Originally posted 6 October 2017
Hello! How are you? Well, I’m back after just a week this time as I am feeling inspired. I have so many stories, projects and pictures that I want to share with you! I feel compelled to write so I am going with it until the inspiration well dries up, but of course I am hoping that doesn’t happen!
Last week I published my Summer visit to The Pergola and Hill Gardens on Hampstead Heath, North London, the first post in my ‘Finding Urban Beauty’ series. I really enjoyed the process of going back over that gorgeous morning and putting into words how I felt about and what I could see in my surroundings. I do so love the fact that my blog is becoming a special virtual store for my visual and written memories. I will be able to look back at posts after years and remember feelings, events, moments and adventures that my family and I have had. Maybe when they are a bit older, my kids might like to look back with me too. That would be wonderful!
Today, I want to share with you and store a few memories and stories about my lovely Dad. I mentioned him last week and I found the process of writing about him difficult but heart warming and cathartic too, so I felt I wanted to honour him and his memory in this way. The plan isn’t for this to be a heavy post but a collection of little stories and facts that I know about Dad and his life. Of course as with any family we had some very difficult times, but those aren’t the stories I wish to tell here on my blog, and those aren’t the memories I wish to be at the forefront of my mind. I also just want to state that there are so many gaps in my knowledge of my Dad’s story. I did ask him questions, but he found it very difficult to talk about some aspects of his life, especially his childhood I think.
My Dad was called Cyprian and his childhood was so different from mine. He was born in Kirinyaga, a kikuyu (Dad’s tribe) village in rural Kenya with no running water or electricity. He did not know what year he was actually born because he didn’t have a birth certificate. When he was older he was desperate to vote, so he lied about his age. His documents eventually stated that he was born on the 20th September 1937. This year he would have turned 80 but that could very well be 77 or 78! Isn’t that funny?…and a little bit naughty too!
Dad’s Mum and Dad died when he was about 6. My heart aches when I think of little Cyprian and how he must have felt. In fact, I cannot imagine what he and his family went through at the time. I do not know how they died because my Dad couldn’t tell me. When I asked him, he said in his gorgeous Kenyan accent, “You see I think…”, he started so many sentences in this way!…”You see I think Lulu, when something is so traumatic, one might block it out”. My poor darling Dad.
He was the youngest of 4 children. His eldest sister who I think may now be approaching 100 years of age, looked after him when their parents died. She became his mother and we called her ‘shosho’ (not how it is spelt), meaning grandmother in Gikuyu, the tribal language. I am afraid to say that his second sister died in her late teens or early twenties I believe. I do know that she was killed in a dispute over some land and/or as a result of jealousy. His brother also died but later on, in the 60’s I think. My Dad carried a lot of unprocessed grief with him through his life.
My Dad’s Dad had 3 wives! This traditional practice meant that my Dad had quite a few half brothers and sisters and for me this means I have many cousins who I have never and will never ever meet.
Dad didn’t go to school until he was 9 years old. He was very poor and his family could not afford to buy the smart trousers or the books he needed for school. He made the decision at 9, to raise the money himself, so he got a job on a local farm and he used his earnings to buy what he needed. I have a 9 year old son and I cannot fathom him needing to work in order to have what every child on this earth is entitled to – an education. My Dad’s life was so different and by this age he had known such tragedy and loss. Not really a childhood at all. Although this story makes me feel sorrowful, it also warms my heart and makes me smile, because it demonstrates what kind of person my Dad was then and for the rest of his life. He was gently determined, methodical, forward thinking, resourceful and strong.
When Dad was older, probably in his late teenage years, he went to live in a seminary in Nyeri, a nearby town and trained to become a priest. He did this because the Mau Mau, the freedom fighters (fighting for Kenyan independence from the British) were rounding up and forcing young men to fight with them so he left his family and began a new journey in his life. The seminary was run by Italian priests and he wasn’t shy about questioning their practices. He did not like the hierarchy or the fact that if ‘all men are created equal in the eyes of God’, the white and the black priests should eat separately or eat different food. He therefore had a challenging relationship with the Italian priests and he came to the decision to leave. In fact, his ‘superiors’ joked that he should go to Russia as they were convinced he was a bit of a communist. But instead he travelled to join a seminary in the UK after holding a fund raising even called a ‘harambe’, meaning ‘to pull together’ in Swahili. He later studied insurance rather than becoming a priest and thank goodness he did!
It was in London in 1969 that he met my Mum, through a mutual friend. Mum was the love of his life.
My Dad experienced racism when on his own in London and as a mixed race couple, my parents did too. They used to tell me the story of trying to find a flat to live in together. These were the times of signs in the windows that read, ‘No dogs, no blacks, no Irish’. This makes my blood boil! My Mum would ring around looking for accommodation, rather than my Dad with his ‘foreign’ accent. But she used her maiden name as opposed to her new African surname. They found somewhere to live in the end; one room up “too many flights of stairs!”
