Archive for July, 2015

Watch 2

As children, many of us were taught the old adage that “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” But while broken bones heal, the damage done by hastily spoken words rarely does and the pain can be multiplied manyfold when words are left unsaid.

Around 1970, I remember going to Valentines Park in Ilford and hiring a rowing boat with my father. When we finished, the boy in charge of the boats (who was probably my age, 14 or so) somehow insulted us – I don’t recall exactly what happened. A short argument ensued and when my dad threatened to turn it physical, the boy apologised. As an ex-commando, even at 50 he was still a force to be reckoned with. As we walked away, I remember dad saying to me: “I’d have let you sort him out if I’d have had any confidence in you.” Those words have stayed with me throughout my life and are as painful today as they were 45 years ago. Did he mean them to be so hurtful? Probably not but at the time he was not in the best of personal places.

Through circumstances beyond his control my father spent 15 years as a tailor’s presser for my grandfather, using a heavy iron day after day to press cloth. When by the early 1960s this had physically damaged him, he managed to get a job as an international telephone operator for the GPO, now BT. Still technically an ‘alien’, having retained his French nationality, he didn’t receive a pension and wasn’t allowed to be promoted to supervisor until after 1973 when the UK became part of the EU. He continued there until 1982 when a major heart attack curtailed his employment.

It is difficult to comprehend how frustrated my father must have been. Prior to the war he was a trainee accountant in Paris yet after the war he spent 35 years in London doing unskilled or, at best, semi-skilled work. It is difficult to share the reasons here but let’s just say this was a choice he made for the sake of his new bride. It didn’t take a lot for his frustrations to rise to the surface and to be translated into physical situations, something my brother and I knew only too well as children.

Some time back my relationship with my parents became difficult. I found it impossible to tell them I loved them. I tried once with my father but the words stuck in my throat. A few years ago dad said to me: “I never told my father I loved him until it was too late. Don’t make the same mistake I did,” but his comments fell on deaf ears.

On the death of my parents earlier this year, I started to clear their house. One of the items I found was my father’s chunky Omega Genève watch that mum had bought him in the 1970s. At the time she worked for Ernest Jones in Ilford and would have got a hefty discount – even so, it would still have been expensive. Perhaps it was a silver wedding anniversary present, I’m not really sure. Dad really loved this watch and wore it until about five years ago when it became too heavy for his weakened wrists.

The casing was worn and the gold-plated strap had been eaten away by sweat so I set about trying to get it repaired. My local jeweller informed me that straps could no longer be purchased for this model. I spent a couple of weeks searching online, missing out on a stainless steel replacement strap on ebay, and even registered for a dedicated watch auction at the end of July.

Last week I asked myself the question: why am I doing this? It’s a heavy watch that I would never wear. In fact I haven’t worn a watch for many years, relying on my phone for the time. Then came the stark realisation that repairing the watch was my way of trying to bring my father back and it wasn’t going to happen. I wouldn’t be able to ask him why he’d viewed me as such a disappointment as a child. I wouldn’t be able to reassure him that I’d look after mum after he died. And it wouldn’t give me the chance to tell him I loved him.

He knew the pain he’d gone through with his own father and wanted to save me the agonies of making the same mistake. To my cost I ignored him. His words may have hurt me as a child but my unsaid words have hurt me far more as an adult.

Originally published in The Huffington Post

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It’s healthy to move house every 10 years or so and being forced into making decisions on what to keep and what to chuck away. Once the kids have left home, downsizing to a smaller house or flat requires even more discipline on the clearance front. But what happens when a couple have lived in the same house for 67 years?

If you read my previous blog you’ll be aware that both my parents passed away in a 10-week period between early April and mid-June this year. Some five years before he died, my father had warned me that I would have to sort out all his paperwork after he had gone.

