When Michael Frayn's father died at a hospice in 1970, workers brought him a box holding what his father had left behind. Among the collection, there was a pair of socks, some slippers, spectacles, a signet ring and a hearing aid.
Though his personal effects were few, Frayn's father left behind an exemplary legacy — he was a man who struggled and sacrificed, yet still maintained a happy, healthy life for his children, and a warm sense of humor.
Now, 40 years after his father's death, Frayn, an acclaimed poet, novelist and playwright, has written a memoir about his dad's life. Frayn tells NPR's Scott Simon about My Father's Fortune and the lessons that his father has taught him.
Frayn was inspired to write the memoir by his own children. Now middle-aged themselves, they were curious about the lives of their grandparents, and they urged Frayn to write what he could remember about them before he forgets.
"My eldest daughter said, 'We feel as if we have arisen from an unknown place,' " he says.
Although he was originally reluctant to take their advice and start the project, he quickly changed his mind.
"I thought it was going to be ... rather a pious chore," he says. "But in fact, once I got started, I got more and more emotionally involved in it, and it became a major emotional experience and really affected me a great deal."
To begin his research, Frayn delved into his father's own childhood, which was cut short when he began working at age 14. Tom Frayn was a handsome man, a good dancer and a hard worker.
"One of the reasons that he had to work from the age of 14 is that he had a very feckless father," Frayn explains. "His father had been a drinker and my father got to go out and try and earn some money to keep the family going."
Tom Frayn was so dedicated to caring for his family that he put their needs far ahead of his own. In fact, he waited over a decade to marry the love of his life because of it.
"He fell in love with my mother when they were both very young — when he was 18 and my mother was still 14," he says. "But they had to wait for 11 years to get married because he felt he couldn't get married until he was no longer responsible for supporting his mother."
Writer Michael Frayn grew up in what he describes as "a modest but agreeable house in the outer suburbs of London."
Writer Michael Frayn grew up in what he describes as "a modest but agreeable house in the outer suburbs of London."
Frayn's father was further beset with problems when he — and the rest of his siblings — became deaf in their adult years. Again, Tom Frayn did not let this setback stop him.
"He continued to work as a salesman even though he was very deaf," Frayn says. "How he did that, how he faced the customers every day when he couldn't hear what they were saying, I really don't know."
Tom used his deafness as an advantage rather than a handicap. When making a pitch, he would simply ensure that he was doing all the talking. Or, Frayn suggests, he may have even been unable to tell when a customer refused.
The elder Frayn did not care much for material possessions. Instead his passion in life was sport, Frayn says — particularly cricket.
"He loved watching cricket, and what he really wanted was a son who was a sportsman — preferably cricket, preferably a batsman," says Frayn.
The trouble was that Frayn's talents were strongest in the classroom and not on the cricket pitch. His father tried to coach him in their garden, but to no avail.
"I was hopeless at it," he says. "I just couldn't hit the ball, I couldn't catch the ball, so I was a great disappointment to him."
Gradually, his father accepted that his talents lay elsewhere. This acceptance is one of the major themes of his memoir, Frayn says.
"Very slowly over the years, he agreed to accept the idea that I was relatively good at some subjects at school, and agreed to see that as my succeeding in some kind of way," Frayn says.
Frayn's youth coincided with World War II. Luckily, his father was too young to fight during World War I and too old to fight during World War II. This was one more of his father's "bits of good fortune," Frayn says.
Instead of fighting, the elder Frayn lived with his family in London during the Blitz. Because they were in the suburbs, they were not as hard-hit as residents of the East End and the center of London. However, they still had a close call with a flying V-1 bomb.
"On the very first night of the V-1s, one came just over the roof of our house, missed it by a few feet, hit the hillside just up the road and killed everyone in the house that it came down on," Frayn says.
Their home, and the other houses on the street, were severely damaged, but to young Frayn, this was a delight.
"It was like a kind of early Christmas — everything was special, there was no front door, there were no windows in the house, there was a hole in the roof," Frayn explains. But he concedes, "It must have been hell for my parents. All the carpets full of plaster dust and broken glass. I don't know how they ever got it out."
After the V-1 bombings, the Frayn family invested in a bomb shelter, but it didn't end up as safe as they had hoped.
"One of the few things he spent his money on was a shelter in the garden, but what he hadn't taken into consideration was that if you dig a hole in the ground, it fills with water," Frayn says. "We only ever used the shelter once, because after that, it was just a stagnant pool." It ended up much more dangerous to be in the shelter than to stay in the house during the raids, he recalls.
