I didn’t find my dad a particularly easy man. He could be fun, full of beans and brimming with jokes, face alive with mischief. But he could be the opposite too – sometimes he didn’t get out of bed all day and on that sort of day his presence was a black, dead space in the house, sucking everything into it. As an adult, I can see he struggled with mental health at a time when it wasn’t easy to say so. As a child I felt unsettled by the uncertainty and anxious about the shouting. As I got older I sometimes dreaded going home because of him.
But when he died eight years ago, I stopped seeing him as the person he was at a single moment in time and saw what he really was – all of those things together at once. The cheeky, slightly vulnerable little boy whose socks were falling down, the dad who always had an irrepressible joke in his eyes, a man with insatiable intellectual curiosity who was haunted by a black dog, an older man who’d somehow found patience and acceptance of a kind.
Since then I try, when I look at the people I love, to remind myself that the here and now is just one piece of a puzzle that makes up the whole of them. I look at Bert’s less and less round cheeks and the disappearing dimples on his hands and try to remember that the cuddly toddler will always be in there somewhere. I hope I live long enough to see as many of the pieces of his puzzle as I can, but I imagine that, in all of them, there’ll be glimpses of the focused earnestness and wild, cackling showmanship I see now.
Bert’s dad was already a father to two children when I met him, so it’s hard for me to imagine him as anything else – as Bert dictated for his Fathers Day card, ‘Dad loves children and children love Dad’. Whispered schemes about chocolate and wild wrestling matches seem as much an intrinsic part of him as Arsenal and the necessity to try on fifteen different shirts before going out. Of course there are many parts to the jigsaw puzzle that is him, but I think there’s a little corner of the picture of a dad on all of them.
As a society, we can be unnuanced in what we ask of our dads – that they accept fatherhood unquestioningly but don’t grieve the lack of it, that they’re always one-dimensionally fun and high-energy, and that they wear uncomplainingly the slightly hands-off and a bit useless persona. But I do know men who’d have been great dads who aren’t parents and may be sad about it, I know dads who are the cooks and the tear-wipers and dads who are the carers.
I made this raspberry pudding in a rush last week to follow the coq au vin (mushroom au vin for me) that Bert’s dad had spent the afternoon making. Normally I’d have tried to think of something that might spruce it up a little (it’s a bit of a plain cake) – white chocolate chips, lemon, coconut? – but I was in a hurry so this is what we had, with custard.
1 punnet of raspberries
1 tablespoon soft brown sugar
1/2 cup of soft butter
3/4 cup of golden caster sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups plain flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup whole milk
Pre-heat the oven to 180. Toss the raspberries with the soft brown sugar in a 20cm round cake tin.
Beat together the sugar and butter till light and fluffy – as long as your arm can bear it or about 5 minutes in a mixer. Add the eggs and vanilla. Gently fold through the flour and baking powder then add the milk.
Bake for 30-40 minutes till golden brown and firm. Serve, warm, with cream, icecream or custard. Good the next day too. What cake isn’t?
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