Dad died today
I took the phone call in Mrs Haggar’s front room at my digs in Acton. Dad had been ill for years and suffered a heart attack just before Christmas. He was at home and suffered another a few weeks later but he died when he was taken to Selly Oak Hospital by ambulance.
Dad’s death was half-expected but it was still a shock; I cried. I went to Birmingham immediately and he was cremated at Lodge Hill Cemetery a few days later. I was now the man of the house although how I was to fulfil that role from over 100 miles away was not explained.
In our largish, overcrowded, working class family we were not used to expressions of emotion. Dad epitomised this as the head of the family, the breadwinner; Mom was not expected to work but to ensure that we were brought up efficiently and obediently. Dad inspired respect rather than love; I could not admit how much I cried at my loss.
We had watched Dad suffer for several years. His arteries must have been clogged after years of smoking Woodbines and food fried in lard. He became short of breath and heaving crates of milk as a milkman became difficult. He took easier jobs, as a warehouseman in one of the new supermarkets and then worked in Lewis Woolf’s factory making rubber goods. These jobs did not last and, needing a sedentary occupation, he became a microscopist at Cadbury’s. It was his job to check the size of chocolate powder before it was used to make Dairy Milk.
He had shoulder pain which he treated with Elliman’s Universal Embrocation; sometimes I had to help with the application and I can still remember the smell. His medication involved doses of Warfarin, a blood thinning agent originally used as rat poison, which was remarked on with some humour.
We were expected to tone down our natural rebelliousness in case we upset our Dad and triggered a heart attack. This was difficult for us four teenagers who found it easier to avoid being at home. Even when he was ill we always deferred to him. There were tense times when sometimes we miscalculated.
Dad’s death was a loss but with growing up and trying to find our own place in the world, the family readjusted. My sisters were building their own families; I had left home. I was glad to relinquish being man of the house when I tried to admonish my younger brother for some misdemeanour and found myself looking up at a burly fifteen-year-old rugby player.
I wished I could stay with Mom but I had to go back to London. If she said anything or showed emotion I was not there to witness it. Her life’s work, looking after Dad and us, was coming to an end. I did notice a void, sad-eyed expression but with her burdens lifted she began to relax.
Back in London I felt that emptiness which comes when one of the greatest influences on your life suddenly ends. It does not matter if that influence was benign or the opposite; I was adrift. I slowly realised that I was now my own person; I just didn’t yet know what that might mean.
I share the same regret we all do that I never talked to our Dad. I did not know what he did in the war although he was a soldier for its whole six years; I did not know how he felt about it. I did some research at the National Archives in Kew, the Army Museum in Chelsea and the Regimental Museum in York but it was all about his regiment and did not mention subaltern Corporal Perry.
Dad was a stamp collector; I inherited his collection of tens of thousands of stamps. I could not maintain it so I decided to concentrate on an appropriate smaller collection: the stamps of George VI. Because he was the head of the British Empire, this means a collection of stamps from some 70 countries from Aden to Zanzibar.
I sold the other stamps and tried to fill the gaps in the collection. I am still adding to it but this remains a memorial to Dad and a family heirloom.
1936 Soldier / 1940 Wedding day / 1967 Grandchildren
Harold Ernest Perry
1912 – 1968