How to Remember your Dad
A Writing Exercise in Five Genres
by Orna Coussin
In this exercise, write about your dad who recently died. Try to capture the essence of his life, his 80 years, or what he meant to you in the 50-odd years you had shared. You are bound to fail at this task; challenge yourself all the same. Do this in five genres: an obituary, a eulogy, a Wikipedia entry, a profile and a memoir. Write in multiples of 80 words. One word for each year he has lived. This word-count limit may help you contain some of that which overflows.
1. Obituary – 80 words
Brian Coussin 1938 –2019
Brian Coussin, head of the Food Control Service, goalkeeper for the British Maccabiah team and an avid gardener, died yesterday in Protea Village Old-Age Home.
Brian was a true sportsman, a lover of Philodendrons and Hibiscus, and a dedicated civil servant. At home he was funny and resourceful; In charge of book-keeping, dish-washing and ball-catching. He left behind his friend and wife, a sister and three children. His funeral is scheduled for tomorrow, March 20th, at the secular cemetery, Netanya.
2. Eulogy – 320 words
How can we best capture our father, Brian? As the person who would wake us up with a cheery “wakey-wakey” and drive us to school daily, though we could easily have walked? As the one who taught us how to play table-tennis, tennis and football, and attended all of our home games?
Or maybe as the tall man who would repair and paint and assemble – a cupboard, the dining-room table; anything broken. He would show us how to take out the inner tube of a flat bicycle tire and fix it. Or he would touch our forehead, find it warm, and take us to bed. There, he would tuck us in and sing to us a sad longing Scottish lullaby.
Sometimes he would sit at his desk and seem preoccupied; maybe he was worried about work. Every day he would wake up at dawn and take out the dog – the dogs – for a long walk. At work he would walk up the stairs; he never used the elevator.
His colleagues saw in him a dedicated civil servant, a caring and encouraging mentor. He had integrity, which helped him stand up to pressures from giant food corporations, asking him to bend some rules and regulations for their own profit. The responsibility for food control was for him a calling, a service.
We – like his co-workers – were encouraged by his good spirits, silly puns, practical help and the freedom he granted us to pave our own paths in the world.
Above all, though, Brian was Esther’s best friend. They had a conversation running for half a century and more. She translated his lectures from English to Hebrew. He helped her with business’ bookkeeping. She took photos, he carried her heavy bag of camera lenses. She cooked; he washed and dried the dishes. Together they frequented botanical gardens and archeological sites, enjoyed flora and fauna and British TV, and laughed a lot.
4. Wikipedia entry – 480 words
Brian Ronald Coussin (July 1, 1938 – March 19, 2019) was a Scottish and Israeli food engineer, football player, gardener and father. He was among the founders of the Israeli Food Control Service, and was its manager for ten years until his retirement in 2002.
Coussin was considered a civil servant of integrity, who regulated food control issues responsibly in the face of pressures from giant international food corporations like Monsanto and large local corporations as Tnuva. In his role as father, he excelled at giving good advice, telling silly jokes, being generally good humored, encouraging and supporting sports activities, building, assembling and fixing.
Life and Career [edit source]
Brian Coussin was born in Glasgow, Scotland, to Rina Cowan, a nurse, and Jerry Coussin, a traveling agent for cinema ads. He was their second child, and had two sisters, Shirley and Laura. Coussin’s grandparents had immigrated from Lithuania in the late 19th century and settled in Glasgow, and had managed a greengrocer's shop in the Gorbals slum neighborhood on the south bank of the river Clyde. Coussin completed his studies for a master’s degree in Food Technology at the local university. During his student years he played football for a local team and for the Jewish Maccabi Glasgow. He was the goalkeeper for Britain’s Maccabiah team for the fifth Maccabiah games, winning a gold medal.
