Reflections on growing up... at fifty.

Happiness is for Poofters


The people that surround us as children are meant to be there forever, but they are not, they come and go and we are left with the hope and the fear that they come back. The primal instinct of attachment.  The feeling that those we trust will come back for us, and so they don’t leave us we develop that personality that we think will keep them there, the performer, the needy, the demanding, the drama queen, the silent one.  I became the good boy, so I was told, the polite, happy good boy.

Measles, every child got the measles, and mumps, they were diseases you had to have. Measles made your skin go blotchy and bright light, apparently, hurt your eyes. So I lay in that bed in Dusseldorf at the back of the German lady’s house looking up at the red cellophane covering the light bulb. My father came home took one look at me lying in the huge bed and threw himself at me crying. I asked my mother why he was crying and she said because I was sick. But now, looking back I realise it was because he was drunk. My father rarely cried unless he was drunk. He cried or he looked for someone to have a fight with. This scene always went with the worried look on my mother’s face, which may also explain the sad look on the wedding photos. It’s a set of looks we learned over the years. The bulging eyes of my father, an underlying anger on the verge of exploding, an uneasiness that overtook my mother, the glances at whatever he was drinking. My mother always counted my fathers drinks. It was her who had been the sole witness of his drinking and his black moods on her own, by now for years. And yet she married him. The same panic that set in when her father would come home drunk, she knew that panic, expected that panic yet never questioned that she had a choice in dealing with that panic. To her the black moods belonged to someone else and it was her fate to deal with them.

How my father treated her when they were alone and he had been drinking I can only imagine but it would not have been easy or pretty and I don’t remember her ever asking for help. Those things were kept in the family, the fear of “what would they say” ever present. The outside world to my father was never to be trusted. People talked. They criticised. Few more than my father. The world was divided into to two shifty money makers who only made money by being tight or ripping other people and the others who were the poor, innocent ignorant masses who were unaware of the mechanics of the capitalist world. For, you see, nobody had the insight to see the deception that capitalism was playing on the planet.

To my father happiness was for poofters. Men, real men, were serious men of suffering. He didn’t have a sense of humour as much a sense of sarcasm; his laughter was always aimed at the ridiculous world he was born to suffer through. His laughter was a deflation of negativity at any comment he disagreed with. A shake of the head at how any one could come out with such a stupid comment. My father was twelve, emotionally, he was twelve, and till the day he died.  My mother was older, a year younger in age, but older in her soul.

I can only guess why my father stopped maturing. Born in the middle of the Spanish Civil War where half the country killed or betrayed the other half. Where neighbours pointed the finger at each other and watched as people were taken away and tortured, shot, or as the case was in his village rounded up and burned at the stake in the outskirts by the railway line. The story of the train passing and the windows being shut so the passengers would not witness the horrific sight was told at family gatherings in the few times that the war was ever mentioned. His father had died when he was ten and left a mother with five boys to fend for herself. His father, my grandfather had died a sick man but his involvement in the loosing republican side meant my grandmother was left without a pension. He had spent sometime in a concentration camp but this was not a detail I ever managed to get out of my father, and his grave was lost. How can you loose a grave? My grandmother was always as vague about this as everyone else. The loosing side of the Spanish Civil war was taught to forget. To avoid any conversation of the war, to fear the civil guards, to never ask questions and not look for graves that were moved or lost. My father had lost the sight of his eye as a child and this gave him a cross-eyed look, which meant he was teased and nicknamed, as would have been the casual cruelness of a Spanish village in the forties. He had been born with a lazy eye and my grandmother refused to give him glasses because it would make him look silly. Thus losing sight in that eye altogether. The eye was also a point not to be mentioned as I learned once when I pointed out his affliction to a friend of his in conversation. I was ten at the time and the fact that I had mentioned “the eye” was reminded to me over and over. I never mentioned the eye in front of him ever again.

