15th June 1920. Nellie Melba sang two arias for a historic radio broadcast from the Marconi factory in Chelmsford.
Things have changed a bit.
It felt important to mark today, to talk about you, but in truth it’s hard to know what to say. Your obituary in the Cumberland and Westmorland Herald – still online here as I write – seemed a place to start, so I dug it out before I began, to remind me.
How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
Rereading the obituary reminded me of those words. What I become more aware of, now that I am over halfway towards the age you were when you died, is the gaps: the things I don’t remember, that I never knew. The distance only ever increases between us and our recollections. The signal fades.
Still, I hold dear what remains. They are small memories, often – isn’t that how it works? Fleeting like passing scents that sometimes transport us back to places we had thought lost. They curl slowly into the air like the smoke from your much-loved pipe. I can still hear the gravel of your voice after the radiotherapy on the nodule in your throat that compelled you, reluctantly, to give it up.
For some reason, the kitchen features prominently in the visions of you that have surfaced today. The one here as it used to be, the glass of the old windows steaming up as you cook. Fish pie, white wine and onions, piped potato stars, Jazz Record Requests in the background. Your floury hands making pastry. Your stripy apron, which I never wear but will never part with. The Shipping Forecast crackling out on the far north west coast of Scotland and a kitchen sink view over to Gruinard Island, otters on the rocks.
Oh look, there’s the radio, too, in the background. I won’t pretend I did that on purpose. I have no glib link back to Nellie Melba’s broadcast on the day you were born, no clever metaphors to tie this together with. Grieving is not like listening to the radio, because you can turn the radio off.
How should I conclude this, then? I have mixed feelings about today. I miss you, but I’m also glad you have been spared from contending with 2020. The world is a strange place just now. That, and the fact that this would have been your hundredth birthday (just saying that is the oddest thing), have dissolved me repeatedly as I’ve sat here staring at the screen.
I have no idea what you’d make of it all, and as you aren’t here it’s somewhat academic. Instead, in your absence I will mark the day as is traditional. Later we’ll raise a glass to you, and have a nice meal. I might, now I’ve thought about it, even tune in to the shipping forecast and dream a little about when we can return to the places I grew to care deeply for, thanks to you.
Happy 100th birthday, Dad. I love you.