – this look on his distinguished mush was at least for me – paradoxically reassuring and unsettling at the same time. I loved the affectionate attention in the look, but it always made me feel like I needed to say more to him. Perhaps this was a look that had morphed into a default setting after tens of thousands of hours treating his clients in his calling and profession in life as a psychoanalyst. As a full-on Freudian, his treatment approach was one that involved listening silently and passively for hours on end, punctuated with occasional probing, expansive but succinct questioning of clients’ thought-worlds and dreamscapes.
Many of our contemporaries asked what must it be like to have a psychoanalyst as a dad? Many of course used the term ‘shrink’, as in ‘head-shrinker’. But I never felt like dad was shrinking our heads – far from it, he and mum vastly expanded our noodles with a rich world of culture, science, politics and art – “an intellectual traveller” was how my brother described him. And my dad and mum most certainly lead us to the promised land in that regard.
Knowledge and culture flowed like a river in spate in our family. We always had an open slather on trips to Hudson’s bookshop in town, positively encouraged to buy as many books as we could physically carry back to the car or on the 50 bus back home to our suburban castle in the bohemian enclave of Birmingham’s Moseley. Dad had a huge collection of films that got played until the tape wore thin on our highly advanced Betamax video “those inferior VHS’s will never catch on”, we opined assuredly. The films of Mel Brooks, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon and Charlie Chaplin ensured a backbeat of laughter was never far away in our home and that our love of Jewish humour was kindled from an early age. This countered the gravitas there was often to Dad – more than sternness – I suspect absorbed via transference from the myriad neuroses, depressions, anxieties, delusions and traumas of his client base with whom he would spend hour upon hour with day after day.
It also reflected one of the things I will always cherish about that man in whose shadow I gladly walk today – his innately joyfully, crazy sense of humour and the absurdist aficionado he was.
Not quite fully off the wall – but with Dad sometimes you felt like the screws were a little loose. A devotee of the Goons, Spike Milligan and Woody Allen – Dad revelled in the absurd – and had his own homegrown brand of delightful daftness.
This, for example, was written on the back of a Punch cartoon postcard Dad had left for Mum bidding her – we think – to mend for the 5,000th time a pair of his beloved jogging pants that were falling apart at the restitched and patched seams.
“Moi Deareste Woif, Would you be a goodly personage and elasticate my (k)nickers (in trade us call ‘em running (k)nickers – now my chicken biddy mek what you loik o’that psychodynamically, I mean. Your fairest black (white) prince Poncey (and with all my purest and insidious love).” (sic)
I remember finding that arrant gibberish on Mum’s desk and crying more and more helplessly with mirth each time as I re-read it several times over, before asking Mum what the hell it was all about – shaking her head, not for the first time at one of her husband’s gargantuan collection of “isms”, she said she was buggered if she knew.
When it sparked and caught, his laughter was an arrestingly physical phenomenon approximating someone having a hysterical fit; you’d rarely have an understanding of its root cause and have even less of an idea when it was going to stop. Tears would roll down his cheeks, his features set in some kind of electro-convulsive spasm with these strangled, mewling sounds coming from him like a dormouse in season.
This wasn’t just infectious laughter – it was like an epidemic spreading throughout a room – you’d just have to guffaw in solidarity with him even if you had little idea of what he was laughing at in the first place. And the very spectacle of this sometimes constrained and serious grown man breaking down utterly into gleeful, infantile pieces became the joke itself. It was joyful and life-affirming to be part of it.
Then there were the post-Sunday family roast quizzes. Having surgically carved up and served the chicken, then less than surgically wolfed down his plate of food, Dad would stretch out in his chair, picking his teeth with a toothpick produced from his wallet and start firing the questions around the table. There were three rounds of general knowledge questions apparently weighted in difficulty according to age and knowledge of specialist subjects (my sister: theatre and the arts, me: sport and nature, my brother, the polymath prodigy: every-subject-imaginable-and-more). You could accrue bonus points for questions adjudged by the quizmaster to be “corkers” and if like me you were normally struggling to answer even the most rudimental questions relating to Newtonian physics (aged seven) – you could “buy a clue for half a point.”
Incubating my inferiority complex, it felt like to me you always needed to be right in my family – intellectual and academic rigour demanded it. Dad used to help me with my maths homework, looking over my shoulder at every pen-stroke scrutinising my workings and intently, interrogating my logic and sometimes haranguing me for making careless errors. I would sweat during those sessions, and sometimes cry with anxiety and shame, but on reflection, I think his zeal gave a hint at the fierce mental rigour he would have had to apply to himself to haul himself up into medicine and then into the field of psychiatry and psychoanalysis from relatively humble beginnings.
But, with my innate insecurity, I just couldn’t hack the disciplinarian approach to schoolwork and I resented Dad for it. I think, though, he wanted us to begin to nurture that same mental discipline – because I think he knew we would need it – to successfully negotiate and progress in our future working lives, as well as making the most of the gifts we had. He mastered his mind to achieve so much in his professional life and rising to the upper echelons of his profession, lecturing trainee psych’s and speaking at international conferences. I always said he should write a book with the knowledge and experience he had accrued mastering Freud and putting his writings and work into practice. But he always smiled and shrugged humbly at the suggestion.
But Dad was by no means someone who confined himself to the realms of the intellect and cerebral – with the love of life he successfully rekindled in many of his patients – Dad embraced pleasure and recreation with an intoxicating zeal carrying us with him into worlds of travel, food, entertainment and fun-filled activities. He loved my mother devotedly – they would spend hours talking together, there was a lot of laughter and, more often than not after a couple of glasses of wine – a fair bit of singing too. Later on even as his health declined and he was robbed of his speech, they still shared laughter together at something in the paper mum read out or something on the TV and on magical occasions something that one of us said or did.
