John Pearson writes about his adopted father and about being a father himself to his two daughters.
One summer Sunday afternoon each year in the late 1950's would find me, a small boy of 4, 5 or 6, stood on Rugby station, watching for the smoke of the engine coming to take my Daddy away. And every year it would be through tears that I watched the smoke billowing out again as indeed he went, heading for that far away place called 'London' to do marking for the week. To me it felt like forever without him. If it was fine, Mum and I would walk the two miles or so back home to Clifton, the small village where we lived, to a quiet bungalow my father had designed and got built for him, my whole small world, that seemed so empty. He never went away, except for that one same trip every year. Every year, on his return, I was itching to see what present he might have brought me, which he would take slowly from his battered briefcase.
For decades afterwards I kept these pictures in my mind, and however old I grew, I still felt that when the time came for him to die it would be just like the train all over again. Throughout my childhood, even into my teens I would pray (still) – saying the Lord's Prayer followed by: 'Please look after Mum' but then: 'Please please please look after Dad'. I am not sure that when Dinah asked me to write about my father she wanted every 'kiss and tell all' naive tear-jerking detail. However, in the first short piece above, in a way, you have it all. She asked me to write about him, and about my own subsequent role as a father... particularly, in my case, because I was as it suggests above an adopted son. Even late into my parents' lives, and they both survived into their 80's, whenever people asked me if I was an only child, I would delight in saying: 'Yes, so far !'
Anyway, to get on; I was adopted when 18 months old, late by today's standards, by a childless couple in Rugby. My father, George, was 42 at the time, old – too old nowadays to have even been considered. A master at the local grammar school, treasurer at the village church, sidesman, a minor pillar of the establishment. Back then, Squire, Vicar and Teacher were seen as on a par. Leaving school at 14, he had worked his way up through evening classes to qualify as a teacher. He served in the Air Force in the War, travelling Europe as an airframe fitter, marrying my mother when 28, in 1940, before he left the UK. Just after the War he matriculated and was working for an external degree from London University, which he really wanted but had to cease this because my Mother was involved in a serious road accident.
When my own children, Jenny and Sarah, were born I was still in my early thirties. I had left public school (sent there at my father's wish) with A-Levels, had my first degree and some professional qualifications under my belt. I had married at 23 and had not been in a war. Our lives had, thankfully, been accident-free. I was in many ways a different man from him .. perhaps just what he wanted.
My father, 'Dad' hereon in, is said to have wanted a girl. He could have had a girl, for he sought a ready-made child, of which many of both sexes were available for adoption back then. However, he seems also to have wanted to imitate nature as much as possible – just take what fate threw up. Fate threw up a little boy in a Children's Society Home, previously neglected by Foster Parents and 'rescued' by observant social workers at the age of about a year. (Those were the days ?)
Dad did not treat me like a girl. Neither did he treat me quite like a boy. He was the world's worst sportsman, totally uncoordinated when it came to ball games. So incapable was he, he told me, that when ordered to throw a grenade during basic wartime training he protested. 'Just get on with it Pearson !' roared the Sergeant. Dad feebly tossed the grenade about ten feet, just over the parapet. Never did six men drop to the ground so fast! So, from the start, there was very little football or cricket on the lawn for me, and I being an only child there was no one else to teach me. His interest in sport generally, the things that others did, was lukewarm. In Doncaster, his home town, we did occasionally go to see Doncaster Rovers, though with no real appreciation of the finer points. Similarly, we made a couple of visits to Headingly to see Yorkshire play – more because Dad was a staunch Yorkshireman than anything and because his lifelong best friend, an honorary 'uncle' of mine, was a paid-up member (his own sons keen cricketers, county trials material). He did once try to teach me chess for about a year. Every Saturday though, after we had worked together in the garden, he and I would watch the wrestling together – a strange liking on his part, for such a gentle man.
It is pointless now to reflect on whether I wanted sons or daughters. I suppose that, our first child having been a girl, a boy would have been a 'tidy' second. But did I, could I, know how to bring up a son ? Being adopted I cannot blame Dad's genes for my inability at cricket or (what I was initially made to play at school) rugby – 'rugger' –, but I was seriously short of a role model. I took instead to swimming ( a softy sport – lots of nice warm water instead of cold wet mud as on the rugger field ) and because of that I suppose steered Jenny into learning quite soon, and working at it hard. So, by the age of ten or eleven she was swimming for Newcastle, and I, proud father ferrying her to 5.30 a.m. training sessions.
