The Toughest Decision of All

The Toughest Decision of All

If ever there was a man who was meticulous about paperwork, that was my father. Until the onset of dementia, he knew where every piece of paper was filed, every bill, every document. About five years ago he told me I would have to sort out his papers once he died. Knowing his predilection for tidiness, I didn't think much more about this - until he died and I took stock of the enormity of the task.

After getting rid of decades of utility bills, holiday receipts and car repair invoices, I was left with around 20 box files full of documents to sort out. And then I had a thought: could I finally find an answer to a question I had asked my father years ago and to which I had only received a rather enigmatic reply.

The question? Why hadn't dad taken his new bride back to Paris in 1947 where he could have continued his accountancy career? Why did he choose to stay in England and work first as an unskilled tailor's presser for 15 years and then as a telephone operator for a further 20 years until retirement?

His answer: "Because your zaida blackmailed me."

Zaida was my mum's father (long dead at the point I asked the question) and I remember the look on dad's face as he said this to me and the disparaging glance my mother cast him as he said it. We never discussed this again. Years later, dad had a conversation with my wife where he mentioned that he had secured a flat in Paris after the war but that his father-in-law had told him that as mum was an only child he would not allow her to go and live in France.

A little background. Dad was born in Paris in 1919, the youngest of five siblings. Along with their Turkish parents, they all lived in a two-bedroom flat in Rue Sedaine in the area renowned for its Jewish schmutter trade - Paris' equivalent of London's East End. I remember dad telling me he had trained to be an accountant before the war. Aside from that and the knowledge that he had worked for Dunlop as a tyre fitter when war broke out, we never spoke about his childhood or the pre-war years.

When dad took early retirement from British Telecom in 1981, he investigated the possibility of obtaining a French pension for his work before the war and for his service to his country. I found the handwritten document where he had listed his occupations and this confirmed four years as an aide comptable (accounting assistant). He had served his apprenticeship with two companies (Maison Bocquet and Robert Frères) in Paris between 1935 and 1939. He certainly had a viable career to return to.

As a Frenchman and so technically an 'alien', dad had to carry his Certificate of Registration book with him in England after the war. Finding this gave me more info. After being demobbed in Paris, he was granted permission to land at Dover some 13 days before his wedding in March 1947 with a two-month limitation on stay and a preclusion of employment. Both of these were lifted a month later making him free to live and work in the UK. Reading letters, it appears that a business venture fell through. With a new bride and badly needing employment, he took a job as a 'gents presser' with Cohen Cassenbaum, my grandfather's tailor shop in Whitechapel, later that month.

While my father's English would not have been perfect, evening classes for his language and to update his accountancy skills would have been possible. But they never happened. He worked for his father-in-law 10 hours a day, six days a week until 1964.

In summer 1948 my grandfather bought a house for my parents at auction. He paid the deposit and obtained the mortgage, taking the payment for the latter directly from my father's weekly wages. And as a young child I remember the regular Sunday visits from my grandparents and the delivery of meat, fruit and veg for the week ahead. Later, I found out that this was also in place of wages to my father. The upshot of this was that my father had very little disposable income and was totally reliant on, or at the mercy of, his father-in-law. This continued for almost 20 years until my grandfather's death in 1967.

I also found the deeds to my parents' house. Looking through the conveyancing I had to check the entries twice to make sure I'd read them correctly. In 1948 the house had been put into two names: my mother and my grandmother. For 20 years my father paid the mortgage and every bill and yet didn't own so much as a brick.

Another document showed that a month prior to the wedding, and while dad was still in Paris, my mother signed away her rights to take automatic French nationality after she married. I took that to mean she didn't want to live in France.

The control exerted over dad was complete. No equity from his own home coupled with insufficient income to build meaningful savings and a wife who wanted to stay in the UK meant he never had the opportunity to return to what would have been a better life in France. The fact that he put himself through 35 years of mundane employment was due to his total devotion and love for my mother.

But is that the full story?

Prior to the British Nationality Act of 1948 there was no dual nationality in this scenario. To take French nationality Mum would have had to relinquish her British nationality, a decision she wouldn't have taken lightly just after the war. And as an alien, could my father have obtained a mortgage? Even if he could have, given his earnings potential what bank would have given him such a loan?

At least I now partly understand my father's 'blackmail' comment and his frustrations with life. Whether he was right I'll never really know.


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