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Photos: My father, the stranger I knew my whole life

I knew my dad’s daily habits and major landmarks, but few of the details of who he was are known to me.

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This is my father, Peter Brown at the age of 97 in 2011 in front of Montreal’s Sun Life Building, his first office in Canada. Maybe the most unusual thing about my father and my relationship with him, was how little I still know about him. We think we know our parents, but every life is a mystery, for the most part, to anyone but its inhabitant. I knew my dad’s daily habits, had memorized the outline of his life, grasped its major landmarks.

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But when I look over the photographs I have of him, as I have many times since he died this spring – photographs like this of me on his lap circa 1956 that my mother had salvaged and secreted away in a briefcase before she died – I realize how few of the details of who he was are known to me.

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I know almost nothing about his early life. He was already 40 when I was born, and his parents died when I was very small. He had three brothers, but they were of no use to me: one of his brothers disdained contact with my father, for reasons that were a mystery to him; another brother simply disappeared (“took up with the wrong crowd” was all my dad would say); the third, his favourite, died in the war.

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My father was born in 1914, and his parents were middle-class Victorians: they did not believe in self-analysis. And so neither did he. In this photograph, my father (at the back in the white sweater) can’t be more than 10, and has already been living away at boarding school for four years. He didn’t like speaking about those years.

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Then there’s this picture, another mystery. How old is he, and what’s he wearing? He still has hair, which he started to lose fairly early, so my guess is it’s 1943, and that he is wearing his officer’s jacket, newly commissioned after serving at least seven years in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. My guess is that he’s 29 years old, but there are no accompanying details.

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He’d started off in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as an able-bodied seaman – here’s a picture of him in uniform, with two people he never identified (my guess is it’s his mother, Alice, and his favourite brother, Harold, the one later killed at the Battles of Narvik). I know my Dad took part there and in the Vaagso Raid (Operation Archery) in Norway, in 1941, because he’s in this picture (at back on the left) which is from that raid. Beyond that, nothing, because he refused to say. Why did he go for a commission? All he would say is that he was bored. I think he figured he’d signed the Official Secrets Act, and couldn’t talk about it. He trained and served as a commando, and later as a commando trainer, on various raids into Norway and Sweden, but he never told me any details of those operations; I’ve had to glean the little I know.

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This, for instance, is a photograph of the field hockey team (he’s the second one in from the left in the second row) at HMS Helder, one of the training centres preparing for the invasion of Europe; naval raiding parties operated out of there and further up the coast.

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One of his jobs – he told me this much – was to capture Nazi officers and bring them back for interrogation. The difficulty was that some of the men in his unit were East Londoners whose familiies had been eradicated in the Blitz. They preferred cutting German throats then and there, and to hell with questioning.

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It was while stationed near Lowestoft, further up the coast in Suffolk, that he met my mother, Cicely, who was a Wren (the Royal Navy’s women’s service). She was also married to another man. Nearly 10 years would pass before she could divorce and marry my father. Neither one of them would talk about that time either, which seemed to embarrass them; only in the last years of his life, after my mother died (she operated on a strict need-to-know basis only), did he open up. But by then his memories were sketchier, less detailed. Here they are at Niagara Falls on their honeymoon.

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After the war, he returned to his job as a clerk at Bassett Smith, a metal trading firm in the City of London. But by then he’d seen a different life, and his lack of education (he had been forced to leave high school when his father went broke in the Depression) and his middle-class roots prevented advancement at the firm. He convinced his bosses to let him roam India and Africa and China instead, buying and selling war scrap metal for the firm. But he was tight-lipped even about this phase: This photograph, for instance, has one sentence on its back, the only thing he’d tell me about it: “This looks like Bombay to me.” But who’s the guy? Are those barracks in the background? Why are they shirtless? He lived in India for at least three years, and all that’s left is a gap in his past.

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He finally convinced my mother to join him in Montreal in 1953, which is when they moved to the suburbs, had me and my brother and sisters, and started yet another chapter in their lives. He looks happier here. You can see the suburbs forming around him in this photograph of the two of us in Beaconsfield, in 1955; see him hanging on to his British traditions (tea on a tray) in the backyard with my brother Tim, in 1956.

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You can see his first car, proudly photographed here.

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And his pleasure in the good life is apparent here, as the four of us (my sisters are still infants at home) prepare to eat dinner at Ruby Foo’s in Montreal, where my parents seem not too concerned that they have apparently given birth to Children of the Corn. He was finally happy, because he was finally making a life under his own command.

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