This is not about hills…Posted: June 21, 2015
Given that it is Father’s Day here in Canada and the UK, and the fact that I can’t get into the mountains without risking electrocution (it’s thunderstorm season here in Alberta), I thought I would spend a few minutes thinking about my Dad. If you’re hoping for a post about mountains, and the title hasn’t clued you in, you can always bail out now. I’ll never know…
It’s been good to see lots of people reflecting on their parents, as I sometimes don’t think often enough about how hard my own parents worked to bring me up right, with enough food and decent clothes. As I get older, my own experiences in life help me see that more clearly.
My Dad was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, in the north of England, just before Christmas of 1935. Walker Road, by the time I first saw it in the 1970s, hadn’t changed much since then, with sweeping terraces of identical houses, all with small yards and outside toilets. His own childhood wasn’t pleasant, but it made him determined that his children wouldn’t have to go through the same experiences, as his parents separated acrimoniously. Again, looking back with perfect hindsight, I can see that he succeeded in that, as my parents never argued, at least not where we could see it. I suspect that they just didn’t, which is pretty unusual in our day and age.
As he left school, he worked in one of the large engineering firms in Newcastle, learning optics. He would go on to work on some of the largest telescopes for the time, and one of the mirrors in the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh was his work, I think. Dad believed in hard work, and I still have the certificate maths books that he used to study at night sitting on my desk, beside his framed picture. I took the picture myself, with my first proper SLR, in 1985, while he was sitting at our kitchen table in Gorebride. His hair is just starting to grey at the edges, and it is sobering to think that in that picture, he was only six years older than I am now. It’s funny, but while he isn’t smiling in the picture – he’s just looking at me with crossed arms, I can sense the affection with which he was regarding me. Dad’s job as a Minister was often thankless; I remember people saying to me that he only worked one day a week, and that we were poor. I also remember him taking funerals outdoors in the depths of winter, sometimes three a day, and the work he did to provide comfort to the bereaved and the terminally ill. I cannot match his skill in caring for people, but will hopefully be able to pay something back in voluntary work over here in Canada. I remember him saying two things: Never let the sun go down on an argument (excellent advice), and always try and treat people well, because you may be the only person that they see that day. Having experienced despair in my time, I understand the value of a sincere smile now.
Dad was also very patient with me, always taking time to help me with things, and teaching me stuff. I think that’s partly where my love of learning came from. Again, when the time came and I was fortunate enough to go to University courtest of the Scottish government (we could never have afforded it ourselves), he made sure that I was able to survive in an environment he would have given an arm to be in himself. Mum once told me that when I graduated from Newcastle University in 1994, he would have given anything to go himself. That sort of thing just didn’t happen to kids from Walker Road in the 1950s. He did work towards gaining two degrees in the 70s and 80s, the first while working full time for an American mining company – a picture of him graduating from Glasgow University is below.
One of the most fortunate things that happened to him was meeting my mother. Not just so that I could exist, but Mum proved to be his soulmate and partner in every aspect of his life. Since he died, I have come to know my mother much better, and can see how their personalities meshed so well. In this respect, I’ve been fortunate in that I am old enough and mature enough now to tell her how much I love and appreciate her, and am thankful for how she helped to raise to try and be a good person. When Dad died, I was just beginning to see him as a friend as well as my father, and we would sit with a beer or two on Friday night and shoot the breeze. I guess they would say over here that we were just hanging out. Sadly, just as we were beginning to build a better rapport, he was taken from us in Edinburgh.
Dad, I never did get the chance to tell you how much I respected you as my father, or just plain as a good decent man. You had strong values that you didn’t compromise, and always did the right thing, regardless of personal cost. I have tried to follow your path in that respect, and admire you more, as it is often a far more painful route to take. Your compassion inspires me, and you (and Mum) shaped me into a person that I am (mostly) proud to be. I inherited your love of Peter Sellers films (“Is that a minkey with a beum?”), and remember your hearty laughter while watching something really stupid on TV. One thing people might not have always seen was that you had a great sense of humour, or that you were an excellent photographer, in a time when digital technology didn’t allow you to take 200 pictures and then edit them down. I’m also grateful to you for setting me on the path that led me from a car park overlooking Glasgow from the Campsie hills to living and working as a geologist in Canada – handing me my first piece of Lewisian Gneiss from Stornoway and instilling the wonders of natural history in me. None of that would have happened if it wasn’t for you.
So, I know you probably can’t hear me, but I want you to know how much I love you. If there was a way to swap places with you, I would die happily in a moment, without regret. I am thankful for everything you gave me, and continue to give me, in terms of how I look as the world. You were a good man doing a difficult job, and you were taken from us far too soon. Someday I hope to see you again, so that I can tell you in person. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.