In 1961, following the sixth Maccabiah games, Coussin decided to live in Israel. Zionism captured his imagination. In Tel Aviv he met Esther Capell, a London-born photographer, daughter of German immigrants, and they married and had their first son shortly after. In 1965 Coussin went back to Glasgow with his new family to complete his PHD studies in Microbiology at the University of Strathclyde.
In 1968 Brian formally made Aliyah to Israel and joined the founding team of Israel’s Food Control Service, where he worked for 35 years as a microbiologist, chief food engineer and finally as head of the service. After his retirement Coussin dedicated his time to playing golf, gardening and writing.
Legacy: [edit source]
Coussin believed that when playing a team game – handball, football – one should concentrate primarily on defense.
He would wake up at the break of dawn, tidy up, and make a point of noting expenses.
He preached and practiced making lists – to prevent any over-purchasing or forgetting.
He believed that if his children would work at that which they love – they would succeed.
He advocated disregarding any advertising or marketing nonsense: Adidos training suits with two stripes are just as good as Adidas with three stripes; soap is as good as shampoo.
He believed in the healing power of a good joke, in drinking a lot of water and in walking.
4. Profile – 640 words
“I’ve always been a bit of a scatter brain”, Brian wrote in his memoir, “a true dreamer from birth and possibly before”.
Could being a dreamer make one so adamant about keeping stuff in order and self hydrating? Most of his adult life, Brian carried out his domestic tasks responsibly. He would get up early, feed the dogs, take them out for a walk, drive the children to school, take a bus, go to work. Had he ever been late?
At the garden shed, in the kitchen, he would put all the utensils and ingredients in perfect order, in marked tins and cans and on shelves. Bulbs, seeds, grains, pasta, chocolate, plates, cutlery – nothing would be left scattered on a kitchen table or a countertop. He would wash the dishes, dry them and place them back in the cupboard within minutes of the end of dinner. Did his daydreaming make him write down expenses and income, and never overdraft? Was it because he was a star gazer that he would urge us to make a list – "make a list!" Could his reveries explain why he always knew when every shrub, flower and plant in his garden needed watering, fertilizing, trimming?
As a young man, Brian enjoyed reading poetry. All his life he kept the poems of Robert (Rabbie) Burns close to his heart. For Auld Lang Syne. We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet, For auld lang syne.
His love of poetry could be attributed to a high-school teacher who “taught me to appreciate the joy of poetry”, as he put it in his memoir. It was the same teacher who used to let her “long wooden ruler crash down on (his) knuckles” when he was busy staring out through the window.
On one occasion, which he would never forget, the teacher handed him a copy of a poem: Leisure by W.H Davies, and told him that she thought he might be interested.
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
Another poem Brian would often cite was Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelly.
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Brian was no fan of kings or captains.
Beside his poetry Brian enjoyed reading his royal horticultural society magazine. He also read the turning of seasons and the cycles of his garden. He never read a novel, but he did write a few short stories himself. For instance, the one named Mr. Hattaway’s New Hat, illustrated by his wife Esther: a story about a hat that flew away and got baked by mistake, which he had read out loud to his children and later published: one edition, a single stapled copy. On Friday afternoons he would place a crystal glass of Glenfiddich on his knee; the tumbler would never tumble, and Brian would sip its content moderately.
Brian’s brain started to really scatter at the age of 75. Alzheimer’s is less a case of forgetfulness, more a dismantling, a pulling to pieces, a taking apart.
But before that, all his life, he was hardly ever sick. Never a headache nor the flu. He did not smoke a single cigarette. He enjoyed walking. Watched Wimbledon. Played golf. He stopped to smell the roses. Even when his thoughts started to fly all over the place, he would go back in his mind to the bank of the stream at the edge of his childhood backyard. “The Way to Shingle Beach” is the title Esther gave to his memoirs, which he dictated when remembering wasn’t easy. Even though he lived most of his life in Israel, his soul kept going back to the land of lakes and hills; football and family vacations on the isle of Arran, where he would race his dad to the top of Goat Fell.
