Saturday, October 07, 2006

"And When Did You Last See Your Father?"

By Judy Staber

I have been thinking a lot about my father lately, about the little I know and what I might remember. I don’t remember much. My father has been an absence rather than a presence. Mind you, he’s a strong absence. After all, everyone has a father - somewhere - and we learn early on that a proper family is a mother, a father and some children.

Growing up in a home for children whose parents didn’t want them or couldn’t keep them, fathers were often unknown quantities. Sure some lucky kids did know their fathers, usually actors down on their luck; but those kids didn’t stay with us long. When a father landed a film job or a commercial and work started to flow, then his children would leave the orphanage as quickly as they came. Some did come back later, a little down-hearted.

Some children had fathers who didn’t acknowledge them. They were the result of illicit relationships. Oh, the shame of it then, but most outgrew the shame and went on to boast about their, usually famous, fathers.

My Father was neither an illicit relationship nor an out of work actor, he was a goner - not dead, just gone. Gone before I was old enough to even realize or appreciate what a Father might or might not be. Just gone. And what I didn’t know, didn’t hurt, or did it?

At eleven I attended an all-girls day school near the orphanage, the only girl to pass the 11 plus exam and win a scholarship. Sir William Perkins School for Girls was, in hindsight, a wonderful school and I had a great education there. But there were inevitable pitfalls for one such as I.

Having no knowledge of “normal” home life, I was unable to join in much of the girl-talk, and when invited for tea or a sleep-over, I was ham-handed and wrong-footed often as not in the presence of parents.

Being the child of an actress was, in the early 1950s before this cult of celebrity took over, tantamount to being the child of a loose woman. Some girls and many mistresses did look at me askance for that error of my birth.

One of my more painful memories occurred in English class in the Lower Fourth. We were studying the Civil War in History - that’s the English one between the Roundheads and Cavaliers. Our English teacher, Mrs. Green, attempted to introduce a little parallel learning. She showed us a picture of William Yeames’ famous painting: a Roundhead soldier is asking the small son of a Cavalier, “And When Did You Last See Your Father?” Our classroom assignment was to write a paragraph answering that question in our more mundane personal lives.

What could I say? Too intimidated to protest and lacking any information to write down, I didn’t do it. I got an F - an F for my Father.

Judy Staber retired from the Spencertown Academy last year after nine years as arts manager. She is happy to be writing and tending her garden. Born into a theatrical family, she grew up at The Actors' Orphanage in England. She has written a memoir about her childhood and is currently working on a biography of her mother and father and their lives in the theater in England and America.

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