In the autumn/winter of 1998/99, Kim and I decided to attend an evening continuing education class on Recreational Writing at Rice University here in Houston.  Over some six weeks we were introduced to personal essays, short story writing, prose poems, "the pitch" and other forms of writing.  We were required to submit homework each week, and for some reason I still don't fully understand, I chose to revisit my relationship with my father and, in one case, my brother in a couple of these exercises. 

The letter below is my personal essay, and elsewhere you will find a very short account of an event that actually took place over the 1974 Christmas holiday. 

Houston, Texas

February 1999

Dear Dad,

So after twenty-something years, I find myself writing to you to express these things. Twenty-something years after your poor old heart gave out and you left.  I often wonder if you just gave up and decided it was time to go, or whether your dreams for the future remain unfulfilled, known only to you and your God, but suspected by me.

How come it was only when I was maturing into adulthood that I came to appreciate your keen sense of humour?  Was it me, seeing you as cold and unapproachable for most of my life, that had failed to discern it earlier?  Or was it that you, a victim of your own upbringing, who was unable to allow yourself to share it with your children?  I suspect an element of both.  Oh, there were glimpses of it throughout my childhood, like the time you let a wink and a sly smile slip at Michael Youdale and me – a couple of eight year old kids giggling at the way you were letting the pale green distemper paint slide from can to mixing bucket.  It amazes me today that, not only could you discern, from our childish sniggers, that we kids compared the falling globs of slippery paint with the formation of cow pats in the field, but also that you too thought it to be funny.

And there were other times when your young sons espied the secret smile playing around your lips when we were playing with the toy train-set you bought for us, or when we opened the gifts you brought home from your six months in Zurich.

But, for the most part, the humour didn’t show itself, or was not allowed to be shown, until Colin and I were grown men.

To us you were distant, stern, cold, weighed down by the responsibility for providing for the family.  Your regular trips to New Zealand, of course, deprived us of your presence and influence for nine months of each year; and our mother, your wife, God bless her, had to assume the role of father-figure as well as mother and home-manager.  And how I resented that!  Dammit, Dad, I yearned for a father and you weren’t there.  Mum was my mother, not my father!  But now I understand.  You, yourself, had no father-figure in your life.  How could you even begin to understand the requirements of fatherhood?  And, of course, you had no time to learn, what with the demands of your work.

Before your retiring from the sea, several of your friends from New Zealand, and their young adult children, visited us.  From these people we learned that you at home and you away from home were two entirely different people.  We learned that in your “other” life you were lighthearted, articulate, funny, respected and loved by many.  A whole new side of you was described to me and I was, and still am, saddened that you could not allow yourself the freedom to be yourself at home.  How revealing to hear from a complete stranger, a business acquaintance of my teenage friend’s father from New Zealand, that the Chef of the RMS Rangitiki, my Dad, threw “the best parties” and was “a real character.”

The few years between your retirement and your leaving were the years in which we, your two sons and you, began to become friends.  It was as if, that with Colin and I reaching maturity and the age of responsibility, you could free yourself from the chore of fatherhood for which you were so ill-equipped, and you could be mates with a couple of young men.

I suspect that you finally gave up on the “home” life in England upon the inevitable realisation that there would be no more “away” life so far across the sea.  I cannot condemn you for this because, thankfully, I understand.  But I so wish that we had been allowed to share our upbringing with the warm, carefree, humourous Dad that others had been privileged to know.

All my love, Dad,


© 1999, 2004 Richard Overall