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The Time We Had: 20 years later, I remember my Dad

My Dad died 20 years ago this week, on 14 October 1991, of a rare kidney cancer which can’t be diagnosed until it’s too late.  He was 58.  I was already considering writing something about him because of his anniversary, but it was the death last week of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple at the age of 56 that made me decide to do it.  My Dad wasn’t rich or famous and nothing he did changed the world.  He wouldn’t mind me saying he was a very ordinary man, although in many ways he wasn’t at all.

Dad was born in rural Wiltshire in 1933. Like anyone not good at ‘book learning’, he did poorly at school. In country areas the dunce’s cap was still in use back then.  When it came to work, he didn’t have a lot of options.  By the time my sister and I were born (our brother is much older), he was a self-employed HGV driver with a single truck that he kept on a strip of common land behind our garden.  It was a very hard way to earn a living but he didn’t complain, that’s just how things were.  He often went to bed early because of having to get up at 4am for a job.  He was gone for days at a time and phoned home every evening to talk to us.    We missed him terribly but it’s only as a parent that I’ve realised how lonely and tough it must have been for him being away from his family so much.

When we were little, my sister and I used to get very excited when we heard the clank of the heavy metal rings on the container of his truck when it turned the corner, telling us he was home.  Occasionally,  he let us clamber up into the cab and sit in the driver’s seat,  legs dangling, hands on the huge steering wheel, enjoying the view from high up.  (I wish I’d inherited his driving skills!)  Dad mostly worked out of the ports at Southampton, some 30 miles from where we lived, and the more distant Sheerness at the mouth of the Thames east of London, transporting fruit that had arrived on ships from Central America all over the UK. Decades before the government started telling us all to eat our 5 a Day, there was never a shortage of lovely fruit in our house (maybe that’s why we all turned out so tall).  We knew to be careful putting our hands in the crates as deadly tarantulas could be lurking inside.

What Dad lacked in qualifications he more than made up for in other ways:  he was a genuine people person who could get on with anybody, and he was insanely practical and good at making and mending  things.  As my Mum was a French teacher, we used to go to France every summer of my childhood, which was very exotic in the 70s.  Those trips were undoubtedly the best times we spent as a family.  After years of getting rained on in our ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ style tent, Dad bought an old Ford Transit van and single-handedly transformed it into the most amazing campervan.  He converted the engine from petrol to diesel because it was much cheaper.  He fitted windows, a kitchen, a proper shower room, bunk beds for me and my sister.  Not many dads can do that.  To us it was like The Ritz on wheels.  It was truly something to behold – to be honest, it was pretty odd-looking.  When we turned up at a campsite in France or Italy, men of all nationalities would gather round wanting to have a look at it.  And Dad, despite knowing only a few words of French, would crack open a few bottles of Kronenbourg, pass them around and somehow manage to spend ages demonstrating his pride and joy amid much laughter and animated gesticulating.

Dad wasn’t a religious man but he was a good Samaritan.  He would pick up hitch-hikers in his truck and sometimes do a detour if he wasn’t going where they needed to be.  If he came across someone really down on their luck, he’d feed them or even bring them home to us before sending them on their way.  He was very public-spirited, and served on the Parish Council of the village where I grew up, a thankless task if ever there was one.  As a teenager, I kept him company as he spent a whole day renovating and painting an old-fashioned kids’ roundabout on the recreation ground.  We were both so delighted at how shiny and beautiful it looked.  And when, just a few days later, it was vandalised and ruined, most likely by kids I knew, I was really mortified and upset for him.  It still pains me now to think of it.

As a father, he was happy for us just to be ourselves.  He was always saying (despite much evidence to the contrary) what good kids we were.  He took pleasure in our achievements but we knew he loved us without condition.  When my sister and I started going to discos in the local town, he stayed up late (even if he did have to get up in the middle of the night) to make sure we made it home safely, worrying about us being driven by boys who’d only just got their licence. ‘Call me if they’ve been drinking and I’ll come and get you,’ he said.

