Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Belatedly, thank you Dad - a Christmas thought

It’s funny, isn’t it, how the smallest of things can trigger memories?

You might be happily going about your daily life when click something happens that whips you back to your twenties, your teens or your childhood.

I’ve noticed that as I get older it happens more often than it used to. Perhaps I’ve got more memories to be triggered or perhaps I’m just becoming a lot more aware of my own mortality. I don’t know why, but it happens so much more frequently.

There are times of the year when memories are triggered more vividly and more emotively than others. Christmas is one such time.

It seems to me, sometimes, that each day in the run up to Christmas I am going through my own version of Dickens’ most famous protagonist as he visits his past.

Of course, I don’t, or at least I haven’t yet, had unearthly visitations. For me it’s the tiniest things.

I went to church this morning. I’ve been making more of an effort lately. Perhaps it’s that buying shares in the afterlife thing that many of us do as we get older. I don’t know but I’m enjoying it.

As our Priest came to the end of the Eucharistic Prayer I got back to my feet and as I did I noticed something. The kneelers in church have been reupholstered. I don’t know when they were smartened up but they certainly have been, new foam and bright red leather effect vinyl.

I looked at the imprint my knees had made as I knelt and that was it, I was taken back.

I used to love going to church with my dad at Christmas. My parents were what is euphemistically known as ‘older’ these days. They had already had their family, two sons born fifteen years or so before me, and I was the afterthought, the accident, the unexpected gift, the blessing or whatever you want to call me.

My dad had stopped going to church after he was married, I guess a combination of lack of time and other priorities had driven him away, but he started to go back when I was born.

He didn’t go to church every week but started to make an effort choosing the beautiful Mount St Bernard's Abbey for his act of worship rather than the nearby Parish Church.

Dad would ask if I was coming along, never forcing me, but I never said no and we would go into the spartan house of worship. As mass started he would respond to the celebrants acclamations from heart, reading and writing were something that had largely passed him by at school, and I would use my first mass book.

Mass books are all well and good as long as the priest follows the script for the service, it seemed to me at least he never did. So I stood and silently mouthed an approximation of the words.

I don’t suppose I really got what was going on at mass apart from there was a lot of sitting, standing and kneeling. My favourite was always the transition between being on your knees to the start of The Lord’s Prayer. Our knees left imprints you see?

As everyone would recite the lines to that universally known prayer I would gaze at the kneelers.

Would the marks that we had left last until the sign of peace? Or would they fade before that? Whose cast would disappear first? Would they erode from the centre of our kneecaps, or from the outside in?

You can probably tell how much I was thinking of the service going on before me but that didn’t matter I was there with my Dad. How lucky can a boy be?

Back then I didn’t know why I was enjoying church, why I was enjoying spending time with my Dad. Looking back I cherish every moment of it.

I wish I knew then how much I should have been savouring every moment, I should have been enthralled like I was when I went to see Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush, but I wasn’t because my dad was always there.

My Dad was a long, long way from perfect.

I remember Christmas when I was twelve.

All of the kids at school had come back in September assimilated like Star Trek villains, they all had matching Head brand school bags and wore Nike trainers. I didn’t and oh I so wanted to belong.

Mum and dad decided to take me into Leicester for the then groundbreaking late night Christmas shopping, in those days shops opened until five whether that was useful for you or not. I can still feel the chill of the air on my cheeks and the glow coming off our skin as we neared the Christmas Tree at the Clock Tower.

It was a night that will stay with me forever.

Mum and Dad said I could choose my Christmas presents and I knew where I was going, straight to the sports shop. I found exactly what I was looking for very, very quickly; a black Head bag with a gold logo and detachable end pocket and a pair of Nike Exile Excel trainers (the ones with the burgundy suede and the gold swoosh). I was ecstatic.

But mum and dad had said ‘presents’ plural, right?

Last year they had spent two hundred quid on a new computer, the year before that the same on a new TV, and this bag and shoes were no more than fifty? I had loads more to spend, didn’t I?

But they said no. I had been shortchanged. This bag and shoes were barely essentials for hanging with the right crowd, these surely couldn’t be my only presents? But it began to dawn on me they may well be.

I was insufferable for the two weeks running up to Christmas Day. My full frontal assault would show them that I needed, no deserved, more gifts.

What sort of monumental twat was I?

I had no comprehension what the effects of my Dad being put ‘on short time’ was.

Whilst he was working just one or maybe two shifts a week I didn’t even begin to consider that he might be worrying about how to pay the mortgage and still give a Christmas to his family.

I didn’t think that this amazing man who never stopped putting us first might be questioning himself on whether he was a failure or not because he couldn’t provide, through no fault of his own, the celebration we all wanted.

As a stroppy twelve year old could I ever imagine the dark places his mind may have gone to because he wanted to be the best father he could be and sometimes his pockets couldn't reach those stellar heights?

I wish I had those gold swooshed trainers now, or even if I didn’t a Dad that was still with me, so I could thank him for never letting on, for letting me be a twelve year old.

Christmas is about tradition, not just the Victorian ones handed down to all of us but the odd ones passed through families from generation to generation.

We had a tradition that could never be broken. We ate pork pie for Christmas morning breakfast.

Pork pie was, for the Spence’s, every bit as solemn a part of the festive season as visiting the crib after midnight mass.

The ritual would start very early on Christmas Eve when my Dad would drive to Loughborough to queue outside Walkers butchers for a pie: ‘Pork Farms for the rest of the year, but Walkers at Christmas, lad’. The right size had to be chosen with Dad usually plumping for a two pound beauty, just the right mix of meat, pastry and jelly, and as soon as we were out of the shop we could go home.

Christmas Day itself would dawn with me being allowed to open presents on my parents bed before we would go downstairs for breakfast of pie, bread and butter and pickle.

And then one Christmas morning there was the argument. After opening my presents, mum and dad had just got a television for their room, dad went down to get breakfast ready but my mum and me didn’t get dressed but sat watching a film instead.

When we went down 90 minutes later my dad had already had his breakfast. Why hadn’t he waited? Why didn’t he shout us? Why was he so pig-headed?

There was a frostiness that Christmas Day that seemed to last to New Year.

I get it now completely though.

Dad wanted Christmas to be just right. Not for himself but for all of us. How much time did we spend together throughout the year? How many opportunities would we have to do so in the future? How many more family Christmas’ would there be?

He wasn’t being awkward he was wanting to forge memories that stay with us and him forever.

You did Dad. You gave me memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.

You taught me lessons as much as anyone with a degree in classics ever would or could.

Every day I appreciate you more and more and although it’s too late now I wish I could say just once more to you ‘Thanks’.

The smallest things trigger visits to our subconscious.

A couple of days ago my phone pinged to tell me that I had new memories on Facebook.

When I looked I saw a scanned in Polaroid of a primary aged me standing next to a crouching dad.
Dad was wearing my costume for the nativity play, a Christmas Tree made of cardboard and green crepe paper.

I was taken back to that hallway, to that tree with fairy lights that took hours to unravel, to the sounds of the Morecambe and Wise Christmas album and the smells of mincemeat oozing out of imprecisely cut pastry cases.

And I was thankful.

Yes, I would give anything to go back and see my dad once more, anything apart from one thing that is.

I could never give up the memories that I have.

Have a wonderful Christmas, spend it with your families and cherish every moment. Even if it doesn’t feel like it now one day your children and grandchildren will understand all of the love you put into it.

Happy Christmas.

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