Friday, April 13, 2007

Goodbye to my father

The day before yesterday was my father’s funeral. It seems very weird indeed to be typing these words. I don’t think that I’ve really taken in that he’s gone. It also seems a bit strange to be writing about him into the cybervoid, but on the other hand, blogging has come to feel a bit like talking to friends. It fulfils part of the need to communicate.

Wednesday was a long day. Mum had decided that she wanted a family cremation service in the morning followed by a thanksgiving service for friends in the church in the afternoon. I wasn’t sure about this – I thought it might be too much – but in fact it worked out well. Somehow the saddest part seemed to be over after the cremation service, and by the afternoon we were able to be much more positive.

My brother, Daughter 1 and I all spoke in tribute. I wasn’t at all sure that either Daughter 1 or I would be able to do so; funerals can be very emotional. But in fact we were all right. And it went very well; lots of people have told me how nice it was. Many people came, from many stages of his life.

Dad was no saint. He could be very unreasonable and difficult, even in his youth. On the other hand, he was a remarkable person. He won a scholarship to a famous school and went on to be dux of it. He then won a scholarship to university to study maths and physics, but after his first year, the war broke out, and he joined the Royal Engineers. He was sent to Egypt as the British Army's first bomb disposal officer outside the UK – he was 20! – and spent much of the war defusing bombs from instruction manuals. He won the George Medal (very prestigious) for his work there, and was later mentioned in dispatches for his work bridging rivers between Normandy and Berlin under heavy fire.

After the war, he returned to university and was awarded three degrees in three consecutive years. He spent his working life with a big electronics company, ending as one of their top managers. In his own time, he did a lot of work for various organisations such as Edinburgh University, who gave him an honorary fellowship.

He was a very hard act to follow.

He was very musical, playing the piano and organ to a very high standard. He was also very interested in words and used long ones to us even when we were small children, which gave us a good vocabulary. He used to make up bedtime stories for us when we were little, draw funny pictures and quote large lumps of poetry. For example, when he came to tuck us in at night, he would declaim, from Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”,

“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

The “to me” was very dramatic: “TO ME!!!!”

He could continue for several verses. And frequently did.

In the mornings, he would tend to fling open the curtains to the accompaniment of the beginning of the Fitzgerald “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”:

“Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.”

Again, you have to imagine being asleep and then being woken by a very loud, bass, “AWAKE!!!!!” Quite startling.

He was a character.

This is what I said about him at his funeral:

"Dad was a lot of different things, as you’ve heard. He was a scientist but he was also a musician, a linguist and a very literate man. He could also be a lot of fun. As my brother told you, he made up very fine stories for us when we were little. Many of these were about the Poff family, who had lots of children: Angela, Beatrice, Clara, Dorothy, Ethel, Freddie, George, Henry, Ian and James.

He also used to write – maybe poems would be overstating the case, but occasional verses.

These were written over a more than 20 year period when he and a friend sent each other holiday postcards - in verse. Dad kept copies. We were reading these the other day and I thought I’d let you hear one.

The poem I’m going to read is actually the last one he wrote: the series came to an end in 1999, when his friend died. Mum and Dad went on a lot of holidays to warm places. This poem is called “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” - which tells you Dad’s attitude to hot sunshine. It’s very characteristic of him. It starts with that literary allusion – to the Noel Coward song. Then it’s got science in it, a bit of religion, it’s very logical and – it’s quite forward thinking for 1999 – it ends with a very topical bit of advice.

I also suspect that this may be one of the few postcards ever written to feature the word “sapient”.

Crete 1999

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Solar radiation may offer benefits
To such as maladjusted hounds or Deeply Southern Brits.

Those of us who favour a climate less intense
Feel long exposure to the sun makes little or no sense.

Sapient creation, when first the Earth was made,
Decreed that when the sun was bright, it generated shade.

Don’t rely on ozone; it’s thinner every day.
Relaxing in the cooling shade is much the safer way.

So that was Dad, getting (more or less) the last word. He would probably have liked that. "


  1. Isabelle, what a wonderful tribute to your father. There will always be a little corner of your heart reserved just for him and if you're like me you'll continue to hear his voice saying certain things, singing a song, whistling a tune.... Thank you for sharing this.

  2. What an endearing post. A good portrait of someone who was brilliant, fun, a tad dramatic, and above all quite human.

    I think he would be pleased.

  3. What a lovely tribute to your dad, who sounds like a man who was witty, complex and endearing.

    Hold your memories of him close, and he will never be far away.

  4. I loved this post. It made me wish I'd known him. Our Dad used to come breezing into our room to wake us up on winter mornings for school.
    "Rise and shine ladies!" as he threw the window open to let the damp, dew-laden air into our room, causing my sister and I to snuggle down deeper in our beds.....

    I agree with you that blogging feels like confiding in friends. I never expected that it would. Such a pleasant surprise.

    May your Dad rest in peace.

  5. Very touching post. You have some wonderful memories. That was a beautiful tribute to your father.

  6. Great post, Isabelle! You Dad's poem is timely advice for all Antipodeans :)

  7. What a lovely tribute to your Dad. He sounded like a woderfully unique Dad.
    You will treasure the memories of him.

  8. How gifted your father was. And how wonderful that you have parts of him that you can hold on to. Thanks for sharing a touching post.

  9. wow... he does sound like a character. and that was a wonderful tribute. hope you are hanging in there and please pass on a hug to K, too. xx

  10. This has been one of the saddest blog posts I've ever read because I made me think so much of my own father. I can't imagine being without him, but knowing someday I must, I can only hope the stubborn old one lasts as long as your own father. My father is precious to me, so cherished in his daughter's heart that just the thought of being without him brings me to tears. I really feel for you ...

  11. Thanks for sharing this with us Isabelle. It was lovely to hear about your father.

  12. What a wonderful tribute to your Dad, Isabelle.... and what an interesting man he must have been. I think he and my Dad would have been good friends. They sound very similar!
    I also spoke at my Dad's funeral, and am so glad in retrospect that I did. One day I will post what I said then too. Thanks so much for sharing this time with us.
    Enjoy your last day of rest!

  13. Isabelle, I am sorry for your loss. Your tribute is wonderful and heartfelt. Your father was quite a man with many fine qualities.

  14. I'm sorry to hear about your loss... but that was a beautiful speech. I'm willing to bet my left toe that he was overwhelmed with pride watching from above. It makes me wish I've known your dad -- he sounds like an extraordinary man, which I'm sure he was :)

  15. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about your dad -- he sounds like a unique and wonderful man.

  16. Thank you Isabelle for sharing this :-)

  17. Well done Isabelle for your beautiful words about your father and for coping so well with what must have abeen a very sad and emotional day. Your father does indeed sound like a remarkable man, and must have been a very brave one too.

    Best wishes.

  18. I had to look up the word sapient. I admit it.

    Thanks for sharing the memories of your father with us. I enjoyed reading about his life and it sounds like your family honored him well. He would be proud, I'm sure.

  19. Isabelle,

    you are fruit from a very fine tree.
    A wonderful man, with a very worthy daughter.

    Warm thoughts to you and yours.

  20. Hello Isabelle, I am very saddened to here of your dads passing and understand the strange feeling of the loss of ones dad that comes over you when this happens. I send you my blessings and know your grown family live on for you and your father.

    Your dads poem was wonderful and so true, english vision I believe.

    while I do not visit your blog often you are one that I hold dear and every time I drop down my favourites on my computer and click onto your blog I know I will enjoy your posts.....Your last few posts about your dear dad are very sad but they show us how much love flowed within your family and for that I thank you for sharing with us your loss.

    remembered always.