Usually I'm not one for dwelling on things, preferring to get on and live in the moment. But this isn't always possible. A couple of days ago I learnt that my stepmother had died two years ago and my stepbrother, her only son, had also died some time before that. No-one told me as the rest of my father's family were not in contact and so presumably didn't know.
My father died eleven years ago, whilst we were hosting our first knitters' tour in Wales. I got a call from my stepbrother to say I had better come quick if I wanted to see my father alive again. I immediately got in the car and drove the two hundred miles, but sadly he was gone by the time I arrived at the hospital. I had seen him at home shortly before the tour started, in bed and very poorly with emphysema. I didn't realise that it was as serious as it was as he'd been battling with this horrible disease for twenty years and often had bouts of breathlessness. On this occasion my stepmother doggedly stood by his bed and refused to allow me to get close, hold his hand or have any time alone with him. P was there and he tried to attract her attention outside of the bedroom, but she stuck to her post, obviously not wishing me to have any quality time with my father.
It occured to me that she thought he may have wanted to quietly slip some money into my hand as he sometimes did for birthdays or Christmas presents - she certainly didn't want him doing that. At this point I should say that my father has never, as my mother put it, had two ha'pennies to rub together. He had no interest in material things and when he died you could probably have put all his possessions in one suitcase.
He'd never had any money or education and his working life was spent delivering coal, first of all with a horse and cart, then from a lorry which someone else drove. My father never learnt to drive. He eventually ended up working in a plastic moulding factory where one day an oven blew and he got the full force of the blast and this did for his lungs. He retired soon after with a few hundred pounds compensation and of course didn't demur, but accepted what was handed out gratefully.
He was a sensitive man who married young and had three wives. His first wife was only eighteen when she contracted tuberculosis. It was during WW2 and although my father had been called up, he was at that time still in the UK. However, compassionate leave didn't exist for canon fodder and she died before he could see her.
Still emotionally raw from losing his wife, he was subsequently sent to Burma where he engaged with the Japanese, witnessing all manner of atrocities which filled his head for the rest of his life. He told me how on the boat going out there, his breath was taken away by the most beautiful sight he'd ever seen, rounding a promontory at the Cape of Good Hope, and seeing Table Mountain in the distance. He also told me that when the troops were put on planes and dropped into combat zones they were transported like cargo in the hold with neither seats nor straps. He contracted malaria three times, but was sent back to the front line again and again. At that time Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was unheard of, so my father was left to fight his demons alone or with whoever he could find to listen.
After the war he met my mother who later became his second wife. It was never a good match, she was on the rebound from the love of her life, a New Zealand volunteer in the war. He asked her to marry him, but she refused as she couldn't bear to leave her family and move to NZ. My father was still grieving for his first wife, plus trying to cope with the trauma the war had inflicted on him. He suffered from terrible twitches and had a compulsive need tell his story, to say over and over he never wanted to kill anybody.
So it was inevitable that my parents would eventually split and this happened when I was fourteen. I always believed my father truly loved my mother and would have done anything for her, but she just wasn't interested and found him wanting in many ways. So a few years later he found his third wife. I had little contact with him after my parents separated, he didn't have a phone and neither of us bothered with letters. Once I had two toddlers though, I started to think it was time he met his grandchildren.
He lived with his new wife in her family home and my father seemed happy and quite relaxed - he had a little garden and a greenhouse where he grew tomatoes and lettuce. So I decided one day to take the plunge and arrange to visit with my then husband and our little boys. Big mistake - I didn't see my father again for fifteen years.
My stepmother obviously felt I was a threat and she took it out on the kids. She told me they were little hooligans and that they needed a good hiding and they should only speak when spoken to. She made it impossible for me to take the kids there again and it was only when Felix was born that I made the next attempt to rekindle my relationship with my father. Regretting that he'd had little contact with the first two, I wanted to give him another opportunity with Felix. This time things went a little better, she was never openly horrible to Felix, but her dislike of me hung heavy on the air and there was always an atmosphere. During the years that followed, Felix saw his grandad and a loving relationship developed and I think my father really appreciated this.
Although I do believe my stepmother genuinely loved my dad, he was very henpecked and I often lamented that he was like a man whose spirit was broken, completely dependent for his emotional and physical welfare on her. In fact I sometimes felt guilty about disliking her as she looked after him so well (I was going to write uncomplainingly but that would give you the wrong idea, she was not a martyr, in fact she complained about everything, engaged in many personal vendettas and didn't even speak to her own grandchildren). However, she probably had her own demons to cope with and the best I can say is that they seemed happy together.
When my father died, I could never have foreseen the depth of her dislike for me. She refused to tell me where or when the funeral was, this required detective work in the local paper. She didn't speak to me at the crematorium nor did she invite me back. Tristan and Felix came with me to the funeral and I remember it was as if we were invisible, the celebrant mentioned my father's loving stepson and wife, but made no reference to his daughter or grandsons. My father's brother and sister recognised this and were very kind to us, though nothing was said I suspect they weren't particularly fond of my stepmother.
After the funeral I asked her for a photo of my father and was told bitterly that I had had one photo, I wasn't getting anymore. As she put it You're getting nothing and I never want to see you or your children again. After the dust had settled P rang up my stepbrother and tried to make him understand that all I wanted were a few pictures, thinking he might be able to arrange this without his mother knowing. It never occurred to P that he would relate everything to her, resulting in her immediately picking up the phone and telling us not to harass her son and not to contact either of them ever again. That was the last I heard from her.
So when I found out that my stepmother had died I realised I'd never truly grieved for my father. It slowly dawned that now she and her son were gone, all trace of him had gone too. I'd always assumed that when she died her son, who was never overtly unkind to me, would phone and ask if I would like anything from the few things my father had owned. Maybe a watch, his signet ring, or even his precious war medals which I knew meant a lot to my dad. After he separated from my mum it was the one thing he asked for and to think they've been consigned to a house clearance, sold on by people who never knew him, makes me very sad.
So this news, especially that my stepbrother had died, upset me inordinately, as no matter how awful they were, they were the only contact with my father and his life. I'd pinned my hopes on my stepbrother and now that he is no longer, I realise that I'll never have anything to remind me of my father other than my memories. My clearest memory is from when I was about eight, a latchkey kid as my mother worked in the mill until 5.30 and my father, who finished earlier, sometimes had a gill of beer before calling in at the bookie's to have a bet on the horses. If he'd won anything from the day before, he'd come back and share his winnings with me and we'd play cards - pontoon for real money before my mother came home.
But people also live on through the things they chose, used, ideas they had and pictures taken of them. The lack of any of these does leave a space, especially when I'm reminded by the pleasure other people get from having their parent's things around them. I'll never really know my father, what he thought, if he was happy with his life or if I ever made him proud - my stepmother never allowed him to say and he was never strong enough to insist.
When he died I remember someone saying to me oh well, you weren't close to him, were you? He meant well, thinking he was consoling me, but at the time it was doubly hurtful, as it didn't recognise that whether or not I was close to him, I was grieving for my father as well as for the years and times that were lost.