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Goodbye, Daddy

 

Goodbye, Daddy

 

 When I was a little girl in England I grew up with the periodic sound of footsteps rapidly thumping down our front path, followed by an insistent knocking on the back door. After that, a loud, “Cooooeeee! Anyone home?” as the door opened and our neighbor, Mrs. Ross, announced her presence.

“Hello, Molly.” She would smile at my mother as she bustled into our kitchen without waiting for an invitation, “I've just made a cup of tea.” Onto the table she would plonk a steaming pot covered with a crocheted tea cozy. Or sometimes it was a freshly baked cake, or warm scones, or even a savory pie. My mother had long since grown used to Mrs. Ross's ways and would just laugh with her and set out the cups and plates. Then the two of them would sit down for a chat.

Mrs. Ross lived across the street in a council house identical to ours, and to all the others that lined the street. Each house had gradually taken on the characteris­tics of its occupants with individualized fences, hedges, front gardens, curtains and different colored front doors. So they were all alike but in different ways. We were on polite and friendly terms with most of our neighbors. The adults nodded politely or talked over the garden fence, and the children played up and down the street or at school, but we didn't just drop into each other's houses. Mrs. Ross was the exception. She was a frequent visitor in our house, and her buoyant nature carried her into the houses of many of our neighbors. She always spoke a decibel or two above our usual noise level, so there was no mistaking her presence. I shrank from her loudness, but I was fascinated with the inner workings of her household, so different from ours.

When I complained about her noise my mother laughed, “Oh, you mustn't mind her.  She's all right, really, just a little exuberant and fuzzy. And she's got such a good heart!”

Trained as a nurse in her younger years, Mrs. Ross generously and patiently assisted my mother in learning how to care for, first my grandfather after his stroke, and then my grandmother as she lay dying of a broken heart the year after my grandfather died. My mother always said she didn't know what she would have done without Mrs. Ross: “She was a Godsend.” Mrs. Ross, in turn, often said she appreciated my mother's calm manner, her sensible outlook, and the fact that she was the only one who would listen to her. 

Mr. Ross was as cold as his wife was warm. He had been trained by the British Army, and he liked to have every­thing in the house neat, clean, orderly, and quiet. Unfortunately, Mrs. Ross was rather chaotic. Although very clean, her clothes always looked slightly wrinkled and her hair stuck out in odd places. She was also a very active woman who never failed to start one project before she'd finished the previous one. She littered her days with odds and ends trailed behind her like crumbs, which enraged her husband. She feared his wrath, but still managed to incur it at least once a day.

They had a daughter a little older than me, Pamela, a son who was my age, Douglas, and another son three years younger than me, Gordon.  I remember hearing from across the street as their father would rage when they were messy, or used his tools, or touched one of his carefully trained and trellised pears. They were not allowed to play the radio too loudly or too long, and their voices were always to be used in moderated tones—at least when their father was home. The children made their beds once a week with flattened sheets and perfect corners. Mr. Ross came around to inspect each bed, and they had better be perfect! On a Saturday morning while waiting for them to come and play, I would often hover in the bedroom doorway as he made his rounds.

“All right, Douglas, let's see how you've done.”  He would stride over to the boy's bed and test the tautness of the blankets. “No! No! That won't do at all. Do it again!” And he'd yank the bedclothes off with one hand. With a sullen expression Douglas would begin once more.

“Now Pamela, let's see how you've done. Yes, yes, it seems to be all right. Very well done, my dear. You may go.”

“Thank you, Daddy.” Pamela always seemed to get it right the first time, and she'd slink away, poking her tongue out at Douglas as she left.

“Daddy, I can't do it!” little Gordon would inevitably whine.

“You're not trying hard enough!” Mr. Ross would snap at the boy. “No, no, no.  Not like that. Here, let me show you. Now—you do it,” he would say, ripping apart the bed once more.

Every Saturday the boys would do and redo their beds until they got it right. During the rest of the week the children were supposed to slide carefully into and out of bed so that the blankets wouldn't untuck at the sides. When they left in the morning all they had to do was smooth the bed flat. That actually seemed like a good idea to me. It would certainly cut down on my daily chores. For a time I tried to slide care­fully into my bed each night, but every morning my bedclothes were twisted and rumpled beyond any easy repair. In the end I gave up.  

Mr. Ross's finicky nature also extended to his garden. He kept a short-clipped, precisely edged lawn and immaculate flowerbeds. Every weekend he would mow and dig and weed with a vengeance. Our grass, however, often grew long and undisciplined. I loved to lie flat on my stomach and pretend I was an ant marching through some great forest, until my father eventually mowed the lawn—once a month or so. Our vegetables grew if they felt like it, but Mr. Ross produced bushels of carrots, tomatoes, peas, runner beans and cab­bages, to say nothing of his apples, strawberries and very prized pears. Behind their house stretched 200 feet of perfection.

When her youngest boy started school, Mrs. Ross took a nursing position in the mornings at a local convalescent home. My mother said her sunny, scatterbrained disposition made her very popular with the old people. She touched them, and held them, and laughed with them.  Those who were senile never bothered her; she just talked non-stop to them and made their inane comments seem the most sensible in the world. After lunch she made her visits around the neighborhood, heralding her arrival with her characteristic “Cooooeee!” 