Not one to let things go to waste, Frayn's father came up with a practical solution for their waterlogged shelter. Because of the wartime food shortage, neighbors were buying chickens to maintain a constant supply of eggs.
Tom Frayn asked, "What kind of creature likes water?" and the answer was ducks. "So we acquired ducks. They lived in this armored duck pond the rest of the war and supplied us with eggs," says Frayn.
After the end of the long, terrible war, life changed suddenly for the Frayn family when Frayn's mother died of a heart attack. Frayn was just 12 years old, and his father faced a new practical problem — he had to find some way to look after his young children.
"Those next few years were very grave for my sister and me, and it must have been terrible for my father. He was very grief-stricken, his life had fallen apart, but he also had this terrible, practical problem," Frayn says.
Frayn's father still managed to be a supportive father, even after the tragic death of his beloved wife. In fact, Frayn credits his father with getting him into writing. When Frayn was about 6 or 7 years old, his father came across an essay that he had written for school, titled "The House I Should Like To Live In When I Grow Up."
"My father read it and said to me, perhaps you ought to be a journalist," Frayn remembers. "Maybe it lodged in the back of my mind, maybe it's one of the things that made me interested in writing."
Even though his father originally encouraged him to write, Frayn's work in journalism went unrecognized by his father for years. "He never bought the newspaper I worked for, and it was years before he admitted that he had read anything that I had written," Frayn says.
"It was the style then," he explains. "It was thought that you would make them big-headed if you encouraged them too much."
So it was not until Frayn was in his 30s that his father finally commended him. After a series of articles that he had written about Cuba, Frayn's father rang him up and suggested that he write more stories of the kind.
While he didn't overload his children with praise, Frayn's father left his son with other gifts — notably his sense of humor.
"It was a professional resource for him because he used it as a way of getting around his deafness, and I think I picked up that habit of joshing people," says Frayn.
Frayn also believes that he inherited his father's skepticism. "He was not a believer in either religious systems or political systems," Frayn says.
But most importantly, Frayn's father bequeathed him with a stable childhood and a happy life.
"He couldn't help the death of my mother, but he did his best to get around that and to keep the home going. The longer I live, the more grateful I am for that," he says.
My Father's Fortune By Michael Frayn Hardcover, 288 pages Metropolitan Books List Price: $25
The handle of my study door softly turns. I look up from my typewriter, startled. The two older children are at school, my wife's out with the baby, the house is empty. I'm working alone on the top floor.
The door opens a few inches. Around the edge of it, with a certain deferential caution, comes a hat. A black homburg.
The year must be 1969, I realize from the internal evidence when I reconstruct the scene in my memory. No one round our way locks their front doors in 1969. But then no one still wears homburg hats. I'm looking at the last homburg in southeast London, perhaps in Western Europe.
I feel a familiar touch of exasperation. Of course! Naturally! The black homburg! Just when I've got a chance to work undistracted! Why hadn't he phoned, like anyone else? Why hadn't he rung the bell or shouted "Anyone at home?" Why hadn't he at least taken his hat off?
The hat is followed by a pair of spectacles — a hearing aid — a trim gray moustache. And my father's familiar smile, like the sun coming up.
My exasperation evaporates in the warmth of it.
1969, yes, when I was writing my first play. It must have been. The good year, shortly before the end of his life, the year's reprieve between his first cancer and the second. He just happens to be passing, driving from somewhere in southeast London to somewhere else, on his way to put his head round the doors of building contractors and architects in Woolwich or Eltham, selling them roofing. He has always been turning up like this in my life, unannounced, on the move, a law unto himself, excused by his deafness from the usual social conventions. Not always in a black homburg—sometimes in a brown trilby. But usually in one or the other.
When he takes the hat off it reveals the last of his trim silvering hair receding above the leathery corrugations of his forehead, and brushed precisely flat. His features are as neat and well ordered as his three-piece suit and polished toe caps. He has a touch of Fred Astaire's lightness and quickness about him.
"Not interrupting the muse, am I?" he asks, as I make him coffee. "Not depriving the world of some great new book?"
"It's not a book this time — it's a play."
"Are you? Where are you going?"
"A play. The thing I'm writing."
"Bit crowded at this time of year, Brighton."
