Ten Rules of True Filial Devotion: Get Dear Old Dad a Va-Va-Voom

“Get down on your knees and wash my feet with your hair to

show me just how grateful you are!” This might sound like a kinky Biblical

vignette from a Pasolini movie, but it’s just me admonishing my father as I

throw armfuls of his favorite things into a Dumpster while simultaneously

demanding his gratitude. Yes, I’m de-accessioning a senior citizen before

moving him to “a more supportive environment,” and I have oodles of tips which

I am dying to pass on to you. But first, a little background.

Terence Sydney Doonan, my Welsh-born father, is, at my

insistence, trading in his bijou bungalow in strife-torn Northern Ireland for a

senior crash pad in ultra-trendy Brighton. Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing

wrong with Northern Ireland, except perhaps that bizarre regional accent.

Despite a lifelong familiarity with the North Irish twang (we spent our summer

holidays in that very same bungalow with my Guinness-drinkin’, off-track

bettin’ maternal grandfather), I still can’t understand a fucking word they’re

saying. For example, my mother’s name, Betty Doonan, becomes, at the hands of

one of the locals, ” Bahttyeyh

Dyeeyoounionyuh .”

But I digress. The

reason my father is moving to England is not linguistic: He wants to be nearer

to his closest kin, i.e., my caring and alternatively lifestyled sister,

Shelagh. Yes, you guessed it-only two siblings, and both of us are inverts. I

have no explanation, and Terry doesn’t seem overly concerned about having

reared two of “them.” As Hattie McDaniel, or some such person, once said in a

movie, the name of which escapes me: “Oh, Lord! I guess it’s just somethin’ the

angels dun plan.” Let me also reassure you that we Doonans are not all freaks:

e.g., my uncle Vyvian (no, he’s not a tranny-along with Evelyn and Jocelyn,

Vyvian was, at one point in the 20th century, a man’s name) and Aunt Marigold

(yes, she’s a redhead) are extant and, apart from their names, as normal as they

come. But it’s we two homos who constitute Terry’s main support system.

Now, a word or two about Terry Doonan, also known as Mike

(when he went to work for the BBC in the news-monitoring service, there already

was another Terry-so, just as in a hair salon, the new arrival was forced to

adopt an arbitrary new moniker). Seventy-six-year-old Terry, who has all of his

marbles and some of his teeth, has had an unconventional life: Handsome

Terry/Mike left home at 15 and enlisted as an aircraft apprentice in the Royal

Air Force. For the last months of the war, he was based in India. Snaps from

this period show he was into a crumpled khaki look: bush shirt and shorts

(cleaned daily), wool ankle socks with chaplis

(Indian sandals), pipe, side-tilted forage cap-i.e., very late-80’s Banana Republic. He has always been an odd combo of

the effete and the butch-i.e., he rode a motorbike but wore an ascot.

During my childhood, he worked for the BBC listening to

foreign broadcasts in English-especially from the USSR and Eastern Europe

during the Cold War. He made it into the papers as the first to report the

Kennedy assassination in the U.K. During this period, he sported a 1950’s Look Back in Anger groovy-schoolteacher

look-white shirt with knitted tie, battered tweed sport coat with suede elbow

patches, flat-front narrow slacks and Hush Puppies. Adorable, non ?

Fast forward 50 years to

sunny Brighton, the home of Fat Boy Slim and now Terry Doonan. Yes, I’m happy

to report that, after two weeks of caring parental dehumanization and lots of

actressy hissy fits, Terry’s relocation is complete.

Here is my guide to senior relocation:

1. As the golden years approach, keep a close eye on the

accumulation of detritus chez vos parents .

I failed to do this and suffered the horrid consequences. I had no idea that Ma

and Pa Kettle/Doonan were obsessively cramming the crannies of that retirement

bungalow with such an unimaginable smorgasrainbow of nonfunctional bits and

bobs. I only became aware of the situation after the sad passing of Bahttyeyh

Dyeeyoounionyuh in 1999, and Terry’s move precipitated the de-accessioning

process (occasioning the showdown re feet-washing). Among the more bizarre

accumulations: ancient rubber gloves from which the index fingers had been

amputated; a decaying Pacamac (an ancient and sordid brand of semi-transparent

rainwear); and lots of what I call “Russian-doll secretions”-i.e., a set of

false teeth inside an English Breakfast tea tin, inside a Corn Flakes packet,

inside a 1950’s vacuum-cleaner box, inside a cupboard.

