One of my earliest memories is being three or four and sitting on the stairs in my nightie. It’s early in the morning and it’s gloomy outside. I’m holding a cup—still warm from the coffee it just held, now gone—and I’m using a teaspoon to scrape the coffee-flavored, sugar crystals from the bottom of the mug. The mug itself is blue ceramic with a glazed white rim, and the words Raymond are engraved in script at a jaunty angle across the front.
The mug belonged to my dad, who had just left for work. And from what I can remember, I played out this scene on a regular basis. I never wanted him to leave for work. And I would drive my mum crazy because as the story goes, I would sit up on the stairs waiting for him to return late at night, refusing to go to bed until he had kissed me goodnight. He was a junior hospital doctor with an erratic schedule, so that waiting could run late in the evening.
And so, one of the first things that my dad taught me was how to wait for someone you love.
Lesson Number Two
I’m around five years old, and like many little girls, one of the things I love to do is admire my mum’s make-up collection, and better yet, go through all the various lipstick and mascara tubes, and powder compacts, in her cosmetic bag. My parents are outside in the garden—it must be summer—while I’m alone in their bedroom. I open up pots and tubes. Look at them closely, take in their delicate fragrance. I don’t dare try them.
There’s one container I really want to open. It’s tricky. It’s a navy blue, deep, wide pot. Little do I know it contains loose face powder. As I twist it open, sideways, out spills the contents, liberally dusting everything inside my mum’s make-up bag with sparkly powder. I panic. There’s no way to put it all back in the container. Then I hear footsteps on the stairs and before I know it my dad is there behind me, asking me what I’m doing. I’m terrified that I’m going to get into so much trouble.
He does his best to try and clean up the mess and tells me he won’t tell my mum what happened. And he never does, until about 25 years later when he recounts this story in his speech at my wedding. As he tells it, I was trembling from head to toe when he found me.
And so I learned that sometimes it’s okay to cover for people you love when they make honest mistakes.
Lesson Number Three
When I was young, we’d often have a big family roast for Sunday lunch. We were a family of six. As a surgeon, my dad was considered a master carver (or perhaps how that’s he considered himself, I am not quite sure).
He wields the carving knife after first carefully honing it. He prizes the crispy skin of a roasted chicken, the crunchy crackling on a joint of pork, and the delicious fat that embraces a rare sirloin of beef. He extends tasty morsels of these delights to me on the end of the carving fork, as I stand by him at the carving board. And when there are no more crunchy bits, he passes me the string that held the roast together in the oven, and I get to savor the very last vestiges of flavor and the burnt bits. Not all my siblings share this passion for fat, so I’m happy to take poll position.
And so he taught me to love the parts that so many reject, and that there’s even something to be found where most people see nothing.
Lessons Number Four & Five
I’m 11 and horse-crazy. If I could spend all day and night at the riding stables I would. My bedroom wall, with its cream and blue Laura Ashley wallpaper, is covered with pictures of horses. I love hanging over the gate watching the two horses that graze in the field at the top of our lane. I ride my bike what seems like many miles—it’s probably 3 or 4—to go see my friend’s horse at the weekend.
I’m also an average student and when I get my end of year school report, it appears I’m actually below average. I’m 23rd out of 25 students in the class. My dad, one of the smartest people I know, isn’t at all impressed. He summarily tells me that I can no longer take riding lessons at the weekend. I’m heartbroken and angry with him.
One year later, I’m second out of 25 in the class.
I’m not sure I’ve ever really forgiven him for taking me away from horses, but he changed the trajectory of my academic career, and for that I am grateful.
And so he taught me two of the hardest lessons of all. Tough love, and you have to work hard to achieve good things.
Lesson Number Six
I’m in my final year of college and my dad and I have a monthly dinner date. He drives up from Leicester to Nottingham (less than 20 miles) in his shiny sports car, and I pick the restaurant. As a starving student I don’t have the funds to go out for special meals, and so I look forward to these evenings, especially as my dad and I haven’t spent much time together in recent years.
We share a love of ‘blue’ fillet of beef, and one night we order chateaubriand for two. It’s juicy, tender and red. It feels decadent and special, and my dad teaches me to appreciate and savor it.
We have eaten many, many delicious meals together over the years. After all, the family theme tune is “We’ll eat again”. Some meals we’ve eaten in fancy restaurants, some in local pubs. Many in different parts of the world. Plenty around our own tables—my dad is a superb cook.
And perhaps the biggest gift of a lesson, is the one about enjoying food. Reveling in it. Preparing it. Enjoying the taste of it.
There are so many other lessons in life that my dad has taught me over the years. I can’t claim to live by them all, but his influence and his quiet support have made all the difference in my life.