The answers to some questions float just out of reach through and beyond childhood before parenthood shocks you into the necessity of sharpening up your act when an inquisitive toddler asks you, “Why/what/where/who is that, dad?”
Such questions can range from mildly curious inquiries into phenomena as the composition of rainbows, and the tendency of boats to float on water as against the inevitability of stones sinking—relatively easily explained; thank you, Wikipedia—up to more urgent demands for satisfaction on the stickier issues, of why you are working late (again), and why shops close down (a common one in Ireland, that, these days).
Then of course, there are those moments when you are asked to turn one single, jam-slicked block of Lego into a dinosaur; or draw a picture of Buzz Lightyear on a broken MagnaDoodle with a stylus a quarter-inch in diameter.
There is also the expectation that you can do anything. One of my eldest son Tom’s first almost coherent sentences was: “I break it; dad fix it.”
It’s particularly at moments like these that I think about my own dad, Eric. The remarkable thing about Eric Watterson is that he would be entirely unfazed by the challenge of constructing a Millennium Falcon, a Dalek, or some other space-age gizmo with which he had no familiarity whatsoever, out of the most basic and limited resources.
It’s something that he’s done throughout his life. Dad made a guitar, when he was little more than ten years old, for his little brother Ben, when Ben was a toddler. Ben still plays guitar and a variety of stringed instruments to this day.
Later in life, after he and mam bought their first house, dad pretty much gutted the ground floor of the building, knocking two rooms into one for an extensive kitchen/dining room, and at the rear of the house, built a shed, fully wired, with its own toilet and wash-hand basin, and plumbed it for a washing machine. He also constructed a permanent glasshouse in which he grew his own tomatoes, and provided it with a covered outdoor seating area, complete with an ornamental traditional fireplace that had a replica forged iron crane and pot. He decorated the outside of the glasshouse with dozens of scallop shells that he collected from a beach in County Donegal.
From mixing concrete to stripping apart a faulty iron to mend it and rebuild it again, it seemed there was nothing he couldn’t do.
Sadly I inherited none of his impressive skills in handiwork. However, I may have picked up some of his more artistic impulses. He’s one of those people who can sit down and pick out a tune on a piano, even though he has had no formal tuition, and I remember well the huge piano accordion that he used to pick up from time to time to pump out a melody.
Even though dad reads the newspaper every day, I’ve rarely seen his with a book in his hand. However, one of his party pieces when I was young was to recite ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’ and ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ by Robert Service from memory. It was my introduction to iambic pentameter. Where he learnt those poems from I have no idea, but it’s probably my earliest memory of poetry. And listening to his fellow County Derry man Seamus Heaney reading his own poetry always connects me with those impromptu Service workshops from many years ago.
Sometimes all of these memories collide, as memories often will, in a sound or a sensation in an entirely unexpected context. I’ve tried in vain to persuade my sister of my, admittedly whimsical, view that Robbie Robertson of The Band somehow channeled the sound of my dad digging potato drills into what sounds like a tambourine shiver and tap in the chorus of ‘Tears of Rage’. Well, actually, it is a tambourine, but every time I hear the song, it stops me in my tracks, because somehow it is the sound of my dad slicing through the soil in the flowerbeds and gently shaking it out, before slicing into the earth again, in a steady rhythm.
I don’t really know what any of this tells you about my dad. There’s a great song by the Wexford artist Pierce Turner, called ‘You Can Never Know’, from his brilliant 1988 albumThe Sky And The Ground. The song is about how difficult it is to put another person in your shoes; to convey to another person the emotions you experience in particular situations. The song begins with the narrator driving along listening to Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ (“It felt so good to hear those coloured girls sing”) before he tells us how we can never know what it’s like to experience his childhood memories of standing in a church “full of boy sopranos singing ‘Faith of our Fathers’ at the top of our hearts” (“It felt so good to hear those choir voicings”, he sings, echoing the famous Reed lyrics); before the barriers to understanding melt away in a triumphant climax as he sings the hymn’s refrain straight: “Faith of our fathers! Holy faith! We will be true to thee til death.” For me—and I’ve had almost violent disagreements with people about this—it’s one of the most profoundly moving moments in late 20th century popular music.
Seeing the man perform this song in Whelan’s in Dublin, solo, was simply amazing. In live performance, rather than the polished persuasion of the studio version, the closed door of the title was gleefully kicked open by Turner, as he jumped onto pint-strewn tables to belt out this 19th century hymn, leading the dozens of people in the audience in euphoric accompaniment. In the live setting, it was as if Turner decided that if, indeed, we can never know what that childhood memory truly felt like, then so what? He would give us the next best thing, and make us feel it through music.
For me, the killer bit in that song is in the lead-up to the climax, when he talks about his father, standing in the church with him on that day. “My father’s hand on my shoulder, nicotine-stained index finger, big and rough, but love can’t always be articulate…”
I’ve shared many of those moments, what Van Morrison would refer to as the “inarticulate speech of the heart” times with my dad, especially in childhood, and unfortunately with much less frequency these days. He took me to my very first football match on a foggy St Stephen’s Day (I think it was at Glentoran, but it was an awfully long time ago); indulged my every request to make things; endured my complete and utter failure to grasp the principles of algebra, of which, naturally, he has an instinctive understanding to rival that of any mathematics teacher; taught me to drive; and he let me ride ‘shotgun’ with him every weekend and on school holidays on his rounds for the Mother’s Pride and then Golden Crust bakeries, for whom he was a delivery man for 10 years or so. He even helped me write a poem about my hometown, Antrim, for a homework exercise assigned by some sadist of a primary school teacher. Actually, he didn’t help me. He just wrote it. “Antrim was a little town, there wasn’t many stores; but many buildings have sprung up, the population’s soared,” went the opening. “The Bluebird Café in the Square, and Craig’s the cobblers, too / have vanished from the local scene; I don’t know what we’ll do,” was another couplet. Alas, the rest is lost in the mists of time.
He’s always been there for me, and has picked me up and dusted me down and set me off again, probably many more times than I’ve deserved.
And as I think of him on this Father’s Day, particularly now when I’ve had the pleasure of watching him get to know my own sons, Tom, and his little twin brothers Charlie and Joe, all I can say is that if they learn as half as much from me as I’ve learnt from him, I’ll be a happy man. And if they don’t, they have the fortunate consolation of a granddad who can actually turn a single block of Lego in something that might meet, or even exceed, their wildest imaginings.
Happy Father’s Day, dad.