Letter to Mammy
and to the the New York and London chapters of the Armstrong clan.
As the year kicks off I’m reminded how those of us that have been reared in the northern hemisphere have been conditioned to associate each month with specific events. September means the start of the school year and the beginning of autumn, while June means exams; April means spring, new birth, and Easter and January means Sales, and the beginning of winter weather.
But January 17th is a double celebration: my father’s birthday (he would have been 100 on his birthday in 2013) and also his marriage to me Mammy in 1935 (she’s now in her 98th year) on the same day. Dad shares a birthday with Mohammad Ali (January 17), although he always called him Cassius Clay. He was a boxing fan.
Next to my father, the man I’ve admired most was Walter Mesini, my first wife’s father.
Walter shares a birthday with Dolly Parton (January 19), and like his favourite, Tina Turner, Dolly Parton was Walter’s kind of woman.
Walter was born on January 19, 1931.
Joe and Walter were both killed by their hard work. Walter in a farming accident, and Joe as a result of pneumoconiosis, the underground miner’s lung disease.
Education was not a right for 13 year old children when they were that age, but both graduated
with double firsts at the University of Life. Dad invented the television, and repaired broken sets for neighbours. He also invented electricity, and there was nothing he didn’t know about amps and ohms.
Walter graduated from the University of Life in Philosophy, and as he walked round his farm he would reflect on a newspaper cutting he had earlier clipped from a newspaper and kept in a jacket pocket. Long ago I began to tell him of Les Misérables, a new West End musical I’d recently seen. Too late, for he told me he’d read the book by Victor Hugo as a young man.
Walter grew up in the Red Belt region — Tuscany, Umbria, and Emilia Romagna — where post war protection came from Communist guerrillas, and the people there voted Communist for many years after. A little unusual that farmers, who in England are often to the right of Atilla the Hun, were, in the Red Belt, Communist sympathisers.
On another occasion I remember congratulating him on building his farm into the thriving business it had become, and in return he scalded me for the so praising him. “This isn’t mine”, he protested. “I’m just taking care of it”.
Unpretentious gems, both Walter and Joe.
L’abito non fa il monaco.