Appearing in Chicago’s ‘Irish American News’ of June 2017


Did I realise how important they were then?  Those rituals, those ‘rites of passage’ from father to son ’way back in the 60s and early 70s.  As a kid, did I place much stock in them?

Yes, I think so.  At some, not fully mature level – whatever that is – I guess that I did.  After all, they were important enough to help shape me into what I am now.  At least, the good parts of me; the bad parts came from other influences, certainly not my dad.  And he would never have thought of them as ‘rites of passage’.  He left school at 13 to work down the mines, which he hated; and later, to escape the pits he joined the navy.

He was a great reader, my dad, which he passed onto me.  And he was self-educated; the best kind of education, I sometimes think.  I suppose he thought of those rituals as just something that, as a father, you did.

I’ve been thinking of him a lot this week: my dad and the importance of communication, verbal and non-verbal.  It’s probably because I had been on the Darkness into Light walk, which was raising money to help in suicide prevention.  There was a lot spoken that morning on the necessity for communication.

He wasn’t a man for the pub, my dad.  So my later weakness in that direction didn’t come from him, that’s for sure.  Any free time he had, we were bundled into the car and off somewhere – if not to the beach on a sunny day, then it was to enjoy glorious Nature, which he had a great love for.  Some of my happiest memories are walks with him through the woods whilst he pointed out, in his infectiously enthusiastic way, something that he found of interest.

And he tried to teach me a bit about patience, since I was at that innocent time a young man in a hell of a hurry.

He took myself and my brothers fishing.  And we needed a lot of patience for that, as I don’t recall us ever being great shakes at catching much.  Yet I still remember fishing with great affection.  In fact, to this day one of my favourite movies remains Robert Redford’s majestic love-song to the pastime/sport, A River Runs Through It.  There was a great father in that one, too.  And as with the country walks, perhaps it was the conversations we had; or sometimes it was the comfortable, companionable silence.  That can be communicating, too.

When it came to putting together Airfix model kits, patience also came into it.  I still wince when I remember an early disaster.  It was the simple-to-put-together Aurora model of the Frankenstein Monster lumbering past a gravestone.  In my hurry, I didn’t wait to paint the damned thing and trying to do so after it was built didn’t produce the best results.

So when we arrived at the more complicated kits I was glad of his advice on taking the time to paint the individual pieces first – and do it next to an open window in case I ended up high as a kite.

On an island off the west coast of Scotland I learned how to ride a bicycle:  one moment he seemed to have his hand on me and the next I was flying along, strangely independent of him for the first time.

It was a kind of discipline that he was teaching – as he did when he insisted I work as a van boy with him on Saturdays. (And boy, did I resent giving up my Saturday!)  He was a van salesman at that point, selling bread and cakes to the small villages in the country, before the new supermarkets made dinosaurs of such men.  But resent or no, if I wanted the money to build those kits or buy that book then I had to work for it.

And what a great deal I would now give to have just one of those days to live over again, if only for the sandwich breaks.  A flask of hot soup and cheese-and-ham sandwiches made up by my mum in the morning.  With a bit of Branston’s Pickles spread over them.  Nothing ever tasted as good again – except for maybe tomato-and-sand ones on the beach.  Or a can of tomato soup with mashed potatoes dunked in it when money was short.  Bloody gorgeous.

And sitting eating them, again either that cosy silence or dad answering some of my many questions.

And of course, the Big Ritual:  some years later and the day he decided it was time for my first shave.  Hell’s fire, the excitement as he showed me how to lather up and go with the grain.  I only had to do it once a week but of course I couldn’t wait.  I try now to recall those days on mornings when I look at my wrinkled face in the mirror and think what a pain-in-the-ass shaving is!

Back in the present day, for the last while I’ve been volunteering a few hours each week in a charity shop connected to ‘Hand in Hand’, the children’s cancer charity.  It’s been quite an eye-opener for me, since I’ve never had much to do with kids, to see the way some of their parents let them behave.  And it’s made me wonder if those old rituals – those corny old rituals – are observed at all any longer.

Manners certainly seem to be a thing of the past.  As does waiting for or earning something.  Maybe I’ve just been unlucky with the parents I’ve observed, but it seems that what the rude little darlings ask for, the rude little darlings get.

My dad is gone now, these many years, but I wonder what he would have made of them.  It seems to me that these emotionally absentee parents are making rods for both themselves and society in years to come.

You even go to a First Communion – ostensibly a ritual where the emphasis is supposedly religious – and it seems to be an exercise in making as much money as you can get out of it.  That doesn’t strike me as a healthy way to introduce kids to the world; and I think that we will all pay a price for that, one which isn’t monetary.

I’m sure that the idea of the family sitting down to a meal together in the evening is probably as extinct as those country van salesmen of my younger days – – but it was a good thing, it seems to me now.

We talked together.  Mum told us what she did that day; what neighbours she ran into; dad told us funny stories about characters he had met at work; we boys talked about school or with excitement about some football team.

Thing was, we talked.

With all of our wonderful technology, which in theory should be opening up the world to us, we seem instead to be becoming more insular, more self-obsessed.  I don’t want to do a Ray Bradbury on you and start yelling that ‘there are too many internets in the world!’  But even though dear old Ray mangled that a bit, I kind of know what he meant.

It might not do any harm to just put down that smart phone for a while and try…well, talking to each other again.

You never know.  You may just even like it.