Sunday, November 24, 2019

My father


Yahrzeit.

It is not a word we knew, growing up, although Yiddish did make its way into our domestic vocabulary - my parents had some close Jewish friends. But it is very helpful, now, and I would like to borrow it.

It is a year since my father died. November 23rd. For the last two weeks my heart has been skipping beats. Literally. I can only think that my body is reacting to this time, last year (yes, I will see a doctor, in case).

Henri Viljoen. There he is. I asked to take pictures of him one late summer day in Cape Town, still dressed for work. I took six pictures. He was 81.


When I showed him a black and white version of this one, that I had framed, he looked at it sadly, but he said nothing, and handed it back to me, and smiled at me. I know he thought that he and his dog, Ben, both looked old. What if we had known this would be the picture Vince and I used when composing the e-vite to my father's memorial in that awful week, one year ago? I would have had to explain to my dad what an e-vite was. He would have found it miraculous.

I made my father cry, once. I was in my early thirties. We had had an argument about relationships. He said that with my uncompromising attitudes about men I would never be happy, and he wanted me to be happy. Jou maatstaf is te hoog, he said. Your measure is too high. And he wept, his head in his hands at the table on the patio.

When I brought the Frenchman home for the first time, just months after meeting him, the love of my life promptly fell in love with my father. It appeared to be mutual. This was unexpected. I had warned him that my father was judgemental, authoritarian. But Vince saw qualities in my dad that I had been raised to overlook. It is one of the best things that ever happened to me. Almost overnight, I saw my father through very different eyes.

In the last couple of years before his death, my father would come and sit near me in the study where I would be typing on my laptop after supper, when I visited. I would be there for weeks. He would be working - and later just trying to work, as dementia melted his mind - next door in the dining room. He'd walk in, on his way to bed, and be visibly startled to see me. He had forgotten I was home. You're here! Jy's hier! he would say, beaming, and sit down. And then he would say, Ek wens jy kon bly. I wish you could stay. And the next night it would be the same. And the next. You're here! I wish you could stay.

I miss him so much.

He didn't call or write inbetween visits, and we only exchanged a few words when I called my mother. But he would always answer the phone the same way when he knew it was me: My liewe kind. Hoe gáán dit met jou? My dear child. How are you? And I would say, My liewe Vader. And then we would both laugh and laugh.

I never spoke at my father's memorial. I couldn't. I had way too much to say, and with the grief of that week, and those preceding years, I was stripped of filters. The world would have exploded.

I see him in myself. When I use the toothpaste to the very last squeeze. When I straighten out the tube after the Frenchman has squashed it in the middle. When I clean my bicycle carefully or fold my sweaters neatly. When I use just my breath  to sing while I wash dishes or perform a chore. When I arrange things at right angles. When I hear contempt in my voice. When I take pleasure in a view, or a flower. When I lash out at a racist remark. When I forget why I walked into a room.

We lead privileged lives. My father said it again and again. He had money. But it was never a competition. He earned it, understood it, enjoyed it, and he gave a lot of it away. It exasperated him that I would not accept it. But that was the only way I could look him in the eye.

I am wearing my father's thickest, warm woollen socks. Their toes are darned. On my wrist is a tiny amount of his Penhaligon's Blenheim Bouquet. Last night the Frenchman and I drank to him after making sure the cork actually popped out of the bottle - no discreet pffft. My father liked bubbly to go out with a bang.

We had no unfinished business. I know he was proud of me. I know he loved me. I know I am lucky, that way.

But I want him back.

25 comments:

  1. Ah, sweet, so sweet, bittersweet and full of heart. Like you, I had no unfinished business with my father and I also want him back.

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  2. The tears are welling in my eyes. I lost my mother at age 17. I miss her still and every year, on the day of her death, nearly 50 years later, the sadness descends, whether I'm aware of the date or not. You'll never stop wanting him back, but I am also happy for you that none of the important things went unsaid or unfelt.

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  3. Beautifully written.

    "When I straighten out the tube after the Frenchman has squashed it in the middle." As he would say, nou praat jy!

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  4. You're so lucky to have all those wonderful memories to warm you.

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    1. They just make me sad. Some day they may warm me x

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  5. Ai liewe Marie. You write so beautifully about such incredibly difficult things.

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  6. I am crying. What a loving, honest tribute. I met your Dad once but he left quite an impression on me. I thought he was lovely. Sending a giant flare of love up to all the Dads we've loved and lost. And saying a Yahrzeit for your dad and mine.

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  7. I'm so sorry, Marie - my dad's one year anniversary was June 4th, and I miss him every day. It's so hard to say goodbye, even when you know it's best for them. My dad was suffering terribly, I knew it was best for him, but it still broke my heart. I'm so grateful you have your Frenchman to comfort you.

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  8. He's very present here today. How wonderful to conjure him like this so that we might miss him too.

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  9. Unlike you I had no sweet relationship to my father nor for that matter my mother. I envy you that your memories are of love and not of conflict and "too bad our ships passed in the night". You have indeed been gifted.

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    1. I am so sorry. There was conflict, and the story is not over. But with my dad things were resolved a long time ago and I really do know, from experience, that that is a true blessing. Family can be complicated and accidental, and often the source of the very worst pain. Don't feel bad - not that you do - about thinking unfondly of people who hurt you. The worst aspect can be anger, at least for me. That needs to be transmuted, somehow.

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  10. Your words are lovely and how blessed you are that you have no regrets. May your heart find ease in your memories.

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    1. Thank you, Kath. I have regrets, especially about his last days. But ain't nothing I can do about that, now.

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  11. What a beautiful and profound tribute to your dad, and to your relationship with him, and how it changed and grew when Vince and your dad became mutual admirers.

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  12. I am so happy (and sad) to have landed here tonight on this particular entry. It is such a fine and tender tribute, standing out among your many fine pieces of writing.

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  13. Marie, what a beautiful tribute. Your enduring and endearing love for your father warms my heart but it also makes me cry. I'm sorry for your loss but happy you have your memories. Hugs to you and the frenchman.

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