What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices? (Robert Hayden, 1985)
For as long as I have known anything, I have known that my paternal grandfather, Richard Radford-Hayden, lost both of his parents to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Orphaned together with his little brother, Harry, at a very young age, this lethal and mysterious virus brought to our shores by ships and which – for reasons we’ll never understand – targeted the young and healthy, constituted the dark backdrop of my father’s family history. It was the reason why everything went wrong: why my grandpa drank. Why money was scarce. Why he neglected his six children; showed contempt and indifference, at times incomprehensible cruelty towards the people he should have loved. The deep trauma and loss he experienced as a small boy lived in him all his life like a cancer, festering and growing, a black stain which would colour everything he touched.
It was the reason he could not show affection to his sensitive, intelligent, eldest son, my father. It was why he lashed out, spoke harshly, withheld love and approval. Disappeared, locked himself away, spent money he never had. In an attempt to heal the wounds inflicted on him by this damaged man my dad started writing my grandfather’s story. Teasing out the details of narratives he had heard again and again since boyhood; jotting everything down in his square, cursive hand before methodically typing it out. Therapy where the real thing was not an option for a man of his generation. When my grandpa died of a heart attack at the age of 83 – unceremoniously, in the bathroom of the tiny flat he shared with my granny while she waited in the kitchen for him to come and eat his lunch – my dad went through his affairs and found notes the old man had made for him, ‘for Errol so interested in this.’
From these notes and from his own, my dad – so interested in ‘this’, whatever ‘this’ may be – put it all together so that members of the next generation who happened to have an interest in our family history might know who Dick Hayden (so much less grand than the name he was christened with) was before he sat, small and shrunken in his armchair in the corner of the living-room, too old to get himself to the liquor store so he simply stopped drinking. Sometimes recalling the past caused tears to gather in his soulful brown eyes. I had never seen a grown man cry, least of all my father’s father. I would look away, at the profusion of purple violets my granny always had growing on her window-sill no matter where she lived.
“At any rate,” she would say in her husky, cigarette-voice to break the silence as all the things unsaid hung like smoke in the Sunday air. I was too young to understand the significance of the stories. Today I would listen more closely to how, one moment – his earliest memory of himself at the age of four – he was lying between his parents in their shiny, brass bed before breakfast, his mom with her long, dark hair plaited down her back, and seemingly the next he was in a house filled with sick and dying people. He and his grandfather – being very young and very old, respectively – were immune to the flu, and therefore the only ones well enough to care for the seven family members who had contracted the deadly disease. My grandpa Hayden remembered it like this:
“I lived in Port Elizabeth at the time. I was then aged 11, the eldest of five children. I remember that people dropped dead in the streets, died in trams and trains. All schools were closed, some being used as a form of hospital or soup kitchen, when gallant ladies accepted the job of delivering jugs of soup to many hundreds of homes and the Red Cross did wonderful work. This went on for many weeks until the disease passed on. Undertakers simply could not cope, and (…) the deceased were rolled up in blankets, many (…) left in trenches. Even now I suspect that was the fate of my parents. Our mother died on Sunday the 2nd of November, father the next Tuesday. I am convinced it was Providence that shielded Grandpa and me from that dreaded flu. With the whole family a-bed at the time, numbering seven, only my garlic-smelling Grandpa and I were up and about day and night giving service to the bed-ridden.
“But perhaps the most difficult job I had at that tender age was to keep my younger brother in his bed. We shared a small bedroom next to the lounge, opposite the women’s large four-bedded room fully occupied, with an old neighbour nurse friend in charge, who had made a quick recovery from the epidemic. I distinctly remember that we had a Dover coal stove. It was my job to light it in the mornings, and on that Sunday Grandpa, who was always up and about early, came through and sat in a chair for a while, and then said, ‘Dickie, I want to talk to you.’ As he led me out to the water tank adjacent to the kitchen window, I picked up the bucket to fill it. He put his arm around my shoulders and his warm tears fell on my upturned face as he said in a low, trembling voice: ‘Your mother is dead, God bless her soul.’ I picked the bucket up and dazedly made for the shed. ‘Where are you going?’ he called, and took the bucket from me.
“On the day the horse-drawn hearse called to take Mother away, my brother was most restless, wanting to look out of the window when he heard the horses on the roadway outside. Sitting on his bed to keep him down, I assured him it was just the vegetable hawker on his rounds, and he quietly accepted that lying explanation, much to my relief, as I now review the incident but at the time you can imagine my worry and emotion, because it was our mother being taken away and how was I going to account for her absence?”
And so it was. A lifetime of absence begetting absence. A paucity of love and the concomitant shrivelling of the human psyche; a state which seems destined to roll over to the next generation. His dad locking himself in a room with a bottle of brandy. My dad locking his heart away some place I could never find it. But I find it now in the words he carefully recorded. The love and the longing which emanate from these remembered fragments of a small, unremarkable past. A yearning, perhaps, for the wholeness neither men knew; something I find myself searching for in the scant book of typed-out memories I keep in a cupboard together with dad’s collection of LPs. A few months before my dad died – that line still shocks me to write – he told me he was looking forward to seeing his dad again. He said, I want to tell him, I understand, putting emphasis on that word. At the age of 77 he sought to forgive, and in the forgiving, find peace. I look forward to seeing my dad again and telling him the same thing.
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labour in the weekday weather made
blanked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
Robert Hayden, 1985 (no relation)