‘Letters To My Dead’ is an experiment in writing a fictional blog of remembrance to paint a portrait of Patrick Donovan, a seventy-two-year-old man approaching the end of his life.
The story will be presented as blog posts written by Patrick Donovan in remembrance of his dead and posted each Saturday.
So it’s Saturday and I promised to put up my first Letter To My Dead today. To my surprise, there may even be a few people out there waiting for it.
It seems that, in the context of the blog-reading population, I’m not alone in my attitudes and preferences. There are others like me out there and some took the time to tell me so.
Thank you for that. I’m not someone who worships at the altar of external validation but it turns out that I like the idea of there being other people who see the world as I do.
Anyway, on to today’s post.
Writing a letter to my dead wasn’t as easy as I’d thought it’d be.
Who do I write to first? And what do I tell them? And why would they want to hear it?
Well, it’s a letter of remembrance that I had in mind, not the kind of thing you’d give as a eulogy in Church to honour the dead, comfort the living and make everyone cry. No, it’s more the kind of thing you’d say when the whisky was flowing and those who cared the most were sitting together quietly, trying to invoke the spirit of the dead man or woman by telling stories that describe the shape and depth of the hole torn in their lives by this death.
When I was too young to drink but old enough to be allowed to sit and listen, that kind of thing would be done at a wake, before the funeral and it would be only the men, sitting around the coffin that was in the middle of the parlour held up by a dining chair at either end.
Back then it seemed normal. Now it seems like the stuff of dreams. The kind of thing the Tate Modern would declare to be an art installation commenting on the mundane inevitability of death.
Back then, the women would be in the back room, making tea and telling their own tales and waiting to help their menfolk stagger home when the wake was done. I never got to sit in on the women’s tales. “You’ll want to be in the parlour with the men, Patrick,” I’d be told as I was ushered out, and even as a boy I knew that it was because they wanted to say things that they didn’t want me to hear. But they were right. I did want to be in the room with those men, watching them drink and smoke and tell stories that made them laugh in a way that often had more mourning in it than the crying that came later.
If that’s the kind of thing I’m going to write, then let me start with my grandfather, my father’s father, the man I was named after, Patrick Joseph Donovan, who everyone seemed to refer to simply as Himself. “Is Himself at home?” they’d ask. “That will be Himself at the door now.” they’d say. Or, “What will Himself have to say about that?” I knew it wasn’t his name but I could hear the capital H every time it was said.
He was a tall, wiry man, with hard hands and a soft voice, who spoke more with his eyes than his mouth. He smelled of Woodbine cigarettes, which we called coffin nails. We’d chant a little rhyme, ‘It’s not the cough that carries you off, it’s the coffin they carry you off in.’
My grandad died in 1960 when I was eleven and he was seventy-two, the same age that I am now. As I began to write this post, I realised that my grandad was a Nineteenth-Century man, born in 1888. That seems so long ago now. I wish that I had been old enough to think to ask him about what life was like when he was a boy, in Ireland. But I was just a boy myself, so I was more interested in the tattoos on his forearms and the knots that he would teach me to tie. He had one knot, that I could never master, that held things tight but which could be undone with a single tug if the need arose. That always seemed like magic to me – the strength to hold tight and the will to let go.
Most of what I know about Himself, or think I know, was told to me by others. He was a man who attracted stories but didn’t tell them.
‘Do you know the one about Himself and the bull?’, they’d say. Or, ‘Did Himself not put in half the rivets in the Mauritania single-handed?’ Then someone would add ‘Ay he was always a good man with a rivet gun in his hand but a better man with a pint in it.’
So what would my letter to my grandad say? Here’s my best effort.
I wish you’d lived long enough for me to buy you a Guinness and ask you about your life.
These days, with genealogy becoming a hobby, I found out all sorts of facts about you online: when and where you were born, christened, married and buried. I’ve seen your records for the Merchant Navy in the First World War. I know that, after the war, you stayed at home with your wife in Birkenhead, taking a job in Cammell Laird’s shipyard and that you worked there until you retired. I know the Second World War took your two oldest sons and that my father only survived because you’d had him taken on as an apprentice in Cammell Laird’s a year before the war started. I know your wife died in 1948 and you lived for twelve years as a widower.
But although I’ve learned all those facts about you, I don’t feel as if I know you at all. Facts are never more than half the truth.
One thing I do know for sure is that you drove my father crazy.
He disapproved of so many of your choices. Your decision to live a quiet life with your tiny wife. Your accent, which sounded as if you’d gotten off the boat from Ireland yesterday. How little you cared about owning nothing. How much pleasure you could take in a well-pulled pint. Your zest for life as a widower, especially after you retired, and your refusal to accept that a retired man shouldn’t be cycling everywhere.
Your son was an angry man then, but I guess you know that. I think he had cause. I guess you know that too. What you don’t know is that he grew out of it. After you were gone, he became a man more at ease with himself. I’m still waiting for that to happen to me, that sense of ease, of having done enough, of letting the anger go.
A couple of decades ago, I went back to look at the two-up-two-down back-to-back and crumbling terraced house you and grandma lived your married lives in. It’s not there any more. They’ve replaced it with a new kind of slum, this time with indoor plumbing.
I remember coming to your tiny rented house with just the parlour, kept for when the priest visited, and the kitchen on the ground floor. I’d sit at the kitchen table with the oilcloth on it while gran made something at the stove and you would show me some new thing to do with my hands. My favourite thing was when you made me a tank, using nothing but an old cotton reel, a candle stub, an elastic band and a straw from a milk carton. I played with that tank for hours but it was watching the making of it that I liked the most. The way your large hands worked that sharp pocket knife, cutting things to size and making grooves in the reel. You worked in silence and I watched with the quiet concentration that a magic trick deserves.
I know now why the small house you lived in was one of the things my father was angry about. He thought you deserved better. He thought his mother deserved much better. And he was right. But I think his anger was mostly because you didn’t need better to be happy. You had a roof over your head, food in the cupboard, money in your pocket and a wife to come home to. You made that enough. My father never could.
So what does that all mean?
Well, to me it means that you were a man I barely knew but always loved. I’ll make that enough.
So, there it is, my first letter to my dead. I’m surprised by how much emotion was involved in writing it. I haven’t thought about my grandad in a long time and yet it turns out that the memories of him were just below the surface, as easy to get at as turning over loose earth with a trowel. I didn’t need to dig at all.
If my wife was here, she’d tell me that I’d let myself off easy this time. That I’d picked a safe target by writing about a man that only the child-me had known. Then she’d ask me if that was why I was writing: to be safe, to find comfort or did I want something else?
Of course, if my wife was here, I wouldn’t be writing this at all. Talking to her would have been enough.
She’s not here, so all I have is the ghost of her questions. Which I don’t have good answers for.
I’m not sure exactly what I want (except to have my wife back and for this blog to be redundant) but I know I want more than for this blog to be a sentimental curation of my memories.
Next week, I’m going to pick someone from my adult life. Someone I’m not sentimental about. Let’s see how that goes.
I feel a little as if I’m speaking into silence here, not even getting an echo. You, Reader, could help me by breaking the silence and letting me know what, if anything, this post meant to you.
I’ll be back next week, even if the silence is unbroken, with another letter to another of my dead. I hope you’ll join me.