He can probably hear me, actually, even if he hasn't turned his hearing aid on. It's over a quarter of a century since he first went deaf, and I've long been used both to raising my voice and to his pretending not to understand even so, for comic effect. More smiles when my wife comes in. "Would you like some lunch?" she asks him, but after a lifetime of softly modulating her voice she finds it almost impossible to make him hear even the vowel sounds. He's rather in awe of her, though, so he doesn't like to disrupt the flow of the conversation.
"Not too bad," he replies. "And the children?"
"They're very well. But how about lunch? Something to eat?"
"Of course not. Up Dog Kennel Hill and across Peckham Rye."
It's forty years since my father died. I've often thought about him since, of course. As he was when I was a child, as he was when I grew apart from him in my adolescence, as he was when we became closer again in those last years of his life. I can sometimes still feel some of his expressions on my own face and know, even without a mirror, that I'm looking like him. And yet I'm so unlike him! Slow where he was quick, scruffy where he was dapper, head in the clouds where he was feet on the ground. And inside, behind our mutual expressions, in the way we think and feel, we're totally different. Aren't we? In all the years I've spent imagining myself into the heads of characters in plays and novels I've never really tried to feel what it was like to be that rather striking real character in the homburg hat. Your parents are your parents. They are what they are.
It was my children, wondering about their own origins, who first set me thinking about him in a rather different way. They wanted me to write something about my childhood — anything about the past that I could remember, before it had all vanished from my memory forever. Rebecca, my eldest daughter, felt that she and her two sisters — all of them now older than I was when that hat came round the door — "had risen from an unknown place." For a long time I resisted. How could I ever contrive to lay my hands on that lost world, which had now slipped so far away even from me?
And then it occurred to me that it was my father who was one of my last links with that elusive past and who might take us all back to it. Once again I saw his head coming round my door — the homburg, the hearing aid, the smile. Sixty-eight years of good and bad fortune were written in the corrugations of his forehead, the crinkled skin fanning back from the corners of his eyes, and the deep curving crevasses on either side of his mouth. So many things I should have asked him while he was still here to tell me. I might even have tried to talk to him about the thing he never once mentioned, the event that in one single instant broke his life in two — that broke all our lives in two — into Before and After. Did he ever wish he could have said something about it to me?
I went back to my very first conscious memory of him. I suppose I was three years old. He had appeared unexpectedly through a door, just as he did in my recollection of him at the end of his life. And, yes, wearing a homburg hat. He was coming in through the French windows of the dining room, just home from work, still carrying his files and folders. What makes this particular occasion stick in my mind is that I was crying, and that I lied to him about the reason. I'd misbehaved in some way and been scolded by my mother, but I felt so ashamed of my babyishness that I told him it was because I'd banged my head on the edge of the dining table.
Was it really the same man under that first homburg and the second? What had happened to him in the intervening years was etched not only into the skin of his face but deep into the core of the man himself. But then, if I was three when he appeared through the French windows, he must have been thirty-five. More than half a lifetime was written upon him already.
I go over that first remembered encounter with him again, now I'm trying so hard to recall things, and what catches my attention this time is not my lying, or his sympathetic smile as he was taken in, but an odd marginal detail of the scene: the fact that he was coming in through the French windows. They were at the back of the house. If he'd just arrived home from work he'd got out of the car on the driveway by the front door. Why had he walked all the way round to the back garden before he came indoors?
Maybe he'd forgotten his keys. Or maybe he already had a penchant for appearing through doors unexpectedly. But, as I turned this tiny anomaly over in my mind, it occurred to me that there was perhaps another reason — something quite simple, that would explain a lot about him. If I was right, I should have to begin by tracing his path to the French windows that day in 1936 — all the way back, perhaps, to the unknown place from which he himself had arisen.
So back I've gone, as people often do when they get older, scrabbling among the birth and death certificates that marked my family's progress through the world. I've looked up the census returns and the electors' lists and walked around the streets where my father grew up. I've tried to remember what little he told me and to reconstruct the world as he saw it, with the problems he was set and the pleasures and successes he found. I've made myself come face-to-face at last with that event I could never talk to him about, and its consequences for him and all of us.
The quest that I'd so reluctantly begun came to occupy my mind and heart alike. I laughed aloud to myself sometimes at the things that came back to me and at other times could scarcely see what I was doing for tears. I also discovered many things about him — and a few about myself — that I'd never known and that took me completely by surprise.
And now, when he puts his head round my study door again and smiles at me, as he does, I see him — and myself, and the world we shared — a little differently.
Excerpted from My Father's Fortune by Michael Frayn. Copyright 2011 by Michael Frayn. Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.