I had not long left college when he died.  It  makes me very sad when I think what a fantastic grandfather he would have been to my two boys and my two nieces and how much he would have enjoyed helping us renovate the delapidated house my husband and I bought when we got married three years later.  He loved life and didn’t want it to end so soon.  When some months after his diagnosis, he was told he had around two months to live, he insisted the doctors had said ‘two years’  because it was just so impossible to take in.  (In the event, he held on for six months.)

Having to look mortality in the face when you are only just embarking on your adult  life is strange.  Sadly, my husband’s father also died in his 50s.  It marked us both losing them so young, and yet good did come of it.  It made us realise what matters, and how important it is not to keep putting off the things you want to do.  It’s only because I’ve finally written the novel I’ve always wanted to write that I’m telling his story now, though nothing can convey how much I’ve missed him.

There was a very respectable attendance at Dad’s funeral but the church wasn’t packed  as I was expecting.  I realise now that many of the people whose lives he touched probably never even knew his name (his name was Bob), though I bet even after all this time a few of them still remember the bloke with the funny campervan, or the stranger who stopped to help them change a wheel by the side of the road in the pouring rain.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


19 thoughts on “The Time We Had: 20 years later, I remember my Dad

  1. i m speechless
    you write very well

    Posted by mohdarafat | October 12, 2011, 11:05
  2. i like your blog.

    Posted by contabilidade | October 12, 2011, 12:24
  3. This is a lovely post. Thank you for sharing your Dad with us.

    Posted by karenselliott | October 12, 2011, 12:48
  4. I love this post. What a wonderful man your father was. I lost my brother during my last year of college. It affected me profoundly, as the loss of your dad affected you and your sister. But, as you said so well, something meaningful can be salvaged out of the loss.

    Posted by Kristin | October 12, 2011, 18:47
    • Thanks Kristin. When I posted this earlier today I was slightly in two minds about publishing something so personal but I’m already glad I did. Not only did it bring Dad back to me writing it but I am very touched by the comments received here and elsewhere.
      I was very sad to read about your brother, the loss of someone young is especially hard.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 12, 2011, 20:34
  5. Oh my, my father passed the same year but 3 days later, it is such heartache to lose a loved one, regardless of whether it is “expected” or “unexpected”, there is no way to prepare for the sudden void left by their absence.

    My heartfelt sympathy to you, and to everyone, who has lost a parent or loved one. Your rememberance of him surely made him smile while he read it over your shoulder as you typed it.

    Posted by peterhobbs1 | October 19, 2011, 18:04
    • Thanks Peter and I’m sorry to hear that you were going through the same at the same time. I liked your final comment, as one of the things that has come of me writing this article (and it wasn’t easy) is feeling a bit closer to Dad after so much time has passed. The other is having both friends and virtual friends say what a good man he sounds, because that’s what everyone said of him when he was alive.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 19, 2011, 19:11
  6. I enjoyed this warm, loving portrait. Your Dad sounds like quite a guy.

    Posted by Richard Gilbert | August 1, 2012, 12:01
  7. Hello Isobel, That’s beautifully written and a lovely tribute to your fine dad. My dad passed away in 1976 when I was 15. He too died of a kidney disease (I had a successful transplant earlier this year for the same condition). I went to see Richard Ford in Manchester last night and he spoke of losing his father when he was 16. I think that, when we lose a parent early, there remains a vacuum of now unknowable things about how we grew and were shaped and, to me, that is significant. Maybe the need to fill that vacuum spurs our imagination and makes us interested in other stories. Best wishes.

    Posted by Andrew Moorhouse | October 13, 2012, 11:55
    • Thanks for writing such a lovely comment Andrew and I’m so glad to hear your transplant was successful. With two sons approaching the age you lost your father, I can appreciate what a huge impact that would have and I agree with what you said about the void created. I’m sure being without my father almost half my life is one of the drivers to me writing. I am seeing Richard Ford at Southbank on 18th and am very excited – as you probably know from the blog, Canada is my book of 2012 and I’d be surprise I’d anything knocks it off the top spot at this stage!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 13, 2012, 14:36
  8. Fine, fine piece. You’ve done yourself and your father proud.

    Posted by Barry Walsh | October 13, 2012, 14:01


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