Essentially nobody in the world could be truly trusted according to my father. Even strong friendships eventually turned sour.  My parents would return from Germany loaded with gifts for the family, every few months making the trip back to Spain in their car. It was a time of youth, of stovepipe pants, brilliantine hair. My fathers hair combed into a cow lick at the front of his head. A drop of water hanging from it, which would sometimes freeze into an icicle in the bitterly cold German mornings. There was no wind-chilled factor in those days, just cold, bitter, bone bristling cold. While my father and my uncle worked in the glass factory in Dusseldorf The Beatles were playing in Hamburg. There were motorbikes, leather jackets, and chiffon petticoats, stockings clipped at the thigh. Reel to reel tape recorders where the family back in Spain would gather to listen for the first time and cringe at the sound of their voices. My grandmother made the trip to Germany by once with me, my mother would recollect this trip with resignation as apparently my grandmother spent most nights of her stay worrying about dying in Germany. She didn’t, actually she didn’t die for many years to come.

It was on one of this trips of this sketchy time lime that nobody seems clear about that my parents decided to take me back to Germany and this is where most of my memories of this time take shape, in fact my memory then continues uninterrupted from the time I was finally with my parents. 

“We are going back to Spain tomorrow” I said to the Spanish neighbours across the street. But my parents were loading up the car as I spoke. They told me we where going to Spain tomorrow yesterday but to me that was the answer to the question. And as I was waiting for tomorrow the car was loaded, my uncle and father sat in the front, my mother, my untie and me in the back. The car was a wagon and my mothers head rested on a wall of possessions filling the back. Why did we leave? We left because my father said it was time to go. Because after five years of good wages, trips back to Spain, motorcycles, smart clothes, dancing at the Spanish Club, driving an Opel car and sponge birthday cakes with peaches and cream it was time for my father to leave. Back to a Spain that was still recuperating from a civil war, in a dictatorship, where people didn’t like talking about politics, where people couldn’t talk about politics. Where the sight of a civil guard froze a whole street.

There are three things I clearly remember from that last trip across three countries. One was driving through the steep winding roads of the Pyrenees. My mother reaching above her head having to hold on to the bullfighter painting which was sliding above our pile of possessions.  I remember Spanish people in France, the south of France, this were the Spanish people that did not go back to Spain, the ones that had escaped the war and had settled in many French villages, especially around Lyon. The exiles, the ones that could not make that drive across the Pyrenees just a couple of hours away. The war had finished some twenty years ago and then they had to endure German occupation in France, and there were thousands of them clumped in communities throughout the south. Their conversation about Spain was always short “We’ve been here since the war”. There would always be a meal and a laugh for a passing Spanish traveller and a wave outside their houses as we drove away to a place they could not. To families who could not talk about Franco the way they could, to families that chose to stay and live in fear. And yet here we were going back to that place. For living in fear is easy once one has come to terms with the boundaries of that life. My mother had learned those with my father. Spain had learned those with Franco. It’s easy; one is respectful even if requests lack reason. One never asks detail questions. Avoid certain subjects, never expect empathy. Never expect that your wishes will be considered. You may ask but accept the answer as readily as it is given. And be happy; amuse yourself with the simple things in life and not the cumbersome questions of existence. Live for the moment and remain childlike. Defer all decision to a higher better knowing being. One day one can look back at this time through the prism of a simplified view of the world where choice was eventually discarded as inconsequential and just remember the blue sky, the taste of food and the feel of chiffon. And not the sense of dread, the trepidation at saying the wrong thing, the careless word that unleashed the wrath. The slap across the face that you must also keep to yourself. Remember the clapping and the dancing; didn’t we have a great time? Didn’t we?

And the third memory of this trip is holding my mothers hand at the base of the Eiffel Tower. For at that moment she was all mine and I was glad I was too short to go up with the rest. We sat at a bench. She pointed up to look at my father and she held my hand. It was just she and I in Paris, our Paris, and I was in love. She was beautiful, I didn’t understand why men whistled at her and she looked embarrassed. Sometimes she would look out into the distance as she pinched my face gently between her fingers.

The gravel crunched beneath my feet and she held my hand. And she sat me on her lap, and she held my hand, and my head rested on her chest and I could hear her heart while she talked to me in Paris.


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