My dad was a painter and decorator whose mother died of TB when he was five, a year after he and his older and younger sister were taken away from her and sent to live with other relatives. He discovered that she lived for another year after he had last seen her eight years ago and was devastated by the fact. Recently he told me that he remembered one hug from her when he climbed into her bed and she held him to her for a brief, long remembered, precious moment. He went to five different primary schools, never knew security, was left with different relatives whilst his father went to London in the War. His big sister died of TB aged thirteen, his baby sister was the subject of a custody battle and he didn’t see her or any members of his maternal family until his fifties.
He grew up during the war and went to serve in the army in Hong Kong and to marry my mum who came from a large family in which, as the youngest she was her father’s pet and the scapegoat of her older sister and mother because of it. She was sexually abused by her brother and his friends, had her plaits cut off whilst she slept, never owned her own toothbrush and had a complete set of false teeth from the age of eighteen.
My father’s father remarried and had other children, my step-uncles, who were closer to us in age than my dad. We felt somehow that we weren’t quite part of that family but had no idea why. When my nan died she left all of her jewellery to her eldest grand-daughter, I wasn’t shocked to realise that that wasn’t me.
My mum’s brother remarried and we had a rare family gathering at the wedding during which my mum was cornered and beaten up by her sister and niece whilst the other family members looked on. My brothers had to step in and stop the abuse.
My family was the five of us. We didn’t really spend time as a family with a larger community apart from the football club my dad started for my brother to join. We were insular, there were no dinner parties, no birthday parties, no one came to tea (dinner), there were no joint holidays with other parents, no holidays actually because they just didn’t see the point. We worked, they worked, all the time, everyday. A full day’s work and cobbles in the evenings and weekends, an industrial sewing machine in the corner of the living room to raise the money for a deposit for a house with a field at the back, bikes for passing the 11+ so we could cycle to school, no pocket money just an occasional pound sent our way when the pressure from us became too much.
Fast forward to a week ago when my father and I argued about the votes we were about to cast. He sat in his chair where he spends his days now, body exhausted by the demands of physical work he has placed on it all his life, and told me that immigration was the source of all the ills my children were experiencing. That he could count on a job and an apprenticeship when he was younger, that migrants had driven down the costs of work in the building trade and priced ‘us’ out of the market. That the reasons he couldn’t get an appointment at the doctors was because Hungarians and Romanians had taken them all first.
I told him the figures were false, that he was being fed lies and an easy scapegoat by politicians out for their own self-engrandisement, that he was about to be part of doing our country potentially irrepairable damage by voting to leave the EU. His last comment was that he was ‘taking back control’. He seemed to have regained some of the strength and power that recent years had stripped from him for a moment. I noticed it as I told him that I was ashamed of his racism, that this was not how he had brought me up to think.
The next morning when I picked him and my mum up to go shopping he seemed smaller. The power and energy of the previous day had fled leaving him shadowy and unsure. We didn’t speak about the result until it was time to leave when I said ‘Dad you were sold a pile of lies and you bought it, the country you wanted back does not exist any longer, you will not be better off and you potentially will be worse off for some time. Me and my kids are now going to have to try to clear up this mess.’
And then I hugged him, because I understood why he did it. I understood the long trail of uncertainty, lack of love, and insecurity that led to him feeling that this decision was the right one for him and for me and my kids. That his need to hold on, to create safety for his own kind could enable him to overlook the wider impact and larger picture and vote from that venal part of him.
I don’t respect his decision. I do respect his right to make it. I do not like the results of it and I have the right to be angry about this awful mess, but he is still my dad and always will be.