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Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Special Flag Day

British and American flags lining the Mall in London
for the State Visit of Barack Obama to the
United Kingdom.
Flag Day, June 14th, always brings happy associations to mind here at the Dapper and Dreamy house.  This year would have been my late and much-beloved stepdad's 94th birthday.  Although he was easily old enough to have been my grandfather, no one could have asked for a better or more perfectly chosen person to come into one's life.

Howard Byers-Jones wasn't an ordinary person by any stretch.  If I really think about it, he must have reinvented himself several times over his eighty years.  Born to British missionary parents in Canada, he soon returned home and was joined by two younger sisters.  From all accounts, life in their rural vicarage was anything but jolly and family life was, at best, stilted.  Howard's surviving sister, Peggy, recently shared some of her memories and it was sad to see how effected she was all these years later.  It did, however, open a little window into my stepfather and his need to create a much different family in his later years.

By his own account, Howard was not a terribly successful father initially.  World War II and, later, postings in the South Pacific did little to allow him the time and presence necessary to have an impact on his sons and he knew that they felt his absence keenly.  Sadly, this led to a rather distant relationship as they became adults.   This was coupled with the fact that Howard emigrated to the United States in 1958, adding to the geographic and emotional distance.

By the time I met Howard, he'd lived most of his life and, I think, wanted a second chance at having a family life.  A budding Anglophile, I couldn't have imagined anyone more perfect.  My first glimpse of him came as I answered the door of our very modest house.  He was exceptionally tall and had excellent posture.  He wore and inky blue jacket with shiny brass buttons and a striped tie.  He had a full head of grey, perfectly trimmed hair and a neat mustache that curled ever-so-slightly at each end.  Perhaps no one reminds me more of Howard, in terms of appearance, than David Niven as the troubled "Major" in Separate Tables.  In fact, Howard was a Major (Ret.) in the Royal Engineers and looked it.

His accent was, to me, very pronounced and his speech was correct but friendly.  What struck me most, almost immediately, was the twinkle in his eye.  He really did have an actual twinkle, or so it seemed to me.

I think that Howard and I were meant for each other as a father and son.  I loved all things English from the Queen to Upstairs, Downstairs to rare roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.  I loved the idea of giving great parties with fine china, Waterford crystal and lots of highly polished silver.  Not only did Howard have fine china, Waterford crystal and lots of highly polished silver, but he used it frequently at his own parties.  He knew about things that I wanted to know about.  He'd been to the places I wanted to visit.  He'd even been at the same London nightclubs frequented by the Queen when she was a young princess after the war.  In short, Howard was who, at that time, I wanted to be.

Howard was my stepfather for only thirteen years, but he never failed me.  Not once.  Toward the end of his life as I visited him in the hospital, he looked at me and said, "You know, we've really been such good friends.  We've never had a cross word, have we?"  It wasn't an exaggeration, it was true.  I had never felt angry toward him, although I must have been exasperating myself, and we hadn't ever argued.  We really were very good friends, something even better than just a parent and their child.

As the years passed, Howard's life became less glamorous to be sure.  I think he was tired of the parties and the entertaining.  What he wanted was a warm, safe and cozy home.  He wanted a real family life, one that he was able to enjoy and participate in.  My mother gave him that and did it beautifully.  She took care of him and he took care of her.  He also took care of me, providing a steady, solid, guiding force.

Life with Howard was fun.  We played 20 Questions or Animal, Vegetable, Mineral or I, Spy at the dinner table.  He was forever coming home with little treats from the grocery store - especially for Saturday dinner or Sunday breakfast.  There were also visits to deserted parking lots on snowy, icy nights to do 360's in his enormous cars - something I never did expect from this very proper Englishman.  Like me, he'd become weepy at just the right moments - the playing of "God Save the Queen" or "The Star-Spangled Banner" - and he was always so proud to be British...  And to be an American.

Howard loved his adopted homeland.  Although he was eminently British to everyone that knew him, he fancied himself an American at times - wearing jeans, boots and a bolo tie on weekends.  For some reason, perhaps because of his height and dignity, he never, ever looked foolish.  His suits were tailored, his shoes ancient and gleaming and his old regimental cufflinks would make an appearance on special occasions.

It would be hard to overstate the impact Howard had on my life.  I think of him often, miss him always, and dream about him at least once each week.  He was not a perfect man, and his life hadn't been as easy or glamorous as I liked to imagine.  He had a very modest upbringing but worked hard to turn himself into a rather dashing officer in the British Army.  He was well thought of in his military career and, had he wanted to, could have risen in the ranks to retire as a general.  But, he wanted to break free from the rather stilted life he envisioned in England and came to America to use his engineering expertise during Britain's  postwar "Brain Drain".  He didn't find the financial success that he'd likely hoped for but, in the end, he left a legacy of kindness that many of us would envy.  His last career was that of a real estate agent.  He was, to be honest, no salesman.  Honest to a fault, and always ready to take a loss to help others, there were times when he'd forgo all or part of his commissions to help a young couple get their first home.  Even today, almost fifteen years after his death, I run into people who remember him with great affection and appreciation.

Howard Byers-Jones was everything that this blog is about.  He was stylish but not fashionable.  He could enjoy the good things of the past while embracing the best of what was new.  He never, ever took himself or a situation too seriously.  He dressed well, smelled good (like tobacco and good aftershave lotion) and was perfectly groomed (thanks to the ancient iron tongs he heated on the stove each morning to barely curl the ends of his mustache).  He was articulate but never stuffy, cultured but not exclusive and always, always, kind.  Very old ladies adored him just as much as much, much younger ones, and men trusted him implicitly.

When I think of Howard, it's his genuinely kind eyes, with that twinkle, that always come to mind.  What I wouldn't give to hear him say, in his sing-song voice, "Hi, hi!" when he greeted people he really enjoyed, or to hear him refer to me as "young man", one more time.  In the end, Howard was everything that was dapper and dreamy.

1 comment:

  1. He clearly had such an impact on you. His memory does not linger with you - he is still with you in the way that counts.