My father, Fred, was one of nine children, of whom six brothers made it into adulthood. Although only two still survive, four of them lived well into their 90’s, so there are strong genes on the male side of my family! Growing up, two things struck me about him:
First, his exceptional hands-
Secondly was his exceptionally relaxed, calm demeanour. I can only remember him ever shouting once in anger (at my mother, as she struggled to get to grips with the clutch and gear shift of our new car). He just didn’t get worked up. He was always cheerful and saw the positive in any situation. It’s probably one reason why he never looked his age -
Several years ago, I was storytelling at Raffles City mall and Dad came along to watch. The man on stage before me was a lifestyle coach and asked what the audience would do if they were told they had a week to live. He gave his mic to several people who responded by saying they’d like to visit America, go on a safari, make up with an estranged family member etc ... When the coach asked my father, Fred simply smiled and said ‘Nothing -
I didn’t know him much growing up: when I was going on 7, he was posted here and my parents decided to put me in a boarding school in UK and for the next three years, I only saw them during the summer holidays. They acted with good intentions but the separation meant that I became emotionally distant from them forever after. Living with him for the past 14 years, however, allowed me to see him much more closely. I’d always felt that we had little in common: he was so adept with his hands, taking apart an engine, growing his beloved vegetables and making his excellent apple chutney, whereas I’ve always resisted activities that get my hands greasy, dirty or splintered! I’d always identified with my mother for her love of poetry and literature. But here in Singapore, it was Fred who applied himself to learning keyboard skills so he could author his autobiography (a copy was gratefully accepted by the RAF Museum for his account of the hitherto unseen part played by ground-
He had a knack for being able to talk with anyone -
He became an avid reader, sat on our balcony reading for hours. He had a favourite book of poetry (The Nation’s 100 Favourite Poems) I’d given him & Mum as a Christmas present, some 20 years earlier. Yeats Lake Isle of Innisfree was one he loved: I read it to him in hospital, and later he asked for it and the nurse, god bless her, googled it and read it to him (now that’s service, Changi Hospital!)
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
It’s how I like to think of him now, at rest, in a bee-
of those we've lost
is how we keep
from really losing them.