On 23rd October 1979, as Tommy lay cold on the slab in Tamborine Mountain, waiting to be buried the following day, I lay in my crib in a grey, rainy town in Northern England. I didn’t know it, but I’d just turned three months old.
I never met Dennis, or “Tommy” as he had become, but I would grow up calling him grandfather.
My father didn’t talk about his father much. We weren’t a family that talked about feelings. When he had a drink, though, dad would confide in me. “Dennis took one look at me and ran a mile,” my father would say. “He went out to get a packet of cigarettes and a pint of milk one day, took nothing with him, not even a coat, and he never came back. He could be anywhere, anybody. I look at tall strangers in the face, and he could be any of them. I don’t even know if he is dead or alive.”
If he was really drunk, he would tell me that his father was a “bad man.” A violent man, who beat my grandmother, a salesman who seldom worked, and who drank his wages when he did. A man who couldn’t hold a job, and that as a result, my grandmother was always moving house, one step ahead of the bailiffs.
He talked too about the “strange household” that he grew up in. He lived with his mother, his older brother (Dennis’ son) and his younger brother (Bill Simpson’s son, my grandmother’s second husband). Bill also lived with them. Perhaps strangest of all was the presence of Grace Lilian Ada, who was Dennis’ mother. She had a scissor gate, and my grandmother looked after her, changing her dressings on her leg ulcers twice a day until she died. I asked my grandmother before her death why she looked after Grace her whole life, after Dennis left. She shrugged and said, “there was nobody else.”
In the middle of it all, nobody talked to my father about anything. I asked him once, had he ever addressed my grandmother directly about Dennis, and he said no. I asked why, and my father said “I didn’t know I could.” As a result, he knew next to nothing about his father. My father was also horribly bullied at school, and was a child of divorce. He didn’t have it easy at all as a kid. Dennis’ desertion is, at least in part, the cause of those difficulties. I can understand why my father calls him a “bad man.”
My uncle goes a step further in his anger against his father. He was nine when Dennis left. He responded to an invite to Dennis’ memorial service in Australia by telling me he was “a drunken wife beater who then deserted his wife and two sons, having sold all their possessions that were in store and “borrowed” money from my granddad and other members of the family. He also left his mother in the care of his wife and left the family penniless with just the clothes they stood up in in rented accommodation.”
He adds “if it had not been for Bill Simpson [my grandmother’s second husband] we would have been out on the streets.” He has also told me in person that at nine years old or so he physically intervened to stop Dennis beating his wife. Dennis was six feet five “in his stocking feet,” he was broad and muscular. He was a captain in the military police. My grandmother was around five feet tall, and fairly slight. I can understand why my uncle does not think that he deserves a headstone, or a memorial, or anybody to attend it or honour or remember him.
Both my father and his brother have been traumatised by Dennis’ actions in leaving, and the subsequent difficulties they faced as a family. Both have suffered life long mental health problems as a direct result. From the perspective of his children, he was not a good father, and not a good man.
There are some difficulties with Geoff’s story, though. First, Dennis did not live with Mary for any prolonged period after the war. He gave his leave address as 21 Westminster Road, Coventry in 1946. (This is a large, family home, now split into student flats). He was still living there in 1952. He did live “with” Mary briefly in 1949 (they shared an address when my father was born). At this address, Mary lived in a separate upstairs flat with Grace Lilian Ada (Dennis’ mother), and presumably the children, and Dennis lived in the downstairs flat with an unrelated couple.
Geoff remembers being nine when Dennis left. This would put him “disappearing” in 1949. Indeed, they have all left the address in Leeds by 1950. However, the army confirms that he was still at the address in Coventry in 1952. The army tried to find him in 1953, and confirmed that his whereabouts were not known to his mother at this time, so he had definitely disappeared by 1953.
However, the question remains as to whether Mary knew about the Coventry address, and if Mary knew, did Grace? I find it hard to believe that Dennis had the same address from 1946 to 1952, and that Mary did not know that he had the address. I’m not certain, but my feeling is that after the war, their marriage was very patchy. There are no records of them living together for prolonged periods, and even where they are “living together,” Mary is in a flat with Grace, and Dennis is in a separate flat with unrelated individuals.
In short, I don’t think that Dennis took “one look at my father” and walked out in 1949. I think that the marriage was on the rocks from 1946 at the earliest, and that Mary knew where Dennis was in 1952. I can’t prove any of it, though.
Click here to read more about our rare family disease, and how it revealed a secret that Mary took to her grave.