In the run-up to Father’s Day I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the things I’ve learned from my dad. He is a complex person, and there have been times recently when I have found him hard to understand. We don’t always get on, but he has consistently been a steadfast presence in my life. I’m not talking about “cleanliness is next to godliness”, and “if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” – mottos I heard a million times when I was a kid. It’s not funny how often I want to repeat these to my own two girls! No, I’m talking of something deeper. I have learned truly important values. My upbringing has made me who I am in so many ways.
In his Father-of-the-Bride speech at my wedding he declared “people think marriages are made in heaven, but I strongly disagree. They are most definitely made here on earth and require hard work and patience.” When I was growing up so many of my school friends’ parents were divorced. I was almost in a minority of having married parents. Of course there were the usual disagreements and rows, and during the hard times of 1970’s Britain there were periods of awful stress and discord, but in my eyes the strength of my parents marriage was never in question. My dad truly believed in the ‘for better or for worse’ part of his marriage vows (obviously Mum did too), and it seems I have inherited this. Of course, love plays the starring role, but love isn’t always enough. You need to stubbornly stick at it through good times and not so good. It’s lucky Mr.B is as stubborn as me. We’ve recently celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary, and that’s not bad by today’s standards.
Born into a privileged, middle-class family, Dad didn’t excel academically and first joined the army and then the Hong Kong Police. Once it became evident that this avenue didn’t really suit, Dad returned to England and was adrift without a clear path. Although many of his career choices have been somewhat diverse, no-one could ever criticise Dad’s work ethic. Long hours and unfamiliar situations have never deterred him. During the terrible economic times of 1970’s Britain, and when his business went pear-shaped, he tried a string of random and peculiar ways of making ends meet. He bought and sold used cars at auction, designed and manufactured soft toys, he distributed household products as part of a pyramid scheme (well dodgy!), and bought a sandwich-making business (I was roped into that one during school holidays). I watched and learned, and during this time I took on a newspaper round aged 12, and graduated to working at the newsagent after school aged 13. When I was 14 I worked at a bakery on Saturdays and delivered soft drinks on the back of a truck, door-to-door for Dad’s business on Sundays. I learned that making the tea, packing boxes and taking out the bins should never be beneath anyone. I think living through that era taught me how to turn my hand to more or less anything, and the real meaning of hard work – lessons that would prove invaluable for my own business.
Since Dad hadn’t achieved much in his own education, he pushed his children hard at school. He wanted career choices for us, having not really had much direction in his own life. Having passed only two or three ‘O’levels himself, each of his four children went on to university and graduated with degrees in their chosen fields. Neither of our parents had a tertiary education. He seemed so strict at the time, but I think this was Dad’s greatest gift to us, that of a good education.
Dad inspired in me a great love of animals and the natural world, instilled in him by his father who was a country vet. One of my strongest memories of growing up is family holidays to Scotland, usually involving walking on the moors or in the forests. I especially remember one year at a place near Inverness in Scotland, Dad took us kids out one-by-one each morning for a dawn walk in the countryside. The time I went we saw bats against the dawn sky, and tracked red deer as we crept through the woods, close enough to almost feel their misty breath in the cool of the morning. I envied my sister, Mich, who saw a chattering and scolding red squirrel on her walk with Dad, so rare in the UK now. At home the family would crowd round the TV in the evenings, watching nature programmes such as The World About Us, Life on Earth and The Living Planet. To this day, I can identify wildlife and plants that I didn’t even know I knew, and I’m almost always right! Subliminal knowledge I guess.
As kids, we always had a myriad of pets at home, and Dad was usually the most enthusiastic of us all. We had cats, rabbits, guinea-pigs, hamsters, gerbils, fish and a budgie, pretty much simultaneously. When my brother was given two gerbils, Boris and Biddy, for his birthday, it was Dad that spent hours laying on his stomach watching them in their cage when they had their first litter of tiny, blind babies. He showed us how to be responsible for the care and love of all our little creatures. If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know where I get it from now.
Dad encouraged me to follow my dreams, and I never felt held back however far they may have led. I studied fashion instead of veterinary science (my plan A) and was never criticised. I moved to Hong Kong for a change of scene and stayed five years, following in the footsteps of Dad’s own youthful adventure. A friend who did the same reported her parents had begged her not to go. I moved further, to Australia, and was urged to grab the chance of a fabulous new life. He was proud and fascinated by my business venture with Edenstar, and the same with my sister’s jewellery business. I suppose he was leading by example when he took the plunge to turn from amateur photographer to professional, and realise his own dream. Never once has he suggested I stay home or make the more sensible choice. He has always seen my vision, and my life has been so much richer for it.
During the last few years things have sometimes been difficult between me and Dad. It’s been good to think things through while writing this post. I’ve realised that a successful life does not necessarily include financial wealth or a distinguished career. Close family and children who grow up with good values are surely the benchmark of success. When we’re caught up in the often harrowing feelings that family illnesses and ageing throw at us, it’s easy to get smothered by the bad and forget the good. Now it’s down in writing I’ll think more often of this precious legacy, and hope that as life pans out, my own daughters can learn valuable things from me too.
Happy Father’s Day Dad!
Family photos taken by Greg Morgan.