5. Memoir – 880 words
I’m trying to remember the way he was: what he used to do, how he used to talk. I remember puns. For instance, if asked, “Jamaica?” He would answer: “no, she came by herself”. I can’t remember why anyone would ever have to ask “Jamaica?”
I remember him attending my handball games as a one-man audience. He would chant: HAGANA! Which means: defense! And if we would miss a goal or be late to run back to defense he would mutter: “you’re throwing it away”. Which means: we had something in our hands and we gave it up. I remember him speaking broken Hebrew. But I can’t seem to recall the gist of him.
I search my mind for an object that may help me revive him. A leather covered ring binder book comes to mind: Readers Digest Complete DIY Manual. It had pages for every task: plumbing and wall painting, carpentry and gardening, curtain sewing and window fixing. I remember the manual spread open on a stool, near my dad – a tall dark bespectacled scientist – while he was building a room, erecting a wall, opening a terrace, closing a terrace, unclogging a sink, changing a tube, building a shelf, trimming a hedge, or inserting a bulb into the ground: deeply enough but not too deep.
When I found the original 1969 manual on eBay, my dad came back to me as a genie exiting a bottle: he was a true DIY man. In his handyman ways as well as in the way he shaped his own life: leaving Scotland, moving to Israel on his own, meeting my future mother and creating a family together. In more ways than one my dad’s legacy for me was: Do It Yourself.
In his last five years there were fewer and fewer things he could do himself. The same DIY manual that captures his lifetime’s essence symbolizes his fall when struck by Alzheimer’s. But I don’t want to remember his last years. I’m trying to recall who my dad was when he was at his best. I remember things he would say. Like, when my brothers and I would quarrel he would remark half-jokingly:
If brothers and sisters can’t get on together, how can nations?
Or when we would get hurt, bruised, and cry of pain, he would say:
It hurts you more than it hurts me.
It’s hard to explain. He would make Esther, my mom, laugh out loud, as well as Laura, his sister. He would spend hours out in the garden. He would read gardening magazines. He would give me generous allowances. He would drink moderately, Glenfiddich in a whiskey lowball glass, placed steadily on his wide, reliable knee. He would wash the dishes at the end of the meal. He would rarely make supper: a microwaved scrambled egg. He would drink tea. We would eat semolina porridge and rice pudding and gruel. He would chat with his parents about once a month on the phone. They were living in Glasgow and then in Netanya and then his mom died and his dad moved to Manchester. He would talk to his sisters about once a month. When we left home, he would talk to us once every three weeks.
He would sing his school anthem:
Eastwood School, now with heart and voice.
He would sing lullabies to us:
My bonny lies over the ocean
… You'll take the high road and I'll take the low road,
And I'll be in Scotland afore you.
Where me and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.
He would sing On Top of Old Smokey and The Big Rock Candy Mountain – which I only now realize is a drunkard’s song.
His voice was deep and soft and soothing.
I am remembering things that he did not do: He never cuddled or hugged, never phoned, almost never answered the phone. He had no idea who my friends were. Couldn’t quite remember birthdays. Esther would do all that for him. I think he started calling and answering the phone only when he no longer could tell who was talking – on either side of the line.
I think we were the closest, my dad and I, during these five last years. We would meet once a week. We had long chats and walks. I was angry with him because he had chosen anxiety over us. He would constantly ask what was the plan for the day. And who was behind the plan. Who was giving the orders. Sometimes he wanted to know who was the woman who was sitting on the couch right next to him. Even though it was the same woman that had been with him, their souls intertwined, for more than fifty years.
Once, near the very end, I asked him what he was thinking about. He said:
On falling off a horse.
He did not die a sudden, peaceful death. He waited for his little sister to come all the way from Manchester and speak into his ears, his closed eyes, his scattered soul, and bring to him the spirit of the land of lakes and highlands, and of some silly sense of humor, before he allowed himself to stop breathing and stop being afraid.