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'Father's Fortune' A Wealth Of Humility And Humor

When Michael Frayn's father died at a hospice in 1970, workers brought him a box holding what his father had left behind. Among the collection, there was a pair of socks, some slippers, spectacles, a signet ring and a hearing aid.

Though his personal effects were few, Frayn's father left behind an exemplary legacy — he was a man who struggled and sacrificed, yet still maintained a happy, healthy life for his children, and a warm sense of humor.

Now, 40 years after his father's death, Frayn, an acclaimed poet, novelist and playwright, has written a memoir about his dad's life. Frayn tells NPR's Scott Simon about My Father's Fortune and the lessons that his father has taught him.

Frayn was inspired to write the memoir by his own children. Now middle-aged themselves, they were curious about the lives of their grandparents, and they urged Frayn to write what he could remember about them before he forgets.

"My eldest daughter said, 'We feel as if we have arisen from an unknown place,' " he says.

Although he was originally reluctant to take their advice and start the project, he quickly changed his mind.

"I thought it was going to be ... rather a pious chore," he says. "But in fact, once I got started, I got more and more emotionally involved in it, and it became a major emotional experience and really affected me a great deal."

To begin his research, Frayn delved into his father's own childhood, which was cut short when he began working at age 14. Tom Frayn was a handsome man, a good dancer and a hard worker.

"One of the reasons that he had to work from the age of 14 is that he had a very feckless father," Frayn explains. "His father had been a drinker and my father got to go out and try and earn some money to keep the family going."

Tom Frayn was so dedicated to caring for his family that he put their needs far ahead of his own. In fact, he waited over a decade to marry the love of his life because of it.

"He fell in love with my mother when they were both very young — when he was 18 and my mother was still 14," he says. "But they had to wait for 11 years to get married because he felt he couldn't get married until he was no longer responsible for supporting his mother."

Frayn's father was further beset with problems when he — and the rest of his siblings — became deaf in their adult years. Again, Tom Frayn did not let this setback stop him.

"He continued to work as a salesman even though he was very deaf," Frayn says. "How he did that, how he faced the customers every day when he couldn't hear what they were saying, I really don't know."

Tom used his deafness as an advantage rather than a handicap. When making a pitch, he would simply ensure that he was doing all the talking. Or, Frayn suggests, he may have even been unable to tell when a customer refused.

The elder Frayn did not care much for material possessions. Instead his passion in life was sport, Frayn says — particularly cricket.

"He loved watching cricket, and what he really wanted was a son who was a sportsman — preferably cricket, preferably a batsman," says Frayn.

The trouble was that Frayn's talents were strongest in the classroom and not on the cricket pitch. His father tried to coach him in their garden, but to no avail.

"I was hopeless at it," he says. "I just couldn't hit the ball, I couldn't catch the ball, so I was a great disappointment to him."

Gradually, his father accepted that his talents lay elsewhere. This acceptance is one of the major themes of his memoir, Frayn says.

"Very slowly over the years, he agreed to accept the idea that I was relatively good at some subjects at school, and agreed to see that as my succeeding in some kind of way," Frayn says.

Frayn's youth coincided with World War II. Luckily, his father was too young to fight during World War I and too old to fight during World War II. This was one more of his father's "bits of good fortune," Frayn says.

Instead of fighting, the elder Frayn lived with his family in London during the Blitz. Because they were in the suburbs, they were not as hard-hit as residents of the East End and the center of London. However, they still had a close call with a flying V-1 bomb.

"On the very first night of the V-1s, one came just over the roof of our house, missed it by a few feet, hit the hillside just up the road and killed everyone in the house that it came down on," Frayn says.

Their home, and the other houses on the street, were severely damaged, but to young Frayn, this was a delight.

"It was like a kind of early Christmas — everything was special, there was no front door, there were no windows in the house, there was a hole in the roof," Frayn explains. But he concedes, "It must have been hell for my parents. All the carpets full of plaster dust and broken glass. I don't know how they ever got it out."

After the V-1 bombings, the Frayn family invested in a bomb shelter, but it didn't end up as safe as they had hoped.

"One of the few things he spent his money on was a shelter in the garden, but what he hadn't taken into consideration was that if you dig a hole in the ground, it fills with water," Frayn says. "We only ever used the shelter once, because after that, it was just a stagnant pool." It ended up much more dangerous to be in the shelter than to stay in the house during the raids, he recalls.

Not one to let things go to waste, Frayn's father came up with a practical solution for their waterlogged shelter. Because of the wartime food shortage, neighbors were buying chickens to maintain a constant supply of eggs.

Tom Frayn asked, "What kind of creature likes water?" and the answer was ducks. "So we acquired ducks. They lived in this armored duck pond the rest of the war and supplied us with eggs," says Frayn.

After the end of the long, terrible war, life changed suddenly for the Frayn family when Frayn's mother died of a heart attack. Frayn was just 12 years old, and his father faced a new practical problem — he had to find some way to look after his young children.

"Those next few years were very grave for my sister and me, and it must have been terrible for my father. He was very grief-stricken, his life had fallen apart, but he also had this terrible, practical problem," Frayn says.

He couldn't help the death of my mother, but he did his best to get around that and to keep the home going. The longer I live, the more grateful I am for that.

Frayn's father still managed to be a supportive father, even after the tragic death of his beloved wife. In fact, Frayn credits his father with getting him into writing. When Frayn was about 6 or 7 years old, his father came across an essay that he had written for school, titled "The House I Should Like To Live In When I Grow Up."

"My father read it and said to me, perhaps you ought to be a journalist," Frayn remembers. "Maybe it lodged in the back of my mind, maybe it's one of the things that made me interested in writing."

Even though his father originally encouraged him to write, Frayn's work in journalism went unrecognized by his father for years. "He never bought the newspaper I worked for, and it was years before he admitted that he had read anything that I had written," Frayn says.

"It was the style then," he explains. "It was thought that you would make them big-headed if you encouraged them too much."

So it was not until Frayn was in his 30s that his father finally commended him. After a series of articles that he had written about Cuba, Frayn's father rang him up and suggested that he write more stories of the kind.

While he didn't overload his children with praise, Frayn's father left his son with other gifts — notably his sense of humor.

"It was a professional resource for him because he used it as a way of getting around his deafness, and I think I picked up that habit of joshing people," says Frayn.

Frayn also believes that he inherited his father's skepticism. "He was not a believer in either religious systems or political systems," Frayn says.

But most importantly, Frayn's father bequeathed him with a stable childhood and a happy life.

"He couldn't help the death of my mother, but he did his best to get around that and to keep the home going. The longer I live, the more grateful I am for that," he says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.