My Mother, Bridie Bowbrick, in The Mercy Hospital, Cork, Ireland in April 2007

Three weeks ago my Mum lost her husband. That makes her a widow. She’s joined the universal club of the widows. The thing about widows, once you notice, is that they’re everywhere. They surround us but we hardly see them. Join any queue at the post office or ride on the lower deck of a daytime bus, though, and you’ll be among them. We ignore them because if we didn’t they’d break our hearts.

These widows are a kind of global storehouse of grief. They keep it for us so we don’t have to. Mum spent 50 years (minus two weeks) married to my Dad. Her job now, now that he’s gone, is to not have him, to be without him. She’s quietly inherited the melancholy role of the millions who preceded her. She articulates and embodies loss for the rest of us.

She’s a clever and independent person, my Mum – not a cipher or a shadow or a proxy for a dead man – but the implacable logic of widowhood has her. She’ll move now through a world where she’s grudgingly cared for but quietly resented for surviving. Our societies hate widows because of everything their existence says about our mortality and about the foreshortened vitality of the men they survive.

Women live longer but only so that we can despise their longevity, make jokes about them, patronise and ignore them. We’re mean and miserable about widows. We waste their wisdom and their insight. We falsely categorise them as dotty or wicked: little old ladies. We should love and respect widows but we can’t because they remind us of where we’re going. And for that we can’t forgive them.

A dictionary of my Dad

Last Wednesday my dad, George Bowbrick, died. He died in a hospital in Dublin a week after we learnt he had a bone tumor and a secondary lung cancer. He’d been in real pain for quite a long time and various stupid doctors had diagnosed this pain as ‘frozen shoulder’, which is common and non-fatal. That’s another story.

My Dad belonged to the generation that reached adulthood right after the Second World War. He lived through the war – and right in the thick of the blitz – in Blackfriars, close to the river. His father died young after years of illness and incapacity, caused in part by the privations of his first world war service. His mother, Nora, by my dad’s account a funny and indomitable woman, from the far end of the Western end of Ireland, fed and clothed and sheltered the seven of them entirely on her own (she died early herself – diabetes and decades of hard work – so I never met her).

Like his brothers and sisters he left school at fourteen and went to work (at Bennie Lifts, now defunct). Later, having done his National Service in Japan and Hong Kong, he got a job on the buses, at Vauxhall Bus Garage (on the 10s and the 73s if I’m remembering it right). That’s where he met my Mum – she was a conductor too, a couple of years older than him and not long out of the army (the ATS) herself. She’d come to Britain as a teenager from rural Kilkenny in the green middle of Ireland before the end of the war.

Along the way he acquired a love of learning and began to improve himself. He would always credit his extraordinary Aunt Emma for this. Even as a kid, his brothers and sisters thought he was funny, a bit unworldly. These days we might have called him a nerd. He collected stamps (once Terry and Laurie, the tearaway younger brothers, sold his whole collection for a shilling and he cried). Books became a passion: in his study in West Cork, where I’m writing this, I just counted 55 dictionaries (I’m not counting the dozens of encyclopaedias, guides, handbooks, companions, yearbooks, almanacs and gazetteers either).

Knowledge – proper, factual knowledge – stood, for my Dad, for freedom. Freedom from ignorance and poverty and the arbitrary nature of existence. We shared that love of knowledge but I think the difference is a lack of urgency: I guess I can take it or leave it. For him it was life or death.

His commitment to learning went a long way. He always used to tell us that he was leaving his body to medical science and I suppose I thought he was at least half serious. It turns out, of course, that he was wholly serious and, as I write, he’s serving a useful purpose at the University Hospital in Cork City.

After he died we learnt that a condition of his deal with the medics was that we had to provide a coffin – a coffin we’d never see – for his journey in a van from Dublin to Cork. The fact that we wound up paying the bloody undertakers a thousand Euro for this pointless box would have made him laugh and shout, I’m sure.

The Irish friends and family who adopted him here in Cork – good Catholics all – are pretty sure he’s up in heaven looking down on us now and they reckon this would serve the old atheist right.

He was strong and happy and loving and resourceful and never without an opinion. Me and my Mum, my family and all his friends, old and new, will miss him madly.

George Joseph Bowbrick, 6th November 1931 – 7th March 2007.

Those dictionaries

A list of the 55 dictionaries that I found amongst my dad’s books when he died. Back to my blog post about him.

Dictionary of Gastronomy

Collins Cobuild Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs

Dictionnaire des Noms Propres

A Concise Dictionary of American Place-Names

Dictionary of Inventions

Dictionary of Pub Names

A Dictionary of Eponyms

The Oxford Mini Dictionary of Twentieth-Century World History

BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names

The Penguin Concise Dictionary of Biographical Quotation

A Biographical Dictionary of Scientists

A Dictionary of Building

Dictionary of British Natural History

The Penguin Dictionary of Commerce

A Dictionary of Science

The Penguin Dictionary of Astronomy

The Dictionary of Art and Artists

A Dictionary of Civil Engineering

The Penguin Dictionary of Archaeology

Oxford Concise English Dictionary

A Dictionary of HIstorical Slang

A Dictionary of Political Thought

Dictionary of the Bible

Dictionary of the Environment

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music

Smaller Slang Dictionary

The Rhyming Dictionary

Dictionary of Wines and Spirits

The Chambers Dictionary of Science and Technology (vols 1 & 2)

The Penguin Dictionary of Twentieth Century History

The Penguin Dictionary of English and European History

American Heritage Dictionary

Collins Robert French Dictionary

Concise Russian and English Dictionary

Dictionary of Mathematics

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music

Everyman’s Dictionary of Economics

Everyman’s Dictionary of Dates

Everyman’s Dictionary of European Writers

Collins Authors and Printers Dictionary

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera

Dictionary of English Usage

Dictionaire National des Communes de France

The Oxford Classical Dictionary

The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs

A Dictionary of Famous Quotations

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary

Dictionary of Differences

Langenscheidt’s Pocket Dictionary (German)

American Pocket Medical Dictionary

Dictionary of the Human Body

A Visual Dictionary of Art

The Compact Edition of the Dictionary of National Biography

A Dictionary of Contemporaries

Back to A Dictionary of my Dad.