Dad was a squirrel; he never discarded anything written on a piece of paper. While most of the documents were useful, did I really need to keep a 1996 electricity bill or the 1980s service report for a car sold 20 years ago? Even with a third of all items consigned to the shredder I was still left with enough to fill 20 box files. I had to work my way through ten bank and building society accounts, creating the relevant paper trails as I went. In the end, only one of them was still active. I found dozens of old photos including some of dad with his commando comrades-in-arms, postcards from my uncle Eli from when he was prisoner-of-war in a German stalag, and reports of the motorbike accident that shattered my father’s left knee in 1944. There were old passports, ID cards and expired copies of every document imaginable.

Once mum moved to a care home the decision was made to sell the house in order to fund the costs of £50,000 per year. Then, some five-and-a-half weeks later, she died. There seemed little point in leaving the house vacant so an estate agent was instructed and the task of clearing the house began in earnest.

Most of their clothes were nearly-new. Life seemed to stand still in 2006 when dad’s botched knee replacement operations curtailed their holidays and his ability to leave the house. We packed them into 15 bags and donated them to a local hospice and the care home mum stayed in.

Anyone who has ever had a similar clearance task will have discovered that just because something is old or was expensive in its day doesn’t make it valuable now. For example, dad bought mum a full-length Canadian squirrel fur coat in 1987 for their ruby wedding anniversary. The bill of sale from Philip Bendon Fur Boutique was for £1,100. Current value? Less than £40! Another item for the charity shop. Half a dozen lead crystal decanters, five bone china tea sets, over 60 cut crystal wine glasses, various pieces of 1930s dining room furniture, all virtually valueless.

Living in a two-storey house, a stairlift was essential from 2006 onwards. Cost: over £5,500. The company that installed it then wanted a further £425 to remove it. “Aren’t there any re-usable parts?” I asked. Nope. A bit of searching and I found a company that removed it at no cost. Clearly someone could re-use some of the parts.

The house was like a museum dedicated to the not-so-finer aspects of the twentieth century. A Belling bed warmer, Philips hood hair dryer and stand, Carmen heated hair rollers, Breville sandwich maker and a Zyliss Autochop, none of which had seen the light of day in decades. I even found the 1940s Underwood Champion manual typewriter I used to mess about with as a kid.

So many items really should have been discarded long ago such as the tin containing four Castella cigars. Nobody smoked in the house after my father’s heart attack in 1981; these cigars were so dried out that smoking one would have been like holding your head over a bonfire and taking a deep breath.

Mum was also a squirrel but in a different way. Drawers with over 20 pairs of old glasses including those that belonged to my grandparents. Every watch they had ever owned, including the broken ones, plastic bags full of old buttons, remnant strands of cotton, the sewing needle case I made in primary school: my mum couldn’t bring herself to throw away anything. Mantlepieces and radiator shelves full of tchotchkes, many of which I had bought: a pair of three-legged giraffes, the black cat that appeared in my barmitzvah photos, a number of Wade Whimsies, the fake Capodimonte from Brick Lane and a glass cherry tree were among over 70 such items.

I found a battered old 1950s cardboard box full of darning wool and needles. These were donated to Hettie, a fantastic 99-year-old resident at the care home who still knits and darns.

There were moments when I stopped dead in my tracks such as when I removed mum’s wedding photo from its frame and found a label on the back showing she had been entered for the 1947 Daily Mirror Bride of the Year award. And the 1997 letter from Buckingham Palace telling my parents that they had been too late in applying for an invite to the Queen’s golden anniversary garden party.

What really reduced me to tears though was opening a suitcase and finding every card they had ever sent to each other or received. Birthdays, anniversaries, mother’s days, father’s days – all the way back to my mum’s 21st birthday card from 1948. Over 1,000 cards in total including two from The Queen. There were cards sent from my brother and I that he had written because I was too young to be able to, and even cards from my grandparents to them. How can a collection like this ever be thrown away? At the moment it can’t. Perhaps there will come a day when I will be able to. Perhaps not.

Originally published in The Huffington Post

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