Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Where is the life that late he led?

I have been circling around this subject for days, wondering how to write about it. Re-reading Sylvia Plath's poem "Daddy" was not a good idea.... I will circle some more.

Last week, I was watching an episode of Lark Rise to Candleford a television series loosely (very loosely) based on the novels by Flora Thompson which were favourites of my maternal grandmother. The series itself is gentle and charming, not all that much to do with the original stories, but pleasant enough viewing. This episode focused on the fussy Pratt sisters who run a dress shop. When their prodigal father showed up, begging for forgiveness for deserting them as children, I felt a familiar sinking in my stomach and knew long before the denouement that he would betray them again.

My father's memorial service took place in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. It apparently was a grand affair. I knew it was going to take place because my eldest half-sister (from my dad's first marriage) was attending. About a week later, I received a message through Ancestry.co.uk where I've been steadily posting my family tree in safe-keeping against the possibility of our home computer going "foom", as it seems to do every couple of years. A very sweet lady from San Francisco was wondering who on earth I was. Apparently she'd come across my family tree during her own family research and, making conversation at my father's service, asked my half-sister and my father's last wife about it. Blank looks. Neither I nor my sister had appeared in the list of relatives in the programme. When the kind lady offered to mail me the order of service, I finally fully understood why.

See, I'd expected some fabrication in my father's obituary. A few years ago, a local newspaper had reported on one of his functions and mentioned the medals on his chest and the fact that he had modestly said: "They're not for anything much." Oh God. They had no idea.

I started to read through the rather lengthy 8x10 pamphlet that had been sent me. My hands first began to shake when I saw the title by his name: Lt.Col. I flipped to the back and was confronted by a two-page (single-spaced) biography which enumerated in glowing adjectives achievement after achievement, heroism after heroism which I knew to be simply not true. I don't know who wrote this thing, but it was a skillful weaving of fact, fiction and half-truth, perfectly credible to anyone who had not known him before his final permanent emigration to the United States. I began to feel a bit queasy, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

Whom did he hurt by this deception? Obviously, the many public services (based upon a fraudulent armed forces record and a non-existent Bachelor's Degree at the "prestigious London School of Economics") he performed in San Francisco were real enough. The MBE presented to him as part of the 2006 New Year's Honours List was also genuine; his name appears on the official list. He got that for fund raising, this man that left two women struggling to raise children on their own with creditors clamouring for payment in the wake of his several failed businesses.

Still, it seems to me pointless to wound his widow, the starry-eyed old soldiers of his officers' club, his bereft sister, and my eldest half-sister who wants to believe Daddy was a hero. Oh heavens, luv, so do I...

So here, anonymously, I state for the record: My father was a man of many fine qualities, hobbled by alcoholism and dysfunctional parenting. It breaks my heart to think of how badly he wanted to be a high-ranking, widely admired retired soldier and the lies upon lies needed to make that a reality for him. For the sake of his survivors, I will hold my peace for now. For the sake of his descendants and the man or men who actually earned those medals that they carried in great state in his funeral procession, I will gather the facts of his life together and wait for a few people to die.

Anthony Quinn was asked what he would like God to say when he got to heaven. He replied, "I understand." Oh Dad. I hope that's what God said to you.

A rather more fitting epitaph for my father who used to sing this.


Jane Henry said...

Blimey, Persephone. Haven't a clue what to say, except, real life is always more unbelievable then fiction. Can understand your wanting to protect people, they usually want to hold onto their illusions, but you need to tell the truth somewhere, so I'm glad you have here. Ever thought of fictionalising it? (From what I've seen here I think you'd make a pretty good fist of it)
Have just acknowledged you (and my other blogging buddies) in my latest ouevre.
Thinking of you.xx

JoeinVegas said...

The writeup does make him sound pretty good. Unfortunately a lot of people find out about reality when someone dies and the truth comes out.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Ah, the merging of fact, fiction and half-truth. Whilst the post-modernist understands the motivations behind fict/fact-ionalisation of lives, real people are inevitably left with the truths they know and the recognition of the lies. I can only echo what JH says and say that you write remarkably eloquently on what must remain a very personal and painful set of memories and knowledge. You needed to say something somewhere though, and here seems as good as anywhere -- beyond, as JH suggests, making good on your writing talents in a true fiction. My love and thoughts in your circling of the issues these recent events have highlighted in your life.

JL Beeken said...

We all may have 'some of those'. Either, as you say, wait for a few people to die, or don't write it. Ever. Or just write it for yourself so you've said what you need to say. You did a pretty good job here of saying and not saying at the same time. I mean, without all the gory details, I got it.