When I think back on it now, when I was growing up there’s two things that were really hard for me to tell my parents. The first was: ‘Hey Mum and Dad, so we’re getting sex education at school.’
And the second was, ‘I love you.’
A bit of background. I interviewed my dad in 1997, two years before he died. Or at least, I tried to: “Wait a minute. I just want to get clear here, what is this going to be used for? … Wait a wee minute ‘till we talk about this.”
He wasn’t keen on the idea, I had no clue what I was doing, really, and so I ended up with only fifteen minutes of his voice on tape. We were sitting at the foot of the kitchen table, with Mum ironing in the background. She had 12 kids, I’m number 10. And she ironed a lot.
“Hello Dominic. How are you? When are you taking that beard off?”
My beard was an eternal preoccupation of hers.
“What do you want me to tell you?” she asked.
“Well, tell me what you were going to tell me there,” I said.
“You ask the question.”
“Right, well how did you and dad meet?”
Getting Mum to talk was easy. She’d tell you she had nothing to say and then she’d talk for an hour. And she was full of mischief – she’d cheat at cards. She’d deny it. And then she’d say something like, “You’re not too old for a slap on the ear you know you cheeky article.”
But Dad was different. For one thing, he was born in 1916. He was 14 years older than Mum, and by the time I went to university in 1986, he was already seventy years old, and still working.
And then there was “the Irish question.” The capital-T Troubles were a sort of constant background noise when we were growing up. Thirty odd years of – what? Civil war-like violence? And armed troops on the streets. So Dad was careful about what he’d say, and who he’d say it to. Growing up a Catholic in Northern Ireland, his experience and his father’s experience taught him that saying the wrong thing could get you into bother.
I’d go off on a teenage tirade about something Maggie Thatcher had done and Mum and Dad’s response was always, ‘Don’t you be saying.’ Or as the folk song from the time had it:
‘Whatever you say, say nothing/
When you talk about you know what/
Cos if you know who should hear you/
You know what you’ll get.’
The only time I ever say my dad cry was when his brother died.
And I remember seeing him walking down the corridor in the hospital, and tears were streaming down his face. And I’d never seen that before. And it was amazing. It was like he was revealed to me, in a way, that he’d never been before.
Dad sat at the same place at the table every mealtime, had a half glass of milk with his dinner, wore a tie most days and was evangelical in his belief that a good education was the road to decent life. And he said things like, “Van Morrison? Mlergh lergh mleragh. I wouldn’t go to the back door to see him.”
Count John McCormick, the legendary Irish tenor, was more his cup of tea. A man who, as Dad never tired of reminding us, was a ‘papal count.’
So, dad never once told me – “I love you.” He was a generation and a half distant from me, and he never had to say it. It was evidenced by the roof over our heads and the groceries that were delivered in a cardboard box from McLister’s every Friday night, in the color TV that arrived one Saturday afternoon, and the money that was somehow scraped together to pay for a school trip for one of my sisters, or my first guitar, a black Harmony Sovereign with no bridge bought from Harry Mulholland for fifty pounds.
So saying “I love you” – it didn’t matter to my dad, it wasn’t important at all to him. What mattered was what you did.
At some point, though, the idea took root in my head that was important me say, ‘I love you’ to him. And there’s a whole lot of different reasons why that generational change happened.
I’ve a notion that it had something to do with living in cold, dark Northern Ireland watching a lot of American TV where people said stuff like that. And somehow it became important to name the emotions that you were feeling in a way that was unthinkable – or unnecessary - a generation before.
So anyway, fast-forward a few years. I’m thirty years old, I’m going back to Scotland after the Christmas holidays, and Dad’s giving me a lift back to the boat. It's half six in the morning, it’s cold and damp, and I’m hung over.
We get to the ferry terminal - I did this journey a lot and that ferry terminal is engraved in my brain. I mean, I can summon up a picture of that place and I feel almost like I’m back there. And we’re having a cup of tea, we’re sitting in these white plastic chairs, then the shop shutter behind us rattles open and I go in and buy the papers: a Guardian for me, the Irish News for dad. And then it’s time for me to get going.
So I gather up my stuff and we make our way over to the line to go through security. And as usual I’m not quite sure whether me and Dad are going to hug or we’re going to shake hands or what. So we do this odd little shimmy and then we do a wee bit of both. It’s like half hug, half shake hands, and he slips a twenty pound note into my hand, which is something he always did.
“Buy yourself something on the boat,” he says.
“Thanks Dad. Thanks for driving me.”
“Ach sure, it gets me up for Mass.'
And then at the age of thirty, I say it at last.
“I love you, Dad.”
And he sort of makes this strange little sound like a ‘weargh’ – and he sort of laughs and says:
‘Same to you.’
And away he goes through the sliding doors, back home along the coast road to home, and a cup of tea and ten o’clock Mass. And I go through security, up the escalator and onto the boat.
My Mum, by the way, when I eventually got up the courage to say to her, ‘I love you,’ just said:
‘Aye, and sure why wouldn’t you?’
Dominic Black is a writer and radio producer based in Seattle.