Today would have been the 76th birthday of my stepfather, had he not dropped over dead while brushing his teeth fourteen years ago. It also would have been the 52nd wedding anniversary for my mother and father had my stepfather not dropped in from the heavens via BOAC.
Actually, that’s not true. Their marriage probably would have disintegrated long ago regardless of HCB . . . and my father has been dead himself for nearly seven years, so that adds a wrinkle. Anyway, September 4 is a day of some history in this household. (It’s also my mother’s brother Allen’s birthday- Happy Birthday Allen!)
My stepfather, Humphrey Clarke Booth, was brilliant, but also something of a mean son-of-a-bitch when the stars were akimbo. It was hard to know what would set him off, and so inevitably he was inadvertently detonated at times. Long after I left the fold, my mother bought herself a Smith and Wesson revolver and learned to shoot it, and that put a damper on the mercurial temper.
But if you can set that aside, it’s worth looking at the rest of what made the man. He was an eccentric and charming English physician and through him I’ve forgotten more than most will ever know about socialized medicine. (And yes, I’m a fan.) I’ve also learned various manner of diagnostic technique– mostly using one’s ears. His patients used to talk in a kind of amazement about how much he listened to them. Often, he listened so much that the day’s schedule was a total disaster; dinner– forget about it, and house calls or a stop in at the hospital just to check on something for five minutes took half the day.
He was good at taking in strays– we had patients sleeping on the couch or working in the office or doing little chores around the place. My mother has a way with stray animals, so they took in those too. When he saw someone panhandling, he didn’t give them a dollar, he gave them a twenty– and it’s funny he seemed to have an unerring sense for those who truly needed help and others that were just begging as a career.
He was extraordinarily sentimental.
He taught me how to drive, how to ski, how to sail. He showed me how to dissect the eyeball of a sheep, how to de-bone a chicken, how to make a proper omelet. He was a true bon vivant, a fan of classical music, good food, excellent wine. He loved antiques and from him I learned how to read the marks, the signatures, the lines of a fine chair. I learned to listen as well, and bide my time, and let people tell their own stories and this is a skill that (unlike eyeball dissection) has stood me in great stead.
Neither my mother nor my father were particularly “people-persons.” It would be unlikely for them to strike up a conversation with strangers, or invite people they barely knew home for dinner. Yet, I’ve inherited this from the man who chose me as his daughter– and that’s how he referred to me as his “chosen daughter.” He had another daughter, too, same age– their relationship was something more tempestuous and that story’s not for me to tell.
It is my great sorrow that he did not live long enough to see my son grow up. Julian’s prowess at the cello would have had him in tears, and the conversations I can imagine they would have had about ancient Roman politics! He would have loved this boy, and would no doubt have put him behind the wheel of the 12-cylinder Jaguar as soon as Julian could have reached the pedals. He would have been immensely proud of him, I think.
Yesterday at the fair, I wandered over to look at the ponies on the pony wheel. They were fat and glossy and well-kept. It was a rainy afternoon and there was not much going on at the pony wheel, and the pony man came over to talk to me. I must have had my “tell me your story” face on, for he did. We talked about genealogy, and socialized medicine and the price of hay and the state of politics (very gently) and the ponies and his wife’s longhorn steer, Sancho, and the problems with fairs and fair boards. Without HCB, I doubt if that conversation would ever have happened.
He met people with an open hand, an open heart and an agreement of trust. Sometimes, with the people he loved the most, he breached that trust in terrible ways– but forgiveness makes those times easier to lay aside. He was certainly a man with great flaws, but also one with great talents. It’s one thing to say “I wouldn’t be who I am today without him”– many people say that about someone influential in their lives. But at my very core, I would be a much different person if not for those events of September 4.
Dear H., wherever you are, I owe you an enormous debt of love and gratitude. xoxo
Today’s target 70 Steps 1120
Breakfast: yogurt with granola. Lunch: shrimp with a cup of pasta Dinner: roast duck, chicken with king mushrooms, rice, fortune cookie, a few m & ms.