The Kind Of Man I Always Wanted To Be

Dad, when at home on the island, was the human equivalent of the Mary Celeste. Everything about his life was perfectly in its place, except the way he arranged his mind. It was not unusual for him to drift aimlessly through the house without thought of direction, occasionally finding himself in the kitchen, and prompting mum to ask: “Darling, are you lost?” He would look around, momentarily orphaned, then respond: “Aye, lass, I think I be,” before turning astern and leaving the way he entered.

Dad began commercial fishing when he was nineteen years old, and two years later purchased a trawler. There are many stories I can tell, not just of dad’s exploits, but of those men who worked with him and ultimately became part of my family. But not today; today I want to talk about dad, the gardener. He loved to grow vegetables.

Dad said: “…lad, you can only enjoy a garden as long as you tend it.”

I was ten years old when I started to learn about gardening. Dad gave me that responsibility every time he left for open water. Throughout my life, a garden, regardless of where, or in what climate, has been a source of immense pleasure. Now, with dad long gone, that desire has intensified.

If ever there was a pot of half used anything lying around the greenhouse, dad’s boot never missed it. The resulting profanities begged forgiveness midst the tomato plants, for there, and only there, was he immersed in his life’s sanctity.

Let me talk about that right boot because to do so will give you an insight into the kind of man he was. Boots that ordinarily would have been tossed out months, if not years before. Dad had fastened their flapping tongues to the uppers with fishermen’s twine; the same sort used to repair lobster pots. It kept those boots intact for all my teenage years. Being with dad was as close to being whole as a young man could be. On the days when he arrived home from the sea, mum’s face was a picture of devotion, and the smells that emanated from the kitchen were like no other, having used all the fresh produce of dad’s garden.

Once a month dad would try to be home on a Sunday, and I would wake at dawn to a yellow light flickering on my bedroom wall. I’d leap up, look out the window and see a whole heap of garden debris burning. One-time dad blackened the entire village before daylight. He was exciting, immensely strong, a mystery to himself, but not to me because he was everything of a champion, sometimes a renegade, a destroyer of doubt, and that was who he was, my dad. Never a mystery to mum in sixty-two years of marriage.

Living in a tightly knit community has its drawback, teenage romance being one of them, but great in so many ways. It allowed people to share, to care, and to support. I know it happened in cities, but not in the same way, not at all. Dad kept potatoes; Willy kept bits of fishing boats: propeller shafts, rusting anchors, bronze couplings, bulwark supports, boilers, cylinders, crank rods, pistons, and flywheels. These things meant a living to him; to others, such relics were nothing but the town’s eyesore. I mention Willy because he was often in our garden, picking rhubarb or carrots. Dad, of course, was always in Willy’s scrap metal yard.

My home was everyone’s home on the island. It was the place friends came to taste mum’s scones, topped with homemade clotted cream and blackberry jam, and to swallow down a large mug of tea.

Such summers, it seemed, came often.

Today, standing in the garden, I look down to see my boots in need of repair. I won’t, of course.