My brother was born in their first year of marriage and I came along 18 months later. When I was being born, literally whilst my poor Mum was in labour, my Dad asked her for her gravy recipe as he wanted to make a roast dinner for him and my brother!
Whilst he was studying in London, my Dad once worked as a waiter at The Savoy. Doesn’t he look dapper?…
My Dad was kind, charming, sociable and well liked. Our multicultural community in North London was a great place for Mum and Dad to raise a mixed race family. We used to have the most amazing New Year’s eve parties that brought the community together. I remember a packed house, Bob Marley tunes turned up loud on the stereo and lots of eating and dancing. Dad was a great dancer!
My Dad was very proud to be Kenyan. We had many Kenyan friends in London, some of whom Dad had known from Kenya and others he met here. One of my Dad’s best friends was Sam. We called him Uncle Sam. How I adored him! He was the funniest man I knew, with a loud voice, a raucous laugh and a gold tooth. We would hear him coming before we saw him! He used to babysit on Wednesdays. We would watch Dallas together, he’d often listen to me playing the Dallas theme tune on my recorder and then I had to sit quietly through the news. Much much later on in life, Sam disappeared. We just stopped hearing from him and we couldn’t track him down. We suspect that he may have passed away.
Dad was trilingual. He could speak English, Swahili and Gikuyu. He could also speak a little bit of Latin. Because his first language had been Gikuyu, he couldn’t get his tongue round certain letter sounds. So instead of an ‘l’ he would say an ‘r’ and vice versa. My brother and I used to get him to say words like, ‘parallel’, and fall about laughing at the result. Dad loved making us laugh.
Dad taught me to ride a bike. I remember him quite clearly being by my side and then suddenly he was way behind me and I was riding on my own down the street. I was quite furious with him for letting go! I now live only 10 minutes from that very spot.
My Dad was responsible for me ending my long standing habit of sucking the index finger on my right hand. When I was 7, he threatened to put chilly powder on it and I never sucked it again!
He once got a chicken bone stuck in his throat and he had to be rushed to hospital for them to remove it. He was very lucky that he lived to tell the tale.
It was in a hospital that I saw my dad cry for the first time. During a 9th birthday party in a local park, I broke my right wrist swinging from the monkey bars. I remember him leaning over my hospital bed with tears in his eyes, telling me he loved me.
Although he made a life for himself and us in London, he always wanted to go back to Kenya, which he did when I was 10 years old. We joined him, 2 years later. We lived in Nairobi where my Dad worked in an insurance company and my Mum eventually worked at the British High Commission.
We sometimes holidayed in beautiful Mombasa, by the Indian Ocean. But Dad did find it hard to relax and often became ill during breaks. I think this may have stemmed from his childhood too. At such a young age, he had to pull himself together, get out there for and by himself and start working. And that is what he became, a worker. Not someone who grew up with the luxury of holidays or relaxing times with his family. Sometimes I think my Dad was a bit like a tightly wound spring. He found it really hard to unwind but when he did, when he allowed himself to, he was great fun and he loved enjoying himself.
Because of the poverty of his childhood, he was a bit like a squirrel when he was older. He was able to save money and he would have little bits of money invested in bonds here and there. We never quite knew how much he had and if we asked Dad for money, he would pull an envelope out of his inside jacket pocket, pull his glasses down his nose so he could see up close and count out a few notes.
Dad owned a little 7 acre coffee and tea farm in Kirinyaga, his childhood village, so I suppose you could call him a farmer. He was a great gardener too. This was where Mum and Dad built a 2 bedroom bungalow and created a beautiful garden that they could enjoy. From the veranda of that house, you could see a snow capped Mt Kenya. Stunning! The plan was that in their retirement they would live there for some of the time, but that didn’t work out. Although we no longer own the homestead (the house and grounds) or the farm itself, my cousin now lives there and looks after the precious garden in which my Dad is buried.
My Dad had the most beautiful brown skin and a smile that lit up any room. People said I looked like him. He retained some of his traditional views on life and was a bit strict at points, but he was a softy really. I do have my favourite memories of times with Dad, some of which I have shared with you in this post. A couple more come to mind. I remember being a little girl and running along side him as he walked briskly and when I got tired, he would pick me up and carry me in his arms. I also remember him laughing until his face hurt when my boy at 18 months old, turned up the volume on the stereo so loud that he jumped and ran across the room in a fright.
He loved his grandchildren, he loved my brother and I and my husband, and he adored my Mum. We knew we were loved by him and that means so much.
Dad died of lung cancer, which I believe was caused by suppressed grief, in a hospice in North London, at 12.30pm on the 11th October, 2009. His last words to us were, “I love you so much”. We buried him on his beloved farm, in Kirinyaga, Kenya on the 17th October 2009. He was wonderful, I loved him and I miss him. As with us all, his story deserves to be told and he deserves to be remembered.
I aim to be back next week with tales of a very British institution, which has brightened my world and given my family and I many good times and wonderful memories, the National Trust.
In the meantime my lovelies, thank you for being here and sharing these memories with me. Have a wonderful weekend and week ahead. Lots and lots of love and virtual cuddles.