Did you ever feel the frown of a ghost gently admonish you with a look that spoke much more than two or three words?
It happened to me yesterday morning as I was pulling the front door of the block of apartments where I live, rush down a flight of stairs and dash around the corner to breathe easy at the bus stop just a few paces away. I was just two minutes later than usual and missing the only bus that rolls past – not always punctually – where I live is an agro deal when I’m off to work. So, you can imagine the fluster I was in. The type that made an overlooked speck on my left shoe fade into total inconsequence.
And yet, though a zillion percent certain that no one else would notice it in the dawning light, or give a toss if they did, it bothered me enough to go to the bathroom to wipe it off the moment I walked into the office. Fussy! Silly! Whatever, I felt better and glad to have placated my father’s ghost.
My dearest father who polished his lace-up shoes (no other style would do) with effortless zeal every morning without fail. The next day although you could still see your face in them, sure enough, he would be at it again to kick start his morning grooming ritual. His morning shave and shower plus the shower he took before going to bed was HIS SACRED TIME – the only time he was not to be disturbed.
I could write a manual about how he ironed all our clothes with such impeccable precision that all the knife-edged creases survived rounds of tossing and spinning in the washing machine.
‘Like so,’ he told me when years ago he taught me how to press shirts, trousers, pyjamas, handkerchiefs, sheets, tea towels, aprons, the works. Dresses, jackets, blouses, socks and scarves demanded a different technique; yet the end result was still a perfect press.
He would even fold his shirts so that once done, they looked as if they were just being unwrapped for the first time. The way he put them away in his chest of drawers resembled the exactness of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo which he loved. Only the colors were different since he liked plain white and pastel colours with the occasional very fine stripe. My father never wore a medium or dark-colored shirt.
Once, my brother sent him a black shirt which made my father almost collapse inwardly. Far from saying a word that would hurt my brother’s feelings he typically kept everything to himself, even ironed it with the same care. It spent a few years at the very bottom of one of his shirt drawers scented with Imperial Leather soap like all the rest but eventually was gifted to a priest at our parish. Although I suspected the answer, I did pluck enough courage to kind of ask him to give it a try. ‘Not my style,’ came the reticent retort. For him, a black shirt connoted Mussolini’s fascists instantly leading to his brutal war experiences which he kept firmly under lock and key.
I’m sure readers are rolling their eyes at what may be termed compulsive behavior. I think that my father was naturally neat and organized, also that he would have invented the clothes iron if it did not exist.
Another time, I teased him about British butlers ironing the newspaper every morning before presenting it on a silver tray to their aristocratic masters. My father smiled broadly at this adding that it was the done thing though as far as he was concerned, he had no intention of ironing any newspapers.
Meanwhile, my mother only made use of the clothes iron when she ironed curtains once in a blue moon. She knew how lucky she was and astutely stated that Dad’s ironing skills were second to none. Eventually, I was the one who took over though not with the same stellar results.
Ever since his passing, my ironing brings back so many memories of the most mundane but ever special moments, such as him calling me to help fold the sheets and how a remark would often lead to discussion and advice or unfold one of his yarns which spilled over with even more guidance. One of my absolute favourites unravelled how he had sewn a pair of sheets from discarded parachutes made of silk and which he had asked for permission to take when he was stationed in Cyrenaica that’s eastern Libya. (Dad had been enlisted with the RAF during WW2.) One inspection morning, the high-ranking officer scrutinising every detail was gobsmacked at the sight of the silken sheets and questioned my father (sixteen at the time) about how he had got hold of them. My father told him the truth which garnered the retort:
‘I, the Wing Commander sleep on a bed without sheets, while you a gunner have a pair of silk sheets!!! Strip your bed and give them to me!’
My father smiled and obeyed orders without saying a word.
The first time I heard this I was mad at the sheer injustice of it all and berated my father about being so meek.
‘Noemi, you are too young to understand how the military works, besides being Maltese (read colonised subject) put me at yet another disadvantage.’
This had me seething. But the story does not end there.
My father had spoken up with his eyes looking straight into the Wing Commander’s gaze. An expression that gets you thinking and conscience pricking without a hint of disdain or disrespect. It was an expression he wore when he was hurt or disappointed at something and which made you want to undo the hurt at lightning speed while filling you with remorse for days on end.
The very next day, my father found a parcel on his sheet less bed. It contained two parachutes with a signed note from the Wing Commander thanking him, asking him to kindly replace what he had taken and looking forward to another pair for himself. My father obliged with another note of thanks. Unlimited access to more parachutes followed.
This is the story through which I also learned that used parachutes were highly prized as fabric for wedding gowns of pure silk. There were so many other stories of his past, stories of when my brother and I were babies, of what he intended to cook which was his favourite pastime. I sometimes have snippets of silent conversation with him and smile to myself at how he would have beaten a pesky crease in his typical no fuss, unruffled manner. In contrast, I’d be revving up my blood pressure.
A few weeks back when I accidentally scalded a tea towel it brought back the memory of how I had done the same thing to a really pretty white cotton dress I wanted to wear for a party one particular summer evening. The offensive stain was no bigger than my fingertip on my right hip but highly visible against a white background. While Mum gave me a harangue, Dad came to my rescue. It was his idea to hide the flaw with one of Mum’s chiffon flowers. The one I chose was looking a bit tired, So, he steamed it and added another magical touch before pinning it to my dress. How had he learned this trick? One of his aunts had been Malta’s top-tier milliner who had sadly passed away during the Spanish Flu epidemic. Another fount of fascinating family anecdote.
When we were teenagers, my brother would chuckle his: ‘There goes RAF Dad again!’ at ironing time and leave a pile of his stuff for Dad to dampen, steam and iron filling the room with wondrous wafts of freshly laundered clothes. I would do the same but not always swan off. Not only did my father never mind, he got the whole pile done with pleasure and we would get back to find all our clothes laid out so lovingly on our respective beds. He never opened any of our drawers and wardrobes. He would even ensure that whatever we wore – Mum included – was flawlessly pressed before going out. Also, that our shoes were polished to a shine.
He had a way of eyeing us almost without us noticing though we surely felt his scrutiny. A frown would halt us in our tracks. A curt but never cutting remark meant something was amiss and we’d have to do something about it. ‘How smart!’ was all that he would say if we made the grade. Best of all was the twinkle in his eye which beat any effusive compliment hollow.
Now that I mull over how he indulged and disciplined us makes me realise the truckloads of time and patience he put into our upbringing. Also, the risks he took. Did he intuit or simply hope that we would one day live up to our Zarb genes? (Oh yes, all his brothers and sisters had/have an identical perception of grooming.) Ever since he got married decades back, my brother is the one who does the ironing at his home. He’s even in charge of the laundry which Dad never did. My sister-in-law is another lucky woman. I don’t need to ask him whether he gets flashes of Dad as he plugs in the clothes iron.
The more time passes, the more I marvel at how him being short of words and long in leading by example taught us much more than the importance of looking good and honouring the occasion which by extension was a lesson in preparation. Also, that there is an appropriate time and place for what and how to do what we have to get done. There were no homilies or lengthy sparring in his giving advice. When he disagreed with anyone’s way of thinking he simply said so and why. No threats or yells. The message that we had to face the consequences of our actions and deal with our conscience was invariably clear.