Life

Reading a summary of his father’s life in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet prompts a reflection on memory, connection and the strange profundity of small moments. By Simon Webster.

Dad’s Excel diary

The author and his father, Tony Webster, in San Francisco.
Credit: Jacqueline Sloves

On his 70th birthday, as if to prove he could still bipedally dominate a city, Dad dragged me from downtown San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge and into Sausalito. From there we caught a ferry back across the bay, passing the guano-covered Alcatraz in white-tipped waters, and continued walking until we reached a bar near our hostel. According to Dad’s beloved fitness app, we covered 30 kilometres and climbed the equivalent of 50 storeys: for him, just a slightly above-average day.

The bar was crowded, the only available seats a row of high stools against the back wall. I ordered two beers, and we each took a slow sip, newly awkward now that the premise and action of the walk wasn’t there to hide behind.

“I never sat in a bar like this with my dad,” Dad said. “Mind you, I was 25 when he died.”

My grandfather was born in 1896. He died in 1974, 16 years before I was born. Dad and I had never really spoken about him, so I fished for more.

“The hospital called me. They were really cold.
I had to tell Granny,” he said. “He was in a sanatorium at the time, with TB. The cause of death on the certificate was pulmonary thrombosis, which I presume means heart attack.”

We drank our beers.

 

Now that he is retired, Dad travels a lot. He seems to get as much enjoyment from planning his trips as from going on them. In the months leading up to his departure, he will email me multiple versions of these developing itineraries, prepared in detail in Excel. Often, he will send me a text to let me know that he has sent me an email, or to ask for my opinion on whether a certain activity should be set for the morning or the evening. Pragmatism is the conceit that permits these texts and emails, but I treasure them.

 

Some time last year, Dad sent me a spreadsheet entitled “Time line of my life”. The first entry is dated July 6, 1948, and reads: “Birth. Born at Turf Club Maternity Home, 250 Turf Club St, Kenilworth, Johannesburg.”

The time line follows a similar design to Dad’s travel itineraries, with dates in the leftmost column, descending chronologically, and elaborations as to their significance on the right. There are entries for the deaths of James Dean and Buddy Holly, the suicide of Ernest Hemingway and the assassinations of JFK and MLK. There is an entry for the Great Train Robbery, the release of “Love Me Do” by The Beatles, the Sharpeville massacre, and the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Rhodesia. There are entries for the moon landing and for Woodstock.

These events place his life in some greater arc of history. But I always come back to the personal entries. Dad remembers Buddy Holly’s death for how it left his friend Michael “devastated”. He was 10 years old at the time. That same year, Dad became the Sixer of his Scout pack before being kicked out for laughing during prayer. He fell in love with his teacher, Miss Forrester, and was overjoyed when his father bought a new car.

When Dad was 11, a younger kid named Jackie “attempted to bully” him. Years later, Dad notes, Jackie murdered his family, before killing himself. When Dad was 12, he missed a class trip to the Kruger National Park because his parents did not have the money to send him. That same year he started high school, received his first camera, a Kodak Brownie, and started smoking. When he was 13, while on a family holiday in Durban, Dad saw two planes collide midair over the Bluff. One of them landed safely; the other crashed. The two pilots from the doomed plane baled out, the parachute of one catching on a lamppost as he descended. Neither pilot was hurt. Dad took a piece of the wreckage home as a souvenir. He has never told me about this.

When Dad was 14, he failed a year at school and had to repeat it. The following year, he moved out of home so that he could at least make it to school on time. At 16, he had his one and only birthday party. He also smoked dagga for the first time and fell for a girl that his friend Yank took to the spring dance. When he was 17, Dad went to parties and hitchhiked. The next year, when Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, the “architect of apartheid”, was assassinated, Dad went to a cafe to buy a copy of The Star for his Aunty May, but he never delivered it.

The entries continue: he completes basic training, moves houses, works odd jobs, goes dancing. Friends pass in and out of his life, some amicably, others not. People die. There are crashed cars, awkward family holidays, deliberately unpaid parking fines. There are broken bones, weddings, brushes with the law, flirtations with religion, drug overdoses. It seemed a rich life, but why he’d taken to writing it all down was a mystery to me.

 

Shortly after his granddad passed away, my friend Dan told me how, as his granddad’s memory started to wobble, he would ask Dan to sit with him, listening to his stories and transcribing them into a Word document. I asked Dan what he thought the purpose of the exercise was. He said he didn’t think it was “for a biography or for a pre-emptive eulogy or for the grandkids”. He said his granddad “just felt that it was something he had to do”. After a pair of two-hour sessions, the task was complete. It was never mentioned again.

I asked Dad about the time line. He said he often wished he’d asked his father more questions about his life. This document was his way of insuring against similar regrets in his children. But he hadn’t set out to divine the meaning of the events he recorded, nor did he prefill the time line with such suggestions. There was no heavy-handed symbolism, no speculation as to whether an event was, in hindsight, formative, a turning point, a loss of innocence. The events were just laid bare. Any meaning to be found must be read into it.

Dad recalls being picked up by a woman in an Alfa Romeo sports car while hitchhiking. It is an unremarkable detail to include in the time line of one’s life. But I have lived something similar. Years ago, my brother and I were picked up by a Madagascan man, Oliver, while we were hitchhiking in Switzerland. I don’t so much remember what Lake Geneva must have looked like as the sun dipped behind the mountains, but I remember so vividly that Oliver was drinking a bottle of Coke. These twin, unremarkable details form a thread that connects Dad’s memory to mine.

 

A few years ago, while I was visiting Dad in Melbourne, he took me on a walking tour of all his old haunts.

“Down those stairs, where that waffle house is, there used to be a pub,” he said. “I’d go there every Friday.”

And so it went. We walked and Dad reminisced. Eventually, we came to a tall date palm by the water near Flinders Street Station.

“This tree was here back then, too,” he said.

I asked whether he remembered it, picturing the tree as some important actor in one of Dad’s old stories.

“No,” he said. “Just looks old enough.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 6, 2019 as "Proof of life". Subscribe here.

Simon Webster
is a London-based lawyer and writer.