Dad, it has to be said, gave me swimming, paying for lessons when I was eight. He delivered me to the council pool, came back for me at the end and bought me Bovril from the machine. He took me to public sessions until I could go on my own – he plodding along (if you can plod through water) by means of a slow 'doggy paddle' or equally sedate breaststroke. Still, he was not there to enjoy it or to get fit. He was there for me. Dad also gave me London. After seemingly endless years of summer time abandonment he took me, for my tenth birthday, to 'do' the Capital. This included a live performance of Pickwick Papers starring Harry Secombe, then it was home again via a late train. He showed me all he could.. Buckingham Palace, Horse Guards, Big Ben. In Leicester Square, after the show, we had roast chestnuts. And so, I was hooked. Mum came along, but it felt like his London.
I have taken both my daughters, usually as a pair. We have been to Cats and all that. I have tried to enthuse them with the hidden byways I have myself discovered over the past 40 plus years, but usually they have had eyes chiefly for the shops. Last year, to my delight, Jenny was walking with me along a small street behind Admiralty Arch when, having paused to read a blue plaque on the wall, she suddenly remarked that she loved all the history. Bingo ! Another generation on whom it will not all be lost perhaps?
Home life throughout my schooldays was calm, safe, middle class – dull I suppose by today's standards. God was in his heaven and all was well with the world. Dad went off on his bicycle to school each day to teach. I remember crying with frustration at being rejected by junior school due to my late-in-the-year birthday. Dad went off to school each day so I wanted to. Mum was a pretty standard fifties housewife, didn't go anywhere, having left work to marry and developing no career. My parents entertained very little ( a fact which Dad later blamed on my mother, who lacked all confidence in this field) and they had very few friends in the village. I had few cousins, most of whom, due to my parents' age, were in their twenties before I was really conscious of them. I had few friends in the village either, due in part to my parents setting themselves a bit above the folk on the council estate (boys from which roamed the village on their bikes) but due mainly to my attending a small private school in the town rather than the local primary. I was driven there by my Dad until I was seven or so, after which I myself cycled daily. I had one school friend who also lived in the village and we were fairly inseparable through my time there. He and I would cycle to Cubs together. I had maybe three other friends in those days, who went to my school but lived in the town. We saw little of one another 'out of hours'.
I think I have been able to do better than that. I cannot claim to be a great socialite and have no famous 'contacts', but both my wife and I have been active in politics (in a minor local way) and church as well as through our differing work and professional associations. So, the house has been a place of comings and goings of all sorts. I think that both my daughters have gained confidence and distinct personalities through mixing easily with doctors, lawyers, architects ... everyone. As we have had friends of all ages and social classes they are able to relate to more folk than I would ever have known existed. I have always tried to get them involved, join the Brownies and so on, and find friends they would bring home for tea, 'sleepovers' and the like. They have had many birthday parties whereas I myself can remember only two. I left school in York, where we eventually lived, having made one 'best friend'. Jenny left Newcastle having made about thirty !
What else can I say in the remaining words left to me. I could talk of my father's sensible attitude to drinks and smoking . He was into neither in a serious way. There was a drinks cupboard at home occupied by bottles which seldom saw the light of day except at Christmas. He never smoked during my lifetime. I was never actively banned from either. He taught me the law and let me judge what was right. He knew I am sure that I tried smoking, with others, when 13 or 14. He saw that I did not like it and did not take it up. There were times when I was in my later twenties and on a visit 'home' that he and I would walk around to the local hotel for some rather forced bonhomie over a pint or two. Not even his time in the Air Force had taught him to enjoy it there. In similar vein I have not been heavy-handed with my daughters, and perhaps as a consequence neither smoke, neither is into drugs and neither is anywhere like verging on alcoholism, as are so many of 'the young' nowadays.
What was all this about? Understanding my own father ? Trying to imitate what I saw as his good qualities as I brought up my own children ? You may have wondered, if you have stuck it this far, what it all to do with being adopted. Was my relationship with Dad any different because he adopted me? Have I acted any differently as a father myself from what might otherwise have been ? For his own reasons he gave me immense, unselfish love and companionship (which is not the same as money) – and all the opportunities and successes he never had and which, by the time he had me, he could just about afford. I like to think. Unlike me, he never lost his temper over anything.
I have tried to do the same for my own children and with the occasional improvement even, but perhaps less unselfishly, and hope that they are coming to value my love and company as much as my money. He was old by today's standards and somewhat set in rather sedate ways. This taught me, I hope, that there was rather more to life than simply going out and having fun. It was never a secret that I was adopted and I suppose that I always felt, a bit at least, that I owed my parents something in return, and so perhaps behaved more gratefully than I might have.
In October 1996, that 'train' left for the last time and this time it really did take my Daddy away. When my father did die, in fact, I did not cry – not as forlornly as a child at least, for he had suffered increasingly from Alzheimer's and so to all intents and purposes he was already lost to me. If I have succeeded with my own daughters' upbringing, and if I get to be a wise but doting grandfather ever, as he eventually did, then much of him still lives on. So, something I never really took the chance to say: 'Thanks Dad !'
John Pearson teaches construction Studies at the University of Northumbria. he is Chair of SOF Board of Trustees.