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Stories of Fathers and Children : He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not : AND WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER?, By Blake Morrison (Picador/St. Martin's: $21; 224 pp.)

June 18, 1995|William Hauptman | William Hauptman is the author of "Good Rockin' Tonight and Other Stories" and a novel, "The Storm Season."

"And When Did You See Your Father?" is British writer Blake Morrison's memoir about the longest six months in anyone's life--between the day they learn a parent is terminally ill with cancer, and the day that parent dies. Here is the dreadful shame of cancer, the refusal to see old friends, the bargaining with the inevitable; but also the courage of the dying, the imperishable love, the dignity in the face of death's overwhelming humiliation.

Faced with losing a parent, we first become children again. They weren't perfect, we want to cry. We loved them, but they put us through so much. Thus Blake Morrison first recounts his father's many imperfections. Arthur Morrison, a doctor, is arrogant. He refuses to play Trivial Pursuit, for fear it might expose his ordinary intelligence, outside of medical matters. "I may not be right," he is forever telling his son, "but I'm never wrong."

In the opening episode, the family waits in their car, trapped in a long line at the entrance to the Gold Cup motor-race. Finally, Arthur Morrison hangs his stethoscope on the mirror, and drives to the head of the line. "Point to the stethoscope, pet," he tells his wife, who has literally slid to the floor of the car in embarrassment. He bullies his way through the gate; then, a little later, comes up with a truly crooked scheme for getting everyone into the paddock. Tickets cost a guinea; so he buys one, goes inside; then passes the ticket back out through the fence to the others who enter one by one. "Marvelous," he says. "that'd be costing anyone else twenty guineas. Not bad."

"That was the way it was with my father," Morrison writes. "Minor duplicities. Little fiddles. . . . He was not himself up to being criminal in a big way, but he was lost if he couldn't cheat in a small way: so much of his pleasure was absolutely derived from it. I grew up thinking it absolutely normal, that most Englishmen were like this. I still suspect that's the case."

Blake Morrison's uncompromising honesty makes this memoir a powerful reading experience. In the end, of course, he comes to terms with his father's imperfections, and these imperfections come to seem the most lovable thing about his father after all.

When a parent dies, the whole generation he belongs to dies with him, and this memoir is also a farewell to postwar England, with its modest hopes and dreams, its commonplace satisfactions. Arthur Morrison may have been arrogant, but he seems to have wanted only a few things: to drive a good car, to have fried bread for breakfast, and a good pub nearby. He dearly loved pubs and liked to sit on the working-class side, with its dartboard. (As I read this memoir, I kept thinking Morrison was really very fortunate to have such a father. My father, being an American, wanted nothing less than everything--complete mastery of himself and the world around him.)

In one memorable episode, the Morrisons, father and son, go on a camping trip during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It rains, the tent pegs are forgotten and most of the evenings are spent in a pub. Bored as only an adolescent can be, Blake Morrison turns his back on what is actually a touching glimpse of his father's loneliness and a premonition of the future. "I don't want to watch what's going to happen happening: my father slowly winning over the suspicious locals; the conversation turning from world politics to legends of local brawlers, womanizers, con artists; the pint after pint, the whiskey chasers then the one for the road, and the next one for the road, and the last one for the road. I stare at the smoke rising from the logs and imagine one wisp of it journeying up through the chimney and out through the stack into the night, to dissolve in the immense black spaces and be gone from sight if anyone were looking, and yet not be gone, for surely nothing can be lost forever, every trace of whatever happened on the earth is recorded somewhere, even the dimmest or shortest life must have its immortality: the stars are shooting for someone."

Arthur Morrison's real crime is his attractiveness to women. Even in old age, he is more attractive than his son, and has had a long affair with a friend's wife, "Aunt" Beaty--an affair his own wife is well aware of. Blake Morrison's gradual realization of this, and his father's determined stonewalling, provide one of the most memorable scenes in the book. His father wants to talk about cars, but Blake wants to talk about adultery. "You can tell me about Beaty, you know. I'm grown-up now. There needn't be any secrets."

Arthur thinks for a moment, then says (in what is perhaps an unconscious admission and assessment of Beaty's talents). "Great thing, power steering. You never miss it until you've had it, but once you have, you'll never go back to the ordinary."

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