Each afternoon before Mr. Ross arrived home from work, Mrs. Ross rushed around tidying up and attempting to put everything back in its place. She never quite made it. The children would scurry around after her trying to help—at least Pamela did, while the boys would escape through the front door if they could.

“Joyce!” Mr. Ross would bark.  “What is the meaning of this mess?” he would point imperiously at a carelessly tossed sweater.

“Err. . .well. . .Ron, you see dear. . .” Mrs. Ross would stutter and begin to blink rapidly.  “I was in a hurry, and I just put it on the chair for a minute, and I forgot. . .” and she would rush to pick up the offending item and put it away.

Cooking was a joy for Mrs. Ross. She loved to exper­iment and usually with great success. We enjoyed the good, hearty and simple meals my mother cooked, but I would gaze in wonder at the culinary miracles of Mrs. Ross. Extraor­dinary souffl├ęs, exotic curries, and feather-light sponge cakes were standard fare for the Ross children.

Our dining room had been made into a bed-sitting room, first for my aunt and her husband, and then for my grandparents, so we ate in the kitchen at whatever time dinner was ready, with non-stop conversation and much laughter. The Ross family took dinner in the dining room with great formality at precisely seven o'clock. Absolutely no music or levity was ever allowed. One evening I was invited to join them, but I was warned that children were to speak only to the adults and then only if spoken to first.

“Ron, dear, Dougie had a very good report from school today.” Mrs. Ross spoke in a quiet subdued voice, quite unlike her usual self.

“Ah, good, did you now, Douglas? And in what subject was it?”

“Maths, sir.” (Mr. Ross believed all boys over the age of seven should call men ‘Sir.’)

“And what was the nature of the ‘good report’?”

“I got a hundred on my times tables, sir.”

“Well done! I remember when I was your age I knew all my times tables—backwards as well as forwards! Maths was my favorite subject and I always did well in it. Why, it was my ability in Maths that helped me secure my privileged position of working for Her Majesty's Government.”

“The McCann's are getting a mini-car.” Mrs. Ross changed the subject to include me and my family.

“Rubbish! What a waste of good money. Don't you go getting any ideas in your head about us getting a car just because the neighbors do!”

            “But Ron, I just said. . .” the blinking started again.

            “Lazy, that's what it is.” His voice rose in indigna­tion. “We have a perfectly good transportation system. The tube's just a short walk up the road, and buses run all day. Why would anyone waste money on a car?”

Silence engulfed the table as my face burned in embarrassment and everyone concentrated on the meal.

After dinner Mrs. Ross tried to keep Mr. Ross out of the kitchen, because when she cooked she used pots and pans and bowls with abandon. She never got the knack of cleaning up as she went, and the apparent serenity of the dining room contrasted sharply with the upheaval in the kitchen. As long as they could direct him straight from the dining room to the living room there would be no furious bellowing.

Mr. Ross was a Civil Servant, and when I was about nine years old he accepted a job in Gibraltar. It would mean he would be away from his family for five years, but he often lectured his family on his fond memories of being stationed in India with the army, and I suspect he was glad to escape the chaos of home. One morning we watched from our window as, standing at their front gate, Mr. Ross bid goodbye to his wife and children. We could hear his booming voice from our open window.

“Goodbye, my dear. I will write to you from the ship and then again when I arrive to let you know my address. Keep the home fires burning!”

“Goodbye, Ron, dear.  Have a safe journey.” She gave him a small kiss on the cheek.

“Goodbye, Pamela. Help your mother around the house and with your brothers.”

“Goodbye, Daddy.” Pamela ventured a little hug. “Maybe you could send me something foreign.”

“Harrrrummph” was the only reply.

Mr. Ross stuck out his hand to his oldest son. “Goodbye, Douglas. I expect you to be the man of the house now. You must take responsibility for the care of the garden. I am sure Gordon will help. Keep working in Maths; it will take you far. And take care of my pears.”

“Yes, sir. Goodbye, sir,” Douglas replied.

Then he shook little Gordon's hand. “Goodbye, Gordon. Be a good boy for your mother.  Help Douglas with the garden. Keep practic­ing on the bed and you'll get those corners right!”

“Yes, Daddy. Goodbye, Daddy. Don't stay away too long, will you?”

Mr. Ross picked up a heavy suitcase in each hand and resolutely marched up the street as his wife and children waved from the front gate. He would walk to the tube station then travel to Victoria Station and then on to Southampton to catch his ship. We watched his perfectly straight back for the two or three minutes it took for him to reach the end of the block. At the corner, he put down both suitcases and turned around, his arm raised to wave.  Our eyes pivoted back to his front gate. It was empty.

But we could hear laughter and shouting and music wafting across the street from the Ross’s house.

 

Mary Marca                     

                                                                                          

I taught writing, both essay and creative, at California State University, Northridge for twenty years. During that time, she received an MFA in Creative Writing. I have story published Literary Yard and a forthcoming (November 13) creative piece in Writing in a Woman's Voice.


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1 Comments

  1. I can't get the grin off my face after reading this. It's fabulous.

    ReplyDelete