What It's Like When Your Father Is Much Older Than Everyone Else's

Photo: James Hamilton/Touchstone/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
Gwyneth Paltrow & Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001.
I was about 10 years old when the lady in a Cotswolds Spar asked me if I was having a nice day with Grandpa. I remember being very unsure whether my subsequent embarrassment was more for myself, or on behalf of my father. He, however, had no such conflict. "HUH!" he said to the woman behind the counter. "I'm her bloody father!" And off he strode, past the Mars bars and bottles of Ribena. "How rude" he muttered to no one in particular, perhaps to everyone in general who felt the need to constantly comment on his being, ahem, an 'older' father. This is the earliest memory I have of people thinking that my father’s age was both worth commenting on, and something that it was perfectly reasonable to comment on.
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Last Tuesday, my dad turned 87. Next month, I will be 32. One might imagine that the older I get, and the older everyone else's parents get, the less noteworthy my dad’s age becomes. But no. Instead, he just became even ‘older to be a father'. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the physical manifestations of his age became so much more pronounced that his age stuck out even more. Since we’ve known each other, he has had dark grey hair and a thick, dark grey beard. Over time, this could-go-either-way grey became hard-to-deny silver. Excepting the large belly and red suit, Santa Claus is not the least accurate aesthetic comparison you could make.
It's not only my dad's physical appearance that reveals how long he has been around. He is one of those people who was born a wise 40-year-old with a beard. I don't think anyone who knows him well could imagine him as a reckless teenager, even when he was a teenager. In fact, I’m not sure anyone who knows him can imagine him ever not being an English professor, poring over Shakespeare. When I was growing up, he always, without fail, wore a suit; jeans and trainers didn't exist for this guy.
At secondary school, my friends often asked if I minded not having a father who would sprint around, or go hiking, or ski. They would ask this as if being young automatically equals being active, such are the parameters we so rigidly apply to age. But that his head was full of Faustus rather than football was nothing to do with his age. As is so often the case, I wasn’t sure if I actually did mind his being older, or if I should mind. At one point, the latter started to bully the former into being. Maybe I would prefer it if he were 20 years younger, played tennis and drank beer.
I remember once deciding that because he was so old he must be hurtling at lightning speed towards the grave, and I should emotionally detach myself in preparation for his impending departure. To achieve this, I didn't speak to him for a few days on our daily car journeys to school. He tried to chat to me as usual, ask me if I was OK, but I went silent and looked out of the window. No doubt he thought it was teenage angst (I can only hope; how cruel I was!) and thought no more of it, especially given it didn't last long. I don’t know why I abandoned this plan – probably the same thing that caused me to abandon vegetarianism, pottery, and the violin – but thankfully I did, and we quickly returned to debating whether to play Radio 1 or 3.
We love nothing more than to put strict structures around everything and everyone, and comment – however implicitly – whenever they poke a toe outside. People over 30 are asked why they're not married; women over 35 if they want children. Having kids well over 50 incites fierce debate. Though experience shared through age undoubtedly exists, the path is so strongly mapped out that doing anything out of step often trips you up.
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My dad may not have been sporty and outdoorsy, but he certainly was active – and remains so to this day. He spent months of his life ferrying me to and from horse shows and riding lessons throughout my teenage years. He may have looked out of place in the muddy fields but he was there, without fail, to wait around for hours while I indulged my favourite hobby.
Despite being in his late 60s/early 70s by this point, and with little affinity for horses, he would pick me up at all hours of the day and night and watch me trot round and round in circles as I gave the occasional wave.
I cannot think of a time in the past decade when I wished he were younger. We might equate age with ‘youthfulness’, but what people often mean when they say this is: don’t you wish he were a different sort of person altogether. I can’t imagine wanting anyone else as my father.
There are obvious concerns. Will he be around to see me be married or meet my children? But these are partly due to my own apparent insistence to do very little at the expected age.
He walks into his office almost every day, goes to the theatre several times a month, and publishes books and papers with amazing regularity. His dry wit is as cutting as ever. He reads constantly and writes often. He hosts and attends dinner parties with considerably more regularity than I do.
Some of the most brilliant minds have dedicated themselves to musings on age, such is its potency. I think my favourite quote, though, is from Walt Whitman: “When it comes to age it's a case of mind over matter; if you don't mind, it doesn't matter.”
My dad certainly hasn’t seemed to mind – in fact, I think he’s hardly noticed at all.
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