My father – and Mr Bennet
My father, whose birthday would have been today, died eighteen months ago. He was very like Mr Bennet, though blessed with a son, as well as daughters.
When I was alone with him at the end of the church, preparing to process down the aisle towards my then-fiancé and his Best Man, Ron – yes, in that holy, deep and moving moment when he was preparing to give away his eldest daughter in marriage – he turned to me and inquired, “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have Ron?”
“Let Wickham be your man. He is a pleasant fellow, and would jilt you creditably.”
Born John Maxwell Taylor, but known to his children as Doodie, my father was not particularly religious – our church was obliged to make him a deacon in order to have a fighting chance of his showing up more than twice a year. But when a New York prostitute oiled up to him in the street saying, “You look lonely, mister,” he flashed back, “No man is lonely who walks with his Lord, Jesus Christ.”
And when – aware that the only fiction he stooped to indulge in were Cold War thrillers – I asked his opinion of my first Jane Austenesque novel he said, “It needs a few more car chases.”
“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”
He was always so vital that I still can’t believe he’s not there… singing the Williams’ College fight song in the bathtub – or stomping up from the basement after losing at tennis. As far as his tennis was concerned, he was always either “tasting the sweet wine of victory” or else, “the bitter dregs of defeat.” There was – as ever with my father – no middle course. My sister was always neat and tidy, and used to swipe his half-finished coffee mug or beer glass to put in the dishwasher before he’d finished with it. When he saw her lurking, he used to threaten, “bloody stump” – short for “All you’ll have left of your arm is a bloody stump,” should she dare to deprive him of it…
“Indeed, Mr. Bennet,” said she, “it is very hard to think that Charlotte Lucas should ever be mistress of this house, that I should be forced to make way for her, and live to see her take her place in it!”
“My dear, do not give way to such gloomy thoughts. Let us hope for better things. Let us flatter ourselves that I may be the survivor.”
Doodie wrote biographies for W.W. Norton and others. He became deeply attached to his biographical subjects, which included President Garfield – the bridge over our stream was the James A. Garfield Memorial Bridge, and Dood was very sad when it got washed away – Lincoln’s Secretary of State (William Seward), Robert E. Lee, Korea’s Syngman Rhee and his own father, Maxwell D. Taylor, who led the 101st Airborne into Normandy on D-Day, later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Of course, my father also had to work. As he used to tell us gloomily, as he departed in the morning, “It is man who hunts the buffalo”. He hunted buffalo in the research department of the CIA, for the State Department in Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Myanmar, and finally in Defense Intelligence. (My sister Kathy, when very young, actually believed he was leaving to hunt buffalo… and, a born animal-lover, even fretted over the fate of the buffalo.)
“Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then. It is something to think of, and gives her a sort of distinction among her companions.”
He could also be completely pigheaded. In his later years, he fell over so often that he was on first-name terms with the local firemen, because my slimline mother could never begin to lift him.
Why did he fall? Because, in his mind, he was still strong, supple, young – and a favourite with the girls. (As he often confided to me, with regard to waitresses as well as wives of Heads of State: “I could tell she liked me.”) But really, only Doodie would have considered it a suitable job for an 85-year-old – in an area teeming with hardworking Mexicans, each boasting a large family to support – to scatter grass seed so close to our stream that he actually slipped and fell in…
“You have no compassion for my poor nerves.”
“You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these last twenty years at least.”
Unlike Mr Bennet, my father loved to travel. (He’d have taken his entire Longbourn family to Brighton, in a heartbeat!) He dragged my mother – despite her being perfectly content in their beautiful northern Virginian forest home – to Alaska, to Russia, to every corner of Europe, throughout Asia and around the best bits of both South and North America. Though they never reached Antarctica, they visited the Galapagos twice – and, by the time she was eighty, Mom was burning travel brochures on sight.
Doodie died only a day after I said my last goodbye and flew home to London. I’ll always be sorry that I didn’t stay another week – that I wasn’t there when he finally, reluctantly, left my mother behind. But I feel comforted to know that his powerful soul is again soaring, entirely jubilant, entirely himself.
He’s waiting for my mother, most of all – but also for us.
As Dylan Thomas wrote:
O deepest wound of all that he should die
On that darkest day. oh, he could hide
The tears out of his eyes, too proud to cry.
(Until I die he will not leave my side.)
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