July 19, 2013 6:46 pm

Robert Shrimsley: Why the past still looms large

‘Do the dead cling on to us or, rather, do the living cling on to the dead?’
A father and his son. Illustration by Lucas Varela©Lucas Varela

It was as I got to the bit about my father that I felt myself beginning to choke up. This was immediately compounded by irritation that such a display of emotion would be bathed in the clucking sympathy of those watching. The annoyance, of course, deepened the difficulties, so the resulting words must have come out with all the coherence of a Saturday night drunk suddenly compelled to declare his feelings for his mates.

The occasion was the boy’s bar mitzvah and I had decided to present him with my late father’s prayer shawl. This was only the second thing of my father’s I had ever given the boy, the first being his name. Given that Dad had been dead for nearly 30 years, that the shawl was never very important to either him or me and that I’m a fairly fervent atheist, I had not expected the handover to be particularly emotionally charged. It turned out I had miscalculated.

It was not intended to be like this. I was going to stand up, hand over the schmutter and commandingly deliver a few brief and stylish remarks. But that’s the thing about parents. Even when they are dead they can still embarrass you. I managed to hold back tears but the catch in my throat was unmistakable. My voice breaking, I struggled through and slunk back to my chair, seething at myself. Afterwards, relatives quickly voiced their approval at this “touching” interlude, which naturally made the whole thing worse.

I really had expected my father to stop being so troublesome by now. It wasn’t his style to intrude like this and it is not as if there was some outstanding business between us. No catharsis was required. What’s more, this was his second intrusion of the week. The next thing I know someone will be singing “Unchained Melody” as I sit at the keyboard typing.

A few days before the service I received an invitation to an event which, within my profession, carries a fair amount of cachet and is known to be fun. But it came from a source my father loathed and which had caused no small amount of misery to him and his friends so, after a brief attempt to rationalise how I might attend, I politely declined.

DH Lawrence once observed that the trouble with the dead was that they refused to die: “They cling on to the living, and won’t let go.” I first found these words not so long after Dad’s death and, to a young man in his mid-twenties still struggling with the loss of a much-loved father, they seemed immensely profound. Now I’m not so sure. Do the dead cling on to us, or rather do the living cling on to the dead?

So many years have gone by that I can no longer even hear his voice accurately. I remember his face but it is frozen in the photos, rather than animated at some moment in our lives. I can recall many happy times but they are all impressionistic. That’s the problem with the teenage years; you never bother to take in the detail that you don’t realise is going to be important to you later.

So how do we cling on to those who are long gone? By forcing them back in. By putting pictures on our desks, by almost unconsciously inventing emotional moments to mourn them or by declining invitations so we can honour them. With time, grief becomes manageable but sometimes you have to allow the sadness back because you should never entirely stop missing those you loved.

These are the moments we weave around our lives. With time, the inconsistencies are lost, memories are magnified so good parents become perfect. As John Irving puts it in The Hotel New Hampshire: “So we dream on. Thus we invent our lives. We give ourselves a sainted mother; we make our father a hero. We invent what we love and what we fear. We dream on and on: the best hotel, the perfect family … but our dreams escape us almost as vividly as we can imagine them.”

And so I imagine my father reading this piece and I hear him speaking, though somehow he sounds like me: “This is all very nice of you but isn’t this column meant to be funny?”

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

Twitter @robertshrimsley

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