“A Jungian analyst recently told me we
are all ages at the same time. We are two and eight and 20 and 40 and
80. So, no, there is no such thing as “grow up.” Delight can be the same
in an 80-year-old as it is in a two-year-old. Different circumstances
bring out different ages in us. Yes, bear with me, this is going
When my father decided (after coaxing my
mother into it) that he was going to come to Europe to look after my
daughter while she studied for exams and secondly, to attend the
reenactment of the battle of the 200th anniversary of the
battle of Waterloo in Brussels and finally, hope to see me, I was
The space between spending time with my
daughter and the battle my father wanted to witness stretched to two
months. What would they do here in the cold for this long? What I saw
these two months with my 80-year-old father and my mother (whose age
nobody knows, “a woman’s age is nobody’s business” she tells people who
ask) took me by surprise.
I suddenly saw my parents, not as the
people to whom I go to for approval and comfort, but as people who show
the world how to live. Something about their bearing: My father’s
straight military back, planning the next step, leading the way, and my
mother’s noble but warm and vulnerable beauty that makes her hold both
hands of each waitress who serves her to thank her, made them magnets to
that human quality which I think is the greatest of all.
Kindness, followed by exuberance that
comes from delight with the world—a warm sweater, relief from the cold
into a cozy room, tea in pretty china, a rose garden, the slant of sun
across a cleverly constructed suspension bridge, the mist, rain. They
love it all.
In Bristol they sat, the two
grandparents, while my daughter studied in silence, reading quietly or
going on small forays to the grocery to tempt my daughter with meals.
They went to museums and parks. My mother’s knees hurt, but she came on
every outing. She walked slowly, uncomplaining, sitting down quietly
when the pain got too much.
So my father planned. There was the week
in Bristol, the week with me in London, the two weeks in a city I
suggested casually— Dublin. “Why not” said my father, and my quiescent
mother gamefully followed. The two stayed in the heart of the city
centre for three weeks. They travel modestly with small suitcases,
preferring to cook their own food, carrying spices across borders,
spending time in museums, buildings of note, they love walking along
cobbled streets and canals, through open markets and across squares.
They avoid shopping centres and malls like the plague.
We do go back and back. After Dublin,
they headed to Brussels. My children joined my father in Brussels over
the weekend of June 19 and 20. We knew little of the battle of Waterloo,
but my father’s enthusiasm infected us all.
We converged at different times, my son
and nephew from Trinidad, my daughter from Bristol, in a chaotic flat in
Brussels. I thought it would be impossible, thinking of privacy, space.
But it was a space of much togetherness, adventure, we took trams with
an uncertain destination, teased one another mercilessly over quirks
and, doubling over with laughter, walked in the freezing cold, and rain.
My father said his life is divided into
before and after. We witnessed the reenactment of the ultimate battle of
the Napoleonic Wars at the actual battlefield of Waterloo, fought 200
years ago on June 18, 1815. The area in the countryside of Belgium had
been turned into a massive arena—a time machine of the past.
My father, a walking encyclopedia of
military history, told us as we watched the thousands of reenacters
wearing period uniforms on the battlefields, “It was here,” that
Napoleon’s French army of 93,000 soldiers was defeated on the
battlefield by the 125,000 troops of the Seventh Coalition. To the
sounds and smog of gunfire, he told us how thousands of men were killed
by cannon fire, bullets, bayonets and swords in violent skirmishes.
“What’s happening now daddy?” I asked,
feeling like I was eight. “It’s the fog of war.” That phrase became to
me, an analogy of our inner and outer lives. The fog of war, how chaos
in countries, in our hearts, destroys and disorients us to inaction.
We lined up to get on the buses and on
trams in pouring rain watching the new international face of Europe,
with the hijabs and many accents from Ghana to Poland. For every one
abrupt person there were ten kind people who gave up their seats for my
parents, helped with suitcases, and walked a quarter of mile with us to
show us the way. The next day we went to Bruges, suddenly in hot
sunshine, the oldest city in Europe, a fairy tale medieval town with
cobbled lanes, went on a boat on the canals winding through squares,
soaring towers, old whitewashed almshouses.
Before he left my
father said, “we expect love from our family but it is in the kindness
of strangers that we find true humanity.”