Sunday, February 28, 2016

Measures of success

In 2002, the year my father died, I found one of my now favourite books  - Homestead by Rosina Lippi - in a local charity shop. It made me sad that I hadn't found it until after Pa had died because I knew he would have loved it as much as I did. Since then I've read it every couple of years, and a month ago I found the website of the author and dithered over whether to email her and tell her how much I liked the book. I didn't bother.

Yesterday someone tracked me down. They had kept one of my Times pieces since 2002, and decided to finally find out who I was, and tell me what the piece had meant to them. The piece was about losing my father. You can read what they said in the comments section of yesterday's post. I read the comment (which arrives as an email) in a hurry in the kitchen in the middle of cooking, and it moved me to tears.

When I look back on the time that I've been writing and think of what it is that pleases me most, it's 

  • my pieces in the broadsheets (most of which were in the Times); 
  • Plotting for Beginners (my first novel/baby) being on the tables in Waterstones
  • the email I got from a literary agent praising my writing in all kinds of ways, and saying how she adored Sol (one of my characters)but my novel was too quiet to sell; 
  • the success of said novel - But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You - after I'd had to publish it myself; 
  • the fact that my mother and siblings liked the private stuff I wrote for them after my father died, and then after my mother died; 
  • that my dearest friend Mary's family liked my eulogy for her;
  • that one or two people re-read my books because they find them cheering;
  • the friendships I've made through my blog; 
  • and the message I received about one of my pieces from just one unknown person yesterday.

Now I am going to email Rosina Lippi. But first, here's that piece about my father.

Voyage around my father

My 85 year old father died this year. The private family burial was a beautiful occasion, the day so special that the first thing I wanted to do when I got home was to write to my father and describe it, tell him what had happened, how we had been and behaved, what everyone had said. So I wrote him a letter and sent a copy to my brothers and sisters and my mother. It makes us cry but captures the day on paper. I don’t know why that is a comfort but it is.

But then my mother asked me to write my father’s obituary for the local paper. This task hung over me like a dreaded piece of homework. I did not want to be writing my father’s obituary, because I did not want my father to be dead.

Once begun it was soon completed, but not to my satisfaction. The paragraphs about his schooling, his work, his successes and his triumphs described the public man. He sounded like a thoroughly accomplished chap (as he was) but I hated that obituary. The required formal style, and the sensitivity to my mother’s feelings, constrained me. I could say that he was brought up a Quaker, but not that for the last ten years of his life he would lie on the sofa every afternoon watching the racing on telly. I could say that he was a keen hockey player but not that he had a passion for Stilton cheese and Craster kippers and home grown raspberries. I could say that he was a successful freelance writer, but make no mention of his sometimes less than happy use of words - that his criticism could be scorching, his rudeness outrageous, or that his acerbic tongue could reduce a sensitive grandchild to a pulp.

Neither could I say how fervently he loved his family, how sure they were of this, how much they valued his wit, intelligence, knowledge and affection, and how much they will miss him sitting smoking in the corner being crabby, and then at the end of the evening asking for a goodbye cuddle. The last time I visited him at home I knew he was ill because it was the first time he did not say “I had a shave especially, so I could give you a kiss.” This could not go in the obituary either: so much for obituaries.

I don’t think I ever described him as “a wonderful father” but so what? He was my father and I loved him. All my life I have felt as though I sailed in a sturdy ship, my family, looking down on other mortals whose ships were not so handsome and fine as mine. When he died it was as though someone had blown a hole in the side of our craft.

I am surprised that at 52 I am so shaken by his death. I am not a child. I have a large and loving family. And dying at 85 he was not robbed – he had a good innings is the cliché. But I am sad for me, not for him.

As children we would roll our eyes when he told us, yet again, about his great-grandfather’s heifer which won first prize in the London Show, and then “was roasted whole for the poor of Chelsea.” Now he is gone I see all the dog-eared stories of his farming forebears as weighty anchors to our family history.

Searching for written records of them in his desk I found a photograph of his mother: it could have been me in Edwardian dress. I used to hate being likened to someone else, but this photograph has been a strange comfort. I now feel like a link in a long chain stretching back into the past, and forward through my children into the future. My father may be gone, but he is still a valid link. He may no longer sit at the head of the table repeating his catch-phrase “As good a Stilton as I’ve tasted in years,” but at future family gatherings one of us can say it for him. “Only if the cheese merits it,” says my brother. Ah, that critical gene again.

©        Sue Hepworth/Times newspapers  2002
published here with kind permission of Times newspapers


Anonymous said...

So glad to read this today, and see that my instinct yesterday that a thank you, no matter how long after the event, is worth saying. Keep writing - you have such a gift.

Christine said...

I enjoyed reading this all over again. How lucky you were - and are. I would give so much to have memories like this. Our ship has been a much frailer vessel.

Anonymous said...

Sue, you always write with such affection for your family and it's clear you were, and are, loved in return. It's always a pleasure to share your memories through your writing...

Sue Hepworth said...

Thank you for your comments, friends.
I do appreciate how fortunate I've been to have such a loving family.

Rosina Lippi said...

I was simply going to reply to your very kind email, but then I read this post about your father's death and your family. So I'm writing here to say how touching I found this. My father has been gone since 1985 -- he'd be 104 if he were still alive -- but I miss him and think about him every day. I wish I had thought to write about him for myself, if nobody else, at the time. So thank you for sharing this, And now I have to go find your work. Looking forward to it.

Sue Hepworth said...

Hello Rosina, thank you for your kind comments. Having you on here somehow completes the circle. It's good.