We buried my father on Monday
Kevin Joseph Kearns
4 October 1923 – 23 July 2016
Did Dad, Granddad, Kevin, ever tell you the story of the boy from Dublin who lost his Mam when he was twelve, and, abandoned by his father, was taken in by his responsible and generous sister, Theresa, and her young family? He didn’t tell me. But he would tell me that I had no idea what it was like to have nothing, that I had not seen what drink did to families. He was certain he could not have survived without help from his God, “without him up there, you’re nothing,” he would impress upon me. This man touched barely a drop of alcohol after his marriage, and stopped smoking after a first day off work, sick with a cough. The half-empty packet of Guards cigarettes stayed in his chest of drawers for years afterwards, a test and proof of firm purpose.
His stories beguiled our mother, and later entertained their children, grand-children and great-grand-children. The breath would chug out of him as he laughed at memories of cowboy movies (Tom Mix, Gene Autrey, Roy Rogers), the tricks the horses did, up on their hind legs, and turning in a circle. The slapstick of Abbot and Costello, the scrapes that Harry Lloyd got into, Laurel and Hardy playing with eggs, these he could conjure with his hands, stamping his leg to interrupt the helpless laughter, “Oh you have no idea GeGe, you’ve seen nothing.”
He was quite the romantic figure with his stories, and his good looks. Several of his brothers were involved with the management of cinemas in Dublin. When the Hollywood stars came to open their films in Dublin, a Kearns might be welcoming them to one of the movie palaces on O’Connell Street. He would also tell stories of his time in the Irish Army, riding a motorbike around pitch-black Dublin during what he first knew as the Emergency but after moving to Britain called the War, of the time the bomb fell on North Strand Dublin and with his body he sheltered his pregnant sister-in-law, or of his time in the RAF, gingerly driving unexploded bombs to a store in a forest somewhere in Yorkshire (“it’s confidential”), ferrying folk through the floods of 1947, the worst winter, a tour of Rhodesia as he knew it, the luxury cruise ship out, eating at the captain’s table with the officers for whom he was driver, the scallywags and other friends and the tricks they played on each other. Oh, and yes, I could have no idea what laughs they had.
Mum knew about the laughs and the romance of it all, and the gaps in the photo album–“all his girlfriends” she would rib him, poking him with her finger, bringing him back to other stories; of the “sweetheart”, Chris, to whom he opened his heart and to whom he told it all, all the pain of the orphan. Our Mum was quite a catch, and he knew it. With her education, the precision of her accent, the glamour of the clothes that work as a bookie’s clerk bought for her, the molten radiance of her smile, and her aspirations for her own children, he knew he had found the soulmate for a new life, a family life, and with this woman his children could have everything he had missed out on. His children would have no idea what it was like to have nothing. And this woman, Chrissie, later Chris, “my sweetheart” in letters, “your Mam” in his stories for us, this woman knew him. Her mother’s sister had married one of Kevin’s older brothers, Harry, a soldier in the War, traumatised by the bloodshed and imprisonment of what Dad called the Far East. Chris, herself, babysat the children of this couple, and it was this Aunt Josie, who nudged Chris and Kevin together, and then teased them until Aunt became sister-in-law.
I have no idea all that Chris knew of Kevin but I do know that she saw his charity and his humility. This man would work evenings, Saturdays and, despite a crisis of conscience (resolved, typically, in favour of his children), occasional Sundays. He did this so that his wife and children would want for little. With a dread of debt, Chris and Kevin bought Christmas presents, bikes or scooters, on higher purchase, HP at the Co-Op, and Dad’s overtime paid for it, but his humility gave the credit to Mum. “Your Mam got you that,” he would say. And of course she did, for if she asked, he would not refuse, whatever it meant for the length of his working week.
And still the stories. Home from work, he would, when the children were small, go up to the cot and talk, until dinner. The family photos show him clowning around, trousers rolled up to his knees, or punching a ball aloft for children to squeal at and chase, but the most placid, cheery and cherished we see him are in pictures for or with Mum, on holiday, perhaps, or holding one of their children. We know that he watched his children with extravagant care (“not on the wall”, “not near the water”, “oh Mam will you tell him to stay away from …”), and we knew it was Mum that licensed our always-moderate risk-taking (“don’t tell your father”), for she knew that, however precious, children could not be kept from all injury. But he was right, and when harm came, and belovèd Denise died tragically and young, it broke both of them.
They crawled up out of this pit and it was the charity that made immoderate claims and a humility that disqualified introspection that, in that dark decade after Denise’s death, had them reaching back towards the rest of their family. It was with caring for Daniel, the son that their daughter, Anita, was raising as a lone mother, and rejoicing in the memory of Denise in the company of her daughters, Toni and Roxi, and taking joy in watching Adrian’s children, Oliver and Saskia grow into vivacious teenagers, and it was with the charity of seeing the best in the achievements of their children, that the horror of that early death was set aside just enough to once again be thankful for a full life for themselves.
Then, last February, Mum went to hospital after a stroke. With so much of his life’s content reached with and through this woman, Chris, Dad was cut loose to the terror and loneliness of memory. I don’t know if I admire anything more than his fortitude in the past few months. For years, he and Mum had relied upon their daughter, Anita, and her husband Spencer (thank you Spencer and Anita), for help with the business of living independently and proudly, and in the past year, Anita’s son Daniel had been with them. With Mum now gone, Daniel cherished his Granddad all the more (thank you Daniel), and with Anita helped him continue to live at 24 Hornsby Close. Dad accepted this care with humility and gratitude.
He began to tell stories again. Dad spoke of all he owed to Chris. He spoke even of his youth. Liberating his RAF blazer from the wardrobe, he spruced himself up to the form of that glamorous young man who had first seduced Chris. He planned visits, and holidays, all the while knowing the pain of the joyful memories they would stir. He wanted to see again his only surviving brother, Mattie. He wanted to travel again the roads of his honeymoon, through West Cork and Kerry in the flash car loaned to him by his stepfather, Tommy Bird. After hearing the sad news of her death, he wanted to go to the funeral in Dublin of his sister-in-law, Josie Fullam, and he did go, flying in to Dublin and spending a day amazing relatives young and old with the acuity of his memory, the cheeriness of his manner, the vigour of his gait, and the lure of his stories. But frailty loads the dice against the player, and he collapsed at home some few days after this. Not a bad way to go, too soon for all of us, but perhaps Roxi’s comment is the best: “Well, Nan, you’ve got him back.”