You can get used to not having a father but it takes a long time. Mine is “late” as we say over here, for more than 10 years now but this Father’s Day run up I feel it a little stronger. It must be something to do with the extraordinarily nice presents in the Father’s Day pamphlets. Everywhere you look there are advertisements for very grand booze boxes, triptychs of biltong, brandy and coke, decorated skottels, bowties. Young fathers are gushing left right and centre on radio and in blogs about walking their kids to school and other quite lovely things.
In my day (pass the gin will you Gertrude), we looked around the house for them and awkwardly gave them a box of hankies with their initial on. Then we left them in peace with Prince Valiant and the horses. Now it’s quite a gala for the fathers. And about time.
My dad was a very quiet cautious man. If the speed limit was 80, he would drive 60. He would never circle the block to look for parking, choosing instead to infuriate us by driving very far away from where we needed to be to avoid any sort of parking impatience. We used moan “why do we have to park in Roodepoort?” as we circled the outskirst of Krugersdorp again looking for easy parking. If we needed anything, we saved. He fixed things, he made things. He built the additions on our old house. He admired good welding and bricklaying like an art critic admires a good painting – standing back slightly, head tilted, murmuring approval.
He spoilt me. Not in the “pink BMW when you turn 18” way. In the “be there for you no matter what” way.
He was not huggy, he rarely said I love you. He smelt of Old Spice and Chesterfield.
He got some things wrong. But not things that would drive me to a therapist’s couch for years. I did that all by myself. But my brothers and I knew that even as an adult if we called him at four in the morning from some godforsaken place he would come and fetch us.
There would be lip. On the phone when we called, and in the car all the way back, there would be more lip. But he would come. I know people who have never experienced that unconditional support and so don’t know how to give it.
He terrified boyfriends who brought me home late by switching off the lounge lights and then when we tiptoed in thinking we were safe, he would emerge from the shadows. Six foot four with sideburns. And a gat. On safety and pointing down of course. “Oh it’s you,” he would say. There were skidmarks. In the driveway too.
And he was right about most of them. At a curiosity dinner with one, some 15 years later, I was stunned to watch food and wine being chosen for me and to hear he put out an internet search on me. “They’re illegal of course,” he said. Nice save Dadster.
Whipped out of school at a young age shortly after his own father died, he lost all career choices as he was sent off to work as the eldest boy to help support a large family. His mother signed him up to be a boilermaker, without him having any say, and that’s what he qualified as, and worked as, until, one day when we were little he came home in his DKW, aka “The Deek” and announced: ‘I am sick of spending half an hour every night scrubbing my fingernails clean”.
He had the most beautiful fingernails. He could have modelled them for GQ. They were always clean, clipped square, buffed and with his dark skin, they set the standard in male grooming for me. It’s still one of the quick scans I do on men I’m interested in – fingernails: check. If a boilermaker could do it, what’s your story then office man? He wore tweed jackets, slacks, Hushpuppies, always a broad tie, and he prided his sideburns, or sideboards as we called them.
He went to night school and became a draftsman and changed careers when we were still small. The excitement in the house when he got his first “new life” job!
When I went to university in my 40s the memory of what he did inspired me. Exhausted, working on an assignment at two in the morning, or dragging Miss J round the Wits library with promises that we would visit the koi afterwards, I would think, Dad did this, keep going. But of course it was more than the fingernails for him.
He was a very intelligent man and one of his hobbies was, wait for it, going through maths books he bought and doing the calculations they set. For fun. When the first Hewlett Packard calculators came out, it was like he had come home. When we went shopping we would leave him at the calculator counter at Dions and fetch him when we were finished. He once said that if he had had a choice he would have liked to have been a scientist of some sort. If he had lived long enough he would be lost now in a happy world of apps, rushing out only to shout, “Quick Marge, come look at this…. ooh was that the kettle?”
He had a midlife crisis and moved out for a while. Upgrading the polyester slacks and deciding that he would join my brother Bren and Barbs at skydiving. He famously panicked when he decided his chute hadn’t opened properly and gave hurtling down to earth with the pumpkin-sized reserve, seemingly unable to steer. He landed on a power line, dropped down, dangling. The moment loosened the chute and he landed on his bum. The club looked on from a distance in dismay, thinking he was dead. He got up and dusted himself off and his doctor later told him that he had crushed one of his vertebrae and would henceforth be a quarter of an inch shorter than his 6’4.
I’m going to say it. He was quite a paradox when it came to women and men. Some call it protective, some call it sexist. My brothers got small motorbikes when they were old enough so that they could get around. I begged. I learnt how to ride one. I begged more. I got a hair dryer. I too wanted to learn how to service a car like he was teaching my brothers. I was the one pressing the brakes while the fluid went through, or trying to find the number 13 spanner while they dug around in the engine. There was an unspoken rule that girls did not light the braai fire. But on the other hand, I was allowed to work when I wanted to, to study what I wanted to, where I wanted to, to travel, and I always knew he had my back. I think my mother may have been on his there.
He loved cowboy movies, terrible best sellers, jazz, cheesy crooners, and early Disney cartoons. He wasn’t materialistic. When he died I inherited his slide rules and a box of drafting stationery, which I cherish, and his lang slap Mazda six two six. The one he used to lend me with endless instructions and threats.
He hated my politics but stopped on the side of the road and stole a 1994 ANC election poster for me from a lamp post because he knew I would like it.
He taught me so many things. How to cast. He took my brothers and I with our rods to the grass which is now Key West in Krugersdorp, and made us practise until we weren’t catching each other’s eyebrows anymore. How to drive. I am one of the best reverse parkers I know because of him. How to drink Jack Daniels (slowly, out of a decent glass. Not that I took his advice). That it is possible to have cabling in the house that doesn’t look as though it needs a sauce and some parmesan. To put a coin into a beggar’s cup. To aim for integrity. Looking for a picture of him to post, I can’t believe how young he looks when he was doing such grown up things. How almost boyish, my Dad, Oom Tom, Mr Evans, looks.
I miss him. RIP The Dadster.