'Dad laughed like he'd heard a good story told by another man, not his son'
At that moment, he felt I’d grown up: I could tell a good story
Patrick McKenna in Canada
One of the reasons why I came home to Ireland from Canada often was to see my dad. I was very close to him. I loved to listen to his stories from the old days in the butchering trade in Belfast.
He wasn’t just a talker, though. He always asked about my work and life in Montreal, and listened carefully to what I had to say.
Inevitably, on Father’s Day, one particular conversation with my dad comes to mind
Inevitably, on Father’s Day, one particular conversation with my dad comes to mind. Some years ago, I came back for his 90th birthday. As a present I brought the cane I’d purchased in Harare in Zimbabwe, where I’d spent three months consulting for a non-profit foundation. The cane, made of Ironwood, had a lion’s head pommel. Dad, you see, was a Leo.
His birthday wasn’t a big bash, just his kids, sons- and daughters-in-law, and his grand-kids. By 5pm everyone had left. At about 8pm I made tea as I always did, for him and my mum, adding a half slice of bread and butter for her, and brought the lot into the living room. Then I sat alone, in the dining room drinking my tea, enjoying the quiet.
After 10 minutes or so the door opened and Dad appeared. He asked if there was another cup in the pot. I told him there was, and filled his mug. He sat down, rubbed his eyes, muttered something about the noise from the TV, and we started to talk, as we always did.
Naturally he was interested in Harare. To begin with he asked me, jokingly, “Did you meet Mr Mugabe?” “No,” I replied. “But when I got too close to Zimbabwe House, where he lives I almost got arrested.”
I explained how I’d left the hotel one Sunday morning, to visit Harare’s Botanic Garden. I’d walked north on Sam Nijima Street, and east along Jousua Tongora Street, looking for Fifth Street - that leads to the Botanic Garden. I missed Fifth Street - something I only realised when I saw I was almost at Sixth Street. I stopped, and at a break in the traffic, jogged across the road and walked back towards Fifth Street, along a footpath flanked by a high, thick, hedge.
A soldier came running from a guard post that had escaped my attention. He stopped me at gunpoint. Then came the rapid fire questions: “Who are you? Where are you from? What are you doing here?”
At this stage I edited my story: I didn’t want to tell Dad about how nervous the soldier was, or about the Kalashnikov his comrade had trained on me. I especially didn’t want to mention the very shiny, very sharp, bayonet hovering around my shirt pocket.
I tried to keep my story as light as possible, “You know, it was my Irish passport that saved my bacon. When they saw it they relaxed. I wasn’t a BBC journalist. They let me go on my way.” I didn’t say to dad how relieved I was not to have spent the afternoon with Zimbabwean Special Branch.
Dad deserved a happier story than that of my misadventure on the way to Harare’s Botanic Garden, so I told him about a cocktail evening organised by the foundation where I was working. The 50 or so guests were made up of Zimbabwean administrative personnel and programme managers from all over Africa. I was the only white person, although, for some reason, I wasn’t at all aware of my whiteness.
You whites don’t have 10 kids. That’s what we Africans do.” "Well, nobody told Mum and Dad that"
As the drinks flowed, I found myself sharing the finer details of my origins. My colleagues were pleased to learn I wasn’t British, American, or Canadian, but Irish. That I was from Northern Ireland caught the attention of the Zimbabwean staffers. Their state television covered the troubles extensively and it didn’t favour the British perspective.
Politics was pushed aside when they learned I was one of 10 children. A chorus of big African voices came back with: “C’mon, Patrick, you whites don’t have 10 kids. That’s what we Africans do”. “Well,” I replied, “nobody told Mum and Dad that.”
At the end of the evening, a tall, aristocratic, programme manager from Rwanda approached me. He solemnly shook my hand, leaned over and in a quiet, confidential, tone said: “Thank you, Patrick, for sharing your story. You know, for us Africans, it’s very important we know which tribe you are from.”
I replied, very solemnly: “In Belfast, also.”
At these words, Dad burst out laughing - as I’d never heard him laugh before. It seemed to me he was laughing as if he’d just heard a good story told by another man and not by his son. Maybe at that moment, he felt I’d grown up: I could tell a good story.
I’m very glad I travelled back for his 90th. It is a memory I treasure when Father’s Day comes around this Sunday.