And he was a family man too in his own way, some of my fondest early memories growing up were the Saturday morning wrestling matches me and my brother would have with Dad – us in our pyjamas him in pyjamas and him in his ancient blue towelling dressing gown. He used to stand over us and get us both in a vice like pinscher move between his calves – the ‘nutcracker’ he used to call it – leaving us giggling giddily with joy amazed by his phenomenal strength.
It was thanks to Dad, I discovered my lifelong passion for fishing – and for a while we’d spend many a weekend travelling out to the Warwickshire Avon, Earlswood Lakes and the River Severn to fish together.
And on one glorious summer’s day, we even won the qualifying heat of the Angling Times ‘Dads ‘n’ Lads’ fishing tournament at Twyford on the Avon. That was a jubilant day for this particular ‘n lad – one I’ll always hold dear because I got to do it with him. Me and him even got into the Evening Mail for that and the Angling Times – fame at last!
I will also never forget our great skiing trips to Grindelwald in Switzerland – one, for the skiing but also for the fact that sharing a room with Dad, I discovered he was the loudest snorer in the world – sleepless, I lay there as the room shook to his voluminous, glottal crescendos, fearing imminent avalanches off the surrounding mountains.
One of my most golden memories spent with Dad – literally – was on one of these skiing trips when we were due to ski at Grindelwald, but the whole place was shrouded in a dense fog. We were due to got up the Schmätterhorn or whatever it was called, that day, on what if I recall correctly, was billed as Europe’s longest chairlift. I was very dubious about going up the mountain to ski in those conditions – but Dad seemed to think we’d be OK – and I trusted him because he always seemed so assured in many matters in life – that assuredness provided us with much security growing up.
But I began to have misgivings as we ascended on the chairlift and the fog became so dense, you literally couldn’t see your gloved hand in front of your face. Then slowly imperceptibly this fog began to take on a yellowish hue until suddenly there was soft golden light everywhere – it was the weirdest yet most beautiful sensation.
It was how they sometimes portray the golden light of Heaven in those Cecil Demille epic movies, except this was very real. I turned to Dad and he was beaming with delight in the golden light and then suddenly – pow! We broke through the cloud and were exposed to the magnificent vista of the Swiss alps with the Eiger to the side of us radiant in the morning sun. The cloud had basically rolled off the mountains and gathered in the base of the valley and we had pushed up through it on the chairlift. As pure as the mountain air, that was one of the most unadulterated, ecstatic experiences of my life, shared with him – in his own way a mountainous presence in my life.
But for all his love for me and solidarity with me being like him the youngest child, he couldn’t halt the growing feeling of inadequacy and alienation in me. I did not know what to do with these feelings when surrounded by my family and their milieu – people who seemed so self-assured, feted and accomplished. So, like a cornered yappy Jack Russell, I turned it around on them baring my teeth and snarling. I rejected them all and what they stood for with Dad being the main culprit at the top of the list. It was his fault I felt like this, I told myself, and I would give him merry hell for it as an adolescent and hold a grudge even into my forties against him – that he was responsible for all my inadequacies that had led me into anxiety, depression and addiction.
Nothing to do with the revolutionary communistic/hedonistic lifestyle I had adopted from my mid-teens into my mid-twenties. Nothing to do with the fact that by choice I had withdrawn from mainstream society and had had no desire to start a career – so by the time I realised I had to re-enter the human race, I was hopelessly ill-equipped to cope with the pressures of meeting the demands of professional and family life. No, that was all theirs and his fault for soft-soaping me and giving me everything on a plate. What terrible parents they had been giving me unconditional love and pretty much every material and monetary item I had ever asked for.
Thankfully (as in today I am grateful every waking day), my recovery from addiction, with the help of many others, helped me smash through these narratives of denial and misplaced resentment and the refusal to take responsibility. Thankfully part of my healing process has involved seeing my part in where I fucked up earlier on in life and the wrongs I perpetuated against others. I have been taught I need to let go of my resentments and clear up the wreckage of my past by making amends to those I have harmed, lest carry psychological and spiritual baggage that will drag me back down and ultimately back to the bottle.
So, one grey autumnal day, I was able to sit down with Dad at the hospital where he had been convalescing, when he was still conversant before he had his second stoke. And I was able to tell him I was truly sorry. Sorry for being at war with him for my teen years before I left home. Sorry, for squandering the gifts he and my mum had given to me and not making much of my life. Sorry, for holding a resentment towards him for many years. Sorry, for not being a very good son to him. He looked at me with that quizzical look, his rheumy eyes glinting and simply said, “Ben, you’ve been the best son I could have asked for.” And that was it – with those few words of unconditional love and forgiveness, a huge weight lifted from my soul….
Dad, you would have been 89 today and there are so many things I would have liked to say to you. And I wish I’d been able to reconcile with you sooner so we could have been there for each other more later on in mine and your life. But I know that you always loved me in your own unique way and that I underneath my fear, anger and resentment loved you to the core and all that you gave us. And what you gave us was so, so much more than just material things – they are many of the good parts of our essence. And you gave not just to us, but to so many others and eventually, I think, it came at a price to you and to the woman who loved you like no other. But God knows you gave it everything that you could…and for that alone I will always love you and be in deep admiration of who you were as a man and a good soul.
Dad, I reckon I could write all day and still barely scratch the surface of what I feel about you and what we experienced together – but in the final analysis, it simply comes down to this: thank you for everything.