Belfast Telegraph

The family story I'd never heard before

By Frances Burscough

I have learnt so much since I became a part-time carer for my dad last autumn. Not only about the problems or the rewards of this huge role reversal, but also about myself and how I deal with the daily challenges it throws at me.

But the greatest revelation of all has come from him in his own words as he has gradually begun open up and reflect on a past I’d never really heard about before.

Now, with Mum it was completely the opposite. Mum was one of 14 children and until the day she died they were all very close-knit. My aunties and uncles would meet up frequently and whenever they did they spent their time regaling so many interconnecting anecdotes that their past was always a part of our present. Dad, however, was always quiet about his. He would happily listen and enjoy Mum’s tales but he rarely offered any of his own. As a result, until recently I knew very little.

The dad I’d only ever seen or known before was a successful, hard-working and dedicated dentist who had built up a thriving practice treating thousands of people over 35 years until he finally stood down to enjoy his retirement at 60. In all that time he had given free treatment to the clergy and religious life and to the poor in the community. It became a bit of a family joke that in my dad’s waiting room at any given time there would always be a corner filled with nuns and priests all seated, heads bowed in contemplative thought, waiting for their new dentures. 

By the time he retired he had brought eight children into the world, had always been a strict but generous father as well as a devoted and loyal husband. That’s the man I’d always seen and always known. Successful, responsible, respected, hard-working and solvent.

But it seems that one of the most common effects of the ageing process and the early stages of Alzheimers is that sufferers begin to lose their short-term memory while their distant memories become more vivid and clear. In my dad’s case he is now pre-occupied with his life as it was 70-odd years ago and re-living the numerous hardships his mother faced. This has been a real education for me, because I knew none of it.

I had literally no idea how grim his youth had been until he started to open up and tell me. He was born to a single mum (even this I didn’t know) who had discovered she was expecting after her boyfriend left to go to war. She was forced to leave home due to her predicament so she went to live with an aunt in Wales, which is where dad was born. Grandma worked in a factory and eventually saved up enough to rent a terraced two-up-two-down. It cost seven shillings a week and there was no heating, no electricity, no bathroom, no toilet, no comforts whatsoever. It provided a roof above their heads but little else. Eventually my grandad returned from the war (unlike his brothers, who had all been killed) and they got married. Another son was born and Grandad got a job, but on his way home every day he went to the bookies followed by the pub, so there was no extra money coming in and all the burden continued to fall on Grandma, who was really struggling to cope. The saving grace that enabled my dad to get away from it all came from the Church.

Dad had always served on the altar at St Wilfred’s Church in Preston every Sunday, but during one very bad winter his home was so damp and cold that he became ill and didn’t show up. The parish priest called to the house to see why he had gone missing and was apparently so shocked at the conditions that soon after my dad was offered a scholarship to the Catholic College run by the Jesuit Order. That was the poshest and most exclusive school in town. As a result, Dad vowed to work as hard as he could to make a success of his life, so he could repay his mother and also the Church for all that they had done for him.

That’s as far as we’ve got with the story at the moment. He keeps getting side-tracked when he’s telling me and so I have to keep prompting him to continue where he left off. So what exactly have I learnt since I started to care for my elderly dad? I’ll finish the story when he does.

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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