Dumpster-filling and de-accessioning is the most stressful

part of S.R. (senior relocation): allow for unending kvetching. Don’t expect a

senior to be pleased that you are hurling a moth-eaten wedding dress into an

incinerator or selling World War II memorabilia and using the money to tip the

removal men. You will be subject to what I call “Cruella deVillification”-i.e.,

you will be characterized as the evil turd who chucked out everything useful.

My advice: embrace the role-e.g., if a stubborn female senior won’t part with

her old frocks, encourage her, in a caring manner, to make a lovely memory

quilt out of same, and then throw the quilt out when she is taking a nap.

The good news: The jettisoning of debris is a fantastic

exercise, in particular the emptying of an attic; teetering up and down a

ladder while carrying boxes toned my thighs and burned up more calories than

spinning.

2. Try, even with a recalcitrant senior, to maintain a tone

of constructive vivacity. If you are overbearing and impatient, he or she can

always cut you out of his or her will. If there is no dynastic wealth coming

your way, you are still at risk: Resourceful seniors will creatively torture

you by publicly broadcasting cringe-making anecdotes from your past-your

childhood excretorial accident history or, worse still, fond reminiscences of

your chubby years.

3. Encourage obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Many oldsters

find solace in O.C. behaviors, particularly during moments of anxiety (I’m

already a practitioner). Terry is no exception: While I was filling Dumpsters,

T.S. was picking up crumbs off the carpet and polishing his hob (Brit-speak for

“stove top”) with Joan Crawford–esque zeal. Encourage it: A busy senior will be

less likely to impede your progress. Encourage naps for the same reason. A nip

of gin in a cup of tea will soon quiet an unruly senior.

4. Don’t castrate your senior-i.e., don’t be a killjoy if

your senior manifests disinhibited adult behaviors (e.g., staring at

waitresses’ boobs). Libidinal vestiges are a sign of a vigorous constitution

and should be encouraged. I am in the process of hiring a comely helper to come

round to Terry’s new pad and iron his shirts and, if necessary, polish his hob.

5. Seniors will frequently try to simplify their eating

habits-living on buffet food, pickles and cured meats. The nicest thing you can

do for a senior is cook a good meal. Caution: Dental efficiency varies

dramatically. One man’s pizza is another man’s long-playing record.

6. Obscenities will slip out (of your mouth) during moments

of frustration-you are only human. Don’t apologize: Seniors love smut. Though

seniors themselves tend not to curse as much as they did in more energized

periods of their lives (I have vivid childhood memories of my dad screaming

obscenities at other male drivers), they will usually be amused and de-stressed

by watching you lose your gourd.

7. Dos and don’ts for that stressful trip to the retirement

accommodation: Don’t while away the hours trying to get your senior in touch

with his feelings-celebrate their stoicism and try to absorb some of it. Don’t

try to resolve old grievances-these epicenters of contention make life worth

living (e.g., I refuse to come to terms with the fact that Terry, who grew up

on a working-class depression diet in Cardiff, is several inches taller than

me, and rail at him for hours about my tinyness. At times, I have even

speculated that I might be the progeny of another. This theory was exacerbated

by the fact that, when I was 30, Betty announced to me that she had been

married to another man before my dad-for several years, mark you. Was he the

short-arse circus midget who fathered me? Happily, my diminished stature was

later revealed to be the result of nothing more serious than my mother’s

prenatal nicotine intake-Woodbines being her preferred brand). Do look for

hotels with amusing names: When traveling to Brighton, Terry and I derived

great amusement from finding hostelries with names such as the Trout at

Cockermouth.

8. Don’t do it with siblings. Much as I adore my sister

Shelagh, I knew we would rip each other’s gizzards out unless we practiced a

strict division-of-labor policy. We tried to divvy up the tasks based on our

individual strengths-e.g., interior decoration, me; anything involving

feelings, Shelagh.

9. When looking for retirement accommodation, make sure the

neighbors are socio-economically comparable to your senior. Yes, it’s

classist-so what? Terry is a classy guy; he wears an ascot, for Chrissake!

10. Unearth family secrets. The stress of relocation leaves

a senior exhausted and psychologically undefended: exploit these moments of

vulnerability and use them as opportunities to unravel fetid family secrets.

During Terry’s relocation, I found out that my great aunt Flo had been an

amateur ventriloquist. Show business in the family-who knew?

Toward the end of the trip, a haunting family mystery was

solved: After rigorous questioning, I ascertained that it was none other than

my paternal grandfather who had daubed “Auntie Nelly is a skite” on the garden

shed. Both Terry and I are unfamiliar with this horrid word and would be most

grateful for any information regarding its origin and meaning. E-mail “skite”

info to simonsays@observer.com. P.S.: Since Terry’s professional-astrologer

father hailed from Australia, this epithet may well have an antipodean origin.