m  a  u  r  e  e  n    p  a  t  o  n

There are several ways of being a father, and biology is only a part of it. With the immortal words ‘I bet you wish you’d never met me’, my own birth father disappeared as soon as my mother told him she was pregnant. Into that man-sized breach stepped Ralph, who had just married my mother’s foster sister Ethel; I should explain that my mother had been fostered from babyhood after her own biological father had also done a disappearing act.

Ralph, or “Uncle” as I was encouraged to call him from the start,  was  a remarkable old man who offered Mum and me a home under his tiny roof till we could get a council place. Since we then found ourselves stuck on the waiting list for a decade, my formative years were very happily spent with Uncle and Aunty Ethel as they helped to bring me up while my mother was at work. When we finally got allocated a council flat a few miles up the road when I was 15, I hated the thought of having to move out and wept  buckets.

When we first went to live in Uncle’s house in 1956,  he was 65 years older than me.  At 55, Aunty wasn’t a lot younger; and Mum was 45,  which was considered elderly for the mother of a five-year old in those days. So it was hardly the most conventional family unit in the 1950s; and yet it worked.

There was a rumour in the family that Aunty had only agreed to make a late first marriage in her ‘50s and move to the other side of London on condition that she could bring my mother and me along too; she had retired early from work to help Mum look after me from babyhood. Yet Uncle fulfilled his side of the bargain so whole-heartedly that I came to realise the arrangement was as important to him as it obviously was to us. I was the daughter he had never had; he had two grown-up sons by his late first wife and two adored grandsons whom he didn’t see nearly as often as he would have liked. 

Uncle was a one-off. He combined socialism with spiritualism, telling me that hewould come back to visit me after he died to prove there’s an afterlife. I’m still waiting; I kept his old-fashioned gentleman’s wardrobe for years in the hope he would step out of it, Narnia-like, one day.  Before working as a factory supervisor and a council plumber, he had been a  cook in the British army  and even served in Afghanistan (regaling me with lots of gory tales and producing a photo of himself holding up a dead snake to

prove it) . So he did all the cooking and food-shopping in our  house, while Aunty did the housework and gardening. It’s impossible to over-emphasise how  unusual such a non-gendered division of household labour was in those days, but then Uncle was astonishingly ahead of his time in so many ways - especially in his enlightened attitude to women.

The journalist and broadcaster Nancy Spain was one of his heroes; he didn’t know that Nancy broke the mould for those times in more ways  than one by being gay, but that wouldn’t have bothered Uncle.

He had been very close to his mother, which usually bodes well for a man’s future relationships with women; and he brought up his sons  as a single father after his first wife died of cancer,  through which, typically, Uncle had nursed her till the end (that was where the spiritualism took hold, giving him much comfort). 

It was he who provided me with a role model of what a man could be.

There must be many other such wonderful men out there who have made all the difference to a fatherless child’s life. Yet although Uncle was a kind man, there was more to it than doing his moral duty.  It was only years later that  it dawned on me he wasn’t just being incredibly altruistic in taking another man’s unwanted/abandoned child to London art galleries and museums  throughout my childhood, starting with regular visits to the local public library which he called ‘the working classes’ university’.  I realised that I had fulfilled the vital role of companion/listener on this lifelong autodidact’s self-improving trips because his wife, my motherly Aunty who also saw me as the daughter she had never had,  showed no interest in the wider world beyond family, friends and her beloved Baptist church.

Don’t get me wrong: they were a very solid couple, totally devoted to each other. But  Aunty’s increasing deafness didn’t make her the ideal travelling companion; and though she was more aspirational – especially about  my education  -  than my insecure, rootless mother, her only books were melodramatic, moralistic novels like East Lynne.  Apart from an unfulfilled yearning to go to what she called the Holy Land, she had no particular desire to investigate different cultures - even in exhibitions.

And so, from the age of five, I became Uncle’s escort as much as he was mine as we travelled round London to see the sights.  Which included splendid Rubens nudes at the National Gallery as well as dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum or steam pumps at the Science Museum – all sorts.  Aunty would have had a fit if she’d known about  the nudes. Back at home, I would leaf  through Uncle’s books on travel, science, history, art and politics; apart from Dickens, he wasn’t a great fiction man. Facts mattered to him much more. The Labour posters would always go up in our windows at every election; and Uncle, a great admirer of the suffragettes, would talk to me like an adult about the men and women who had  fought for people’s rights. It all sounded very exciting and inspiring to me; a child makes a  wonderfully  receptive audience for anyone with a stirring story to tell.

Ralph and his sister Nelly had been born in dire  poverty in a London slum:  their father was a mad inventor who drank himself to death, hence Uncle’s lifelong teetotalism, including in the army where he made himself popular by always giving the other men his regimental Christmas dram.   Since Aunty had signed the pledge as a Baptist teenager not to drink alcohol, they were a well matched, clean-living couple.  They didn’t even drink at my degree-day ceremony, which a wobbly-legged Uncle insisted in attending on crutches; you couldn’t keep him away. He died three years later in full possession of his considerable marbles at the age of nearly 91, by which time I was almost expecting this indelible influence on my life to live for ever.

I should add a postscript about my birth father, whom I  tracked down nine months after his death. Which was perhaps for the best, because, as my husband pointed out, what was there to say to him beyond the obvious ‘how could you’? From my  cousin Josie, I discovered that he could have dearly done with a daughter in his old age. When Josie, a nun-mid wife who had worked abroad for years, was finally posted back to London by her Order, she realised that she had an uncle still living in Birmingham in an expatriate community of elderly Irishmen with no family around him. Since he had no one else to look out for him, she began to visit him regularly in what turned out to be the last few years of his life. It seems the old man was so grateful to see his niece that he would always escort her back  to the bus-stop to say a long goodbye. 

So it was Uncle got all the benefit of being a father to a daughter – while my birth father got none.  But as someone once remarked about runaway fathers, “They never think ahead to their old age when they do a bunk, do they?” Never in a million years would Uncle have left a woman in the lurch; in return, he got a child’s lifelong loyalty.  It was a pretty good bargain.

My Surrogate